With swift and brutal efficiency, North Carolina Republicans welcomed an incoming Democratic governor this month to an elite but hardly desirable club: the handful of governors around the nation who face veto-proof majorities of the opposing party.
First, the state Legislature stripped away some significant powers from Gov.-elect Roy Cooper before he takes office on New Year’s Day. Then, this week, lawmakers backed away from a compromise Cooper thought he had brokered to repeal the state’s notorious “bathroom bill” limiting protections of gay rights, which has exposed North Carolina to costly boycotts. “There is rancor between this governor-elect and this legislature,” said Courtney A. Crowder, who was a legislative liaison for an earlier Democratic governor, Beverly Perdue.
Still, it is not yet clear that Cooper is condemned to four years of disdain in which Republicans in the General Assembly pass laws he is powerless to stop, while ensuring that his own initiatives land with the thud of a doorstop.
Stymied by hostile lawmakers, he has other options for advancing his priorities, if the experiences of fellow members of his new club, both Democrats and Republicans in other states, are a guide.
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“Governors that know what they’re doing can get a lot done,” said Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri, a Democrat who has faced implacable opposition from Republican supermajorities in his state Legislature. “You have to be able to take a hit,” he added. “You can’t let ‘em see you sweat.”
Governors outgunned by veto-proof majorities in their legislatures have successfully used the bully pulpit of their office, going over the heads of part-time lawmakers to directly appeal to citizens.
Other times, governors have profited from a basic law of politics: They are usually more popular than legislative bodies, whose job favorability is little higher than that of perpetrators of Ponzi schemes.
And governors in control of the bureaucracy of the executive branch have found that, like President Barack Obama in the face of congressional obstruction, they can pull the levers of executive action to advance an agenda.
In terms of an “inside game” – getting bills passed – Cooper is likely to get rolled by lawmakers, said Pope McCorkle, a professor of public policy at Duke University. But he added that if Republicans “keep on sending people a message they are right-wingers,” Cooper will have an advantage in the “outside game” of appealing to voters who think the state has veered too far from its moderate political tradition.
J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., doubted that Cooper and the Republican General Assembly would find common ground on major issues. He expected the new governor “to be an ambassador of economic development, and hang his hat on that.”
Nixon, who is leaving office next month after serving the maximum two terms, may be the closest parallel to Cooper. His opponents have brought impeachment proceedings against him, and they made him the most overridden governor in Missouri history, reversing 96 of his vetoes.
Some overrides were so small-bore that lawmakers seemed to be having sport with the governor, such as upholding a law he vetoed to exempt yoga classes from sales tax. Others struck at the core of Nixon’s political being, like reversing his veto of a voter ID bill and another eliminating background checks to obtain a concealed gun permit.
“These guys tried to run up the numbers,” he said of lawmakers, who would hold marathon sessions on a single day to cancel out his vetoes.
But Nixon also showed how to post successes by using the visibility and prominence of his office.
Three years ago, he barnstormed Missouri to oppose a Republican tax cut he had vetoed, arguing it would carve deeply into schools. He rallied grass-roots support, and his veto was sustained.
In addition to being his state’s most overridden governor, he said, “I also have the record for the most sustained vetoes. I’ve had 283 sustained.”
Still, Missouri lawmakers took their revenge. The next year, they passed the first income tax cut in the state in nearly 90 years – overriding a veto.
Two of the United States’ best-liked governors are Republicans in deep-blue states: Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, both of whose job approval stands at a towering 70 percent, according to Morning Consult.
Hogan, a bluff political outsider midway through his first term, defeated the hand-picked candidate of Maryland’s Democratic establishment, a former law school classmate of Obama’s. Since then, Hogan underwent treatments for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“This is a guy who just survived cancer,” said Gerald E. Evans, a lobbyist in Annapolis, the capital. “You think the Maryland Legislature is going to bother him?”
In Hogan’s first year, the General Assembly overrode every one of his vetoes. Lawmakers’ first task when they reconvene next month will be to consider six of Hogan’s vetoes from the last session. One bill, popular with Maryland progressives but not with its business community, requires the state to obtain 25 percent of its energy from solar and wind by 2020. The goal might be “laudable,” the governor said at the time, “but increasing taxes to achieve this goal is the wrong approach.”
Evans, who has a close relationship with the Democratic president of the state Senate, said that even if the governor was overridden, his popularity would remain high because his centrist policies are closer to the state’s electorate than those of the left-leaning lawmakers. He called Hogan’s election two years ago a wake-up call to Democrats who had lost touch, comparing it to Donald Trump’s election. “This state has got to move forward,” he said, “and if we’d don’t, Hogan’s going to get re-elected.”
In Massachusetts, Baker is similarly matched against veto-proof Democratic majorities in the Legislature. Some observers said their sparring has a Kabuki character, in which each side plays a role to arrive at an agreed-on finale.
“In fact, the Legislature prefers a Republican governor in Massachusetts,” said Lou DiNatale, a senior political adviser to the state Senate president, Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat.
He added, “They would never say this.”
Democratic lawmakers appear to believe they have more leverage over a governor of the opposite party, DiNatale explained. And a Republican governor can thunder against spendthrift lawmakers while benefiting from their generous budgets. In June, Baker ritually vetoed $265 million from the state budget. Lawmakers ritually restored 90 percent of the cuts.
“He’ll veto the money, then we override the veto, then he goes and cuts the ribbon on whatever we open,” DiNatale said.
A state with a deep partisan split between its governor and lawmakers, but oddly with no drama over vetoes, is Louisiana.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed two items in the Republicans’ state budget this year, and three additional bills. It was then up to lawmakers to decide if they wanted to return to Baton Rouge for a special session to reverse the governor. They decided not to make the trip. In fact, Louisiana lawmakers have never come in for an override session in the state’s modern history, according to The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
“Overrides just don’t happen here,” said Robert Mann, a former aide to a previous Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco. “When it comes to passing legislation, the governor is a mortal. When it comes to vetoes, however, they still treat him like a monarch.”