RALEIGH, NC -- North Carolina Republicans stripped the incoming Democratic governor of some of his authority on Friday and they were on the cusp of an even greater power grab, an extraordinary move that critics said flies in the face of voters.
Just last week, it appeared Republicans were ready to finally accept Democrats' narrow win in a contentious governor's race. As it turns out, they weren't done fighting. In a surprise special session in the dying days of the old administration, some say the Republican-dominated legislature has thrown the government into total disarray, approving at least one bill aimed at emasculating incoming Gov. Roy Cooper's administration.
Cooper, the current attorney general, has threatened to sue. And many in the state are accusing Republicans of letting sour grapes over losing the governor's mansion turn into a legislative coup.
"This was a pure power grab," said retired school librarian Carolyn White, 62, a long-time demonstrator who was arrested as part of the "Moral Monday" protests against GOP-led legislative policies. "I got arrested two years ago. Did it make any difference? No. But just like the civil rights movement, it's forward together. You just have to keep going forward."
The protesters were so loud that Senate and House cleared the galleries - a highly unusual move. Dozens of people were arrested this week, and as demonstrators were led away from the Legislative Building, some chanted "all political power comes from the people." Those that remained behind could only watch the debate through glass windows or listen to it online.
Hundreds stomped their feet or banged on windows outside the gallery, causing several Republican lawmakers to note they were having trouble hearing during the debate. Democrats repeatedly stated their objections.
"The kindergartners are getting rowdy," said Republican Rep. Dana Bumgardner.
She said Democrats were "creating out of thin air a talking point for the next election."
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost to Cooper by about 10,000 votes, quickly signed into law a bill that merges the State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission into one board comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans, according to documents from General Assembly staff. The previous state elections board law would have allowed Cooper to put a majority of Democrats on the panel.
The law would also make elections for appellate court judgeships officially partisan again.
Another bill that received final legislative approval would force Cooper's Cabinet choices to be subject to Senate confirmation.
McCrory must decide whether to sign the second law passed by a General Assembly that has repeatedly tugged the man who campaigned as a moderate in 2012 as Charlotte's moderate former mayor into hard-right turf. Lawmakers' veto-proof majorities since 2013 and the uncompetitive election districts they drew have allowed legislative Republicans to ignore Democratic viewpoints and sometimes McCrory's desires.
Republicans insist the legislation is simply adjusting the constitutional powers already granted to the General Assembly. Many of the provisions had been debated for years but always got set aside.
"There's probably no better time than to deal with it in the present," said Republican Rep. Bert Jones.
Democrats said it was an attempt by the GOP to cling to power a week after the Republican incumbent conceded.
"I really fear that we have harmed our reputation and integrity this week," said Rep. Billy Richardson, a Democrat.
Republicans gained power of both legislative chambers in 2010 for the first time in more than a century, and they have veto-proof majorities, holding 108 of 170 seats even though the state has been more closely divided in recent statewide and federal elections.
North Carolina is a presidential battleground state that Barack Obama won in 2008 by just over 14,000 votes. Four years later, Mitt Romney edged Obama by about 92,000 votes. Donald Trump won in November.
GOP legislators have been able to expand their majorities thanks to approving redistricting maps in 2011. But nearly 30 of those legislative districts were struck down last summer. A federal court has directed updated maps be approved by March 15.
Cooper ran on a platform of defeating Republicans' agenda, saying he would work to repeal a law known as House Bill 2 that limits LGBT rights.
"If I believe that laws passed by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional, they will see me in court," Cooper said.
Republicans pointed to past sessions of the General Assembly, when it was dominated by Democrats. Democrats stripped the powers of the first and only GOP lieutenant governor of the 20th Century in the late 1980s. But Democrats said there's been no such widespread effort to limit the power of an incoming executive before he took office.
North Carolina GOP strips some of Democratic governor's power