The year was 1973. “The Godfather” was about to win the Oscar for best picture, and change was afoot in North Carolina.
Jim Holshouser had just been inaugurated as the state’s first Republican governor since reconstruction. But Democrats still dominated the General Assembly, as they had for decades.
Legislative leaders discussed a sweeping set of bills that would strip the power from the governor, making the role little more than a figurehead.
Who talked them out of it? Jim Hunt, the newly elected 30-something lieutenant governor who had eyes on the governor’s mansion himself. In his reckoning, revenge was a dish best served cold — in the ballot box.
Certain that they’d be back in power in four years, Democrats in the General Assembly settled for dramatically strengthening the lieutenant governor position — making it a full-time role on the Council of State, increasing its salary more than sixfold, delegating it several key appointments and seating Hunt ex-officio on numerous boards1.
Legislative leaders also stashed bills deep in committee that would give the governor a veto and the ability to run for a second term.
And sure enough, Hunt became governor in the election of 1976, quickly ousting scores of Republican politicos and consolidating the power of the office. He’d ultimately serve four terms in the Executive Mansion — and now in his 80s, Hunt still remains a potent figure in North Carolina politics.
40 years later, what’s different?
In 2016, Republican leaders of the General Assembly started filing bills to strip incoming Gov. Roy Cooper of appointment power and other influence as soon as it became clear he’d take office. It hasn’t stopped, and several constitutional amendments are on the ballot this fall to further weaken the governor.
Sure, the roles are reversed. A Democrat won the governor’s mansion, and Republicans control the General Assembly.
But partisan affiliation is not driving the differing response. It’s the bench of talent.
The General Assembly is far from certain that they’ll be able to win back the governor’s mansion in 2020. There aren’t any politicians in the state House or Senate who are considered serious contenders.
Second-term Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican considered the front-runner for the nomination, has been painfully silent on the issue. He certainly doesn’t consider himself a shoe-in, as Hunt did.
Forest is a favorite of social conservatives but could prove polarizing in a general election in an urbanizing state.
Meanwhile, Gov. Cooper has sky-high approval ratings, and Democrats have several contenders for higher office to fill in behind him.
Attorney General Josh Stein, Sen. Jeff Jackson, Sen. Dan Blue — and perhaps people like former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx — all could have designs on the governor’s mansion.
The General Assembly’s moves are a sign of insecurity, not strength.
North Carolina’s constitution gives the General Assembly — the people’s branch of government — the most power of the three. Both parties have used that power to change the rules of executive office to suit their advantage.
Yes, the Republican-led legislature is flexing its muscles right now. But that’s not the correct way to read the situation.
Democrats might be publicly whining about a “power grab,” but they have to be feeling pretty good about their party’s prospects.
Republicans today are not more conniving or power-hungry than their predecessors. The political realities are simply different.
Cover image by the state of North Carolina