They might not care for the image, but Republican members of the N.C. General Assembly act as though they were drunk with power.
They have the votes not merely to set conservative policies on spending, taxes, education, health care, protection or misprotection of the environment — votes they’ve been only too happy to cast.
They also have the votes to put their ideological stamp on North Carolina’s civic affairs in ways that could endure for many years and blight the state’s character – its self-proclaimed identity as a place where all have a fair chance to flourish, where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great.
Power has made them blind to the consequences. Their party must dominate. The governor might resist? Ruthlessly curb his authority. Judges might object? Try to make sure every judge is a partisan loyalist, ready to follow the party line. So much for the hallowed concept of judicial independence, of justice dispensed without fear or favor.
Here, though, is a grand irony that could be taking shape even as legislators seek to lock down their party’s gains on the bench.
In revamping the state’s election rules in hopes of cementing Republican control of courts at every level, they should be careful. They’re playing with political fire.
Their tactic is to make sure that all candidates for judgeships are labeled by party on the ballot (or identified as unaffiliated, if someone in that category could surmount the high barrier to having his or her name listed).
To be sure, candidates identified as Republican have done well in recent elections. That was never clearer than it was last November, when the GOP took five out of five available seats on the state Court of Appeals – after legislators specified that party labels would be included.
But the political landscape by the time of the next statewide elections in 2018 could have undergone an earthquake. North Carolina Republicans can’t be alone in wondering whether the presidency of Donald Trump – so dysfunctional during Trump’s first two months in office and plagued by investigations of what could have been shocking misconduct – is heading straight for a deep, muddy ditch.
If that ditch is where Trump ends up, many of his nominal allies will be at risk of joining him. In other words, Republican candidates in 2018 might be yoked to a president sunk to the depths of popular regard and effectiveness.
Surely the outcome of the ongoing intraparty battle over health care isn’t likely to boost the GOP brand. Republican officeholders, none more vocally than Trump, have disingenuously ripped President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as a “nightmare” despite its success in raising the number of Americans covered by health insurance.
Yet so far their best effort to repeal and replace Obamacare looks as though it would leave many citizens again unable to afford the coverage that makes routine medical care possible. And to critics on the far right, even that plan is too generous.
Whether anyone in the Trump campaign acted in concert with the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin to try to influence the November election is a riddle now being probed by federal investigators who will be challenged by layers of denials and obfuscations.
Whatever may have occurred, the crux of the matter may turn on a familiar question: What did Trump himself know and when did he know it? But the potential for a scandal that would knock the administration and its apologists for a loop is clear.
Against that ominous backdrop, Republicans in our legislature press ahead as if all were right with their world and their Trump-tinged brand would be good as gold forever.
Truth in labeling?
To return to the case in point, take House Bill 100 sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Burr of Albemarle. It turns what for the past 16 years wisely have been framed as nonpartisan elections for both Superior Court and District Court judgeships into contests where party affiliation becomes by default the prime factor in many voters’ decisions whom to support.
Candidates will have to go through party primaries to get on the ballot – not an encouraging prospect, since success in primaries often goes to candidates on the ideological extreme. It also adds to the cost of running, which in turn puts more pressure on candidates to raise money, often from ideological interest groups.
When the bill came to an initial House vote in February, a handful of Republicans joined Democrats in opposition. The tally was 65-51. Senate passage followed on March 6 by a 32-15 count, with one Republican on the losing side.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who took office at the start of the year, then cast his first veto. His reasons were succinct and on target.
“North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges’ bench,” Cooper said in his veto message. “We need less politics in the courtroom, not more.
“Judges make tough decisions on child abuse, divorce, property disputes, drunk driving, domestic violence and other issues that should be free from politics. This bill reverses that progress.
“We should let people elect judges based on their experience and ability to do the job, not which party they pick.
“I am also concerned that judges who have chosen to register as unaffiliated voters so as to avoid partisan politics now have a difficult path to getting on the ballot.”
GOP legislators who have treated Cooper roughly since he denied Republican Pat McCrory a second term promptly took advantage of their superior numbers to enact veto overrides. The 74-44 House vote on March 22 narrowly achieved the necessary three-fifths majority; this time no Republicans broke ranks. The Senate followed suit the next day, with two Republican defections making no difference.
Some legislators on the GOP side aren’t satisfied with injecting further partisanship into the courts. They also want to require members of school boards and municipal councils to run under partisan flags. And they want local elections, now held in odd-numbered years, to be scheduled concurrently with state and national elections in even-numbered years. The takeaway: Republican confidence, no doubt buoyed by Trump’s win in North Carolina last fall, has surged to the point where they want every possible office to be filled on a partisan basis, with every possible GOP candidate allowed to ride what they expect to be a general election wave. The political risk is that the wave fails to materialize.
What’s more, local officials such as members of the Wake County Mayors Association, rightly point out that municipal campaigns typically don’t, and shouldn’t, hinge on the kind of partisan issues that can drive a race for president or governor. There are good reasons why council and school board elections now usually are framed as nonpartisan, even if candidates’ affiliations and backing are no secret. And reasonably enough, the choice between the two options is made locally, not dictated from Raleigh.
With skilled, honorable leaders, political parties can be useful elements in our system of representative government. They articulate priorities and values. They become engines by which agendas are pursued. And yes, they do allow voters to make judgments as to candidates’ qualifications and views.
Parties also can do damage when their adherents become too greedy in the pursuit of power, or when they become the tools of demagogues who elevate the rigid demands of ideology over a healthy give-and-take between competing visions of the public interest. From the Council of Churches’ perspective, the danger is that such abuses too often benefit the haves and hurt the have-nots – people who already tend to find justice and equal opportunity in short supply.
The Republican fixation on repeal of Obamacare – a cynical campaign plank that neither Trump nor congressional leaders know how to achieve without hurting many of their own supporters – is just the latest, most visible example on the national level of partisanship run amok. Partisan judgeships in North Carolina’s courts, created at the insistence of Republican legislators, are another sign of how the fever of party before principle has spread.