Rep. Butler lost the vote, but won the issue

State Rep. Deb Butler is drawing national attention after a video went viral of her repeatedly declaring on the N.C. House floor: “I will not yield.”

Butler was protesting Republican Speaker Tim Moore’s sudden unannounced call last week for a vote to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget while only a handful of Democrats were in the chamber.

Butler wouldn’t yield the floor, but the Democrats got run over anyway. The veto override passed 55-9 and now goes to the Senate, where a slight swing in votes could make the Republicans’ budget law.

But in losing, Butler achieved a moral — and a political — victory. The response to her tirade — “If this is the way you think democracy works, shame on you!” — brought approval far beyond her Democratic caucus and the state.

Along with the video, Butler appeared on MSNBC’s political show “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted her approval, as did actor and liberal activist Alyssa Milano and comedian Sarah Silverman. She received emails and calls from backers in many states and even Canada and Ireland. Her Twitter followers ballooned from 1,200 to 23,000 almost overnight.

“The response has just been staggering from every corner of the country. I’ve only received five negative responses compared to thousands of positives. So I’m going to take that as a victory,” said Butler, a Wilmington Democrat who was appointed to the legislature in 2017. She replaced Rep. Susi Hamilton, who resigned to head the department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Butler was elected in her own right in 2018.

Butler said the positive comments ran along the lines of: “ ‘Thank you for defending democracy.’ ‘You’re my hero.’ ‘You said all the things I wanted to say.’ ‘I made sure my little girls have watched this video.’ ”

Why such a national outpouring over an uproar in the North Carolina legislature? Butler thinks her outrage connected with a wider political frustration.

“People feel so powerless right now,” she said. “They feel like they are not being listened to. And they’re not, and it’s frustrating to them. We are starting to understand the fragility of this democracy. They saw someone fighting back in ways that they can’t and that’s why it resonated, I think.”

There’s irony in Butler becoming the face and voice of outrage over Republican abuse of the democratic process. She joined the legislature thinking she could find a way to bridge partisan divides. She quickly learned otherwise. Republican legislative leaders promptly shunted her out of Hamilton’s former corner office and into a windowless room she compared to a broom closet. They denied her committee requests. “It was a real knock in the head right out of the gate,” she said then.

Now Butler is a House whip and a firebrand fighting what she sees as the Republicans’ high-handed tactics. She said the result of her viral protest is that “the entire country is now aware of the corruption we see in this House. The best way to drive the cockroaches back under the refrigerator is to shine a light on them. People would say that is strong language. I don’t care. Strength is required at his point. Any niceties have long since evaporated.”

Butler is on the House redistricting committee, which has drawn new legislative districts after a court ruled the previous districts were illegally gerrymandered by excessive partisanship. The House and Senate must now reconcile their maps and submit them for court approval. Butler thinks the ultimate cure for the tension that now divides the legislature is to have districts drawn by an independent commission.

Computer-assisted map drawing, she said, has made gerrymandering more precise and the legislature more partisan: “It has pushed the right further right and the left further left and that is what it is so critically important to fix this.”

And in pursuing that fix, it now seems clear, the representative from Wilmington will not yield.

Ned Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com