A divisive, tumultuous year in politics

By Scott Mooneyham | Dec 24, 2013

RALEIGH -- The political world in North Carolina was filled with a lot
of smiles as 2013 began.


They didn't last very long.


Gov. Pat McCrory began his term in an inaugural ceremony that saw him
wearing a big grin and speaking about making North Carolina government
more responsive to Main Street. In short order, he was mostly
responding to an unruly bunch on Raleigh's Jones Street -- either
state lawmakers of his own Republican Party or protestors of the
opposing Democratic Party -- both showing little compunction to follow
his lead.

The result was a tumultuous year in which political division and
animosity seemed to grow by the day.

It was a year that saw dozens of people hauled out of the Legislative
Building in handcuffs, the passage of partisan, reformist legislation
on a number fronts that was no sooner signed into law than legal
challenges were filed to stop it, and vetoes issued by McCrory that
quickly turned into overrides by members of this own political party.

As the year ended, both political parties and their anointed
combatants were gearing up for another election year where a U.S.
Senate race would lead the ballot.

For McCrory, it didn't take long for him to find himself in the
rough-and-tumble of Raleigh politics.

It came as state lawmakers considered legislation to block the
expansion of Medicaid in the state as part of larger national health
care reform.

The McCrory administration initially asked legislators to take a slow
approach to the proposal to block expansion, so that all the
implications could be sorted out. When they ignored the request, the
governor jumped on board, justifying the decision not to expand
coverage for the health insurance program for the poor by referring to
the existing program as "broken."

Doctors, hospitals and other health care providers were especially
critical of the decision.

The expansion was part of larger changes that included some
contraction within the Medicare program for the elderly. The Medicaid
expansion, meanwhile, was to be picked up completely by the federal
government within the first three years, with state government paying
only 10 percent in the years after.

The decision to block Medicaid expansion, with the accompanying
contraction of Medicare, would mean billions less for the state's
health care economy, supporters argued.

The decision came around the same time that legislators decided to
approve measures revamping the state's unemployment benefits,
shortening the time that laid off workers would receive the payments
and lessening those payments for better-paid workers.

Republican lawmakers touted the plan as a way to help employers pay
off a huge debt to the federal government accumulated since the
recession began in 2008. The decision, though, grabbed the attention
of national critics, a trend that would continue as legislators pushed
the state in policy directions that many would begin calling a sharp
and even reactionary turn to the right.

McCrory struggled in the highly partisan environment.

Media outlets questioned hiring decisions that involved high pay for
former campaign aides; some of his appointees, including Raleigh
lawyer Kieran Shanahan hired as secretary of the Department of Public
Safety, didn’t last long in their new jobs; one who did, Secretary of
Health and Human Services Aldona Wos, made her own questionable hiring
decisions and began taking heat for a decision to move forward with a
new Medicaid claims system that health care providers called a
nightmare.

Changes in state personnel laws, that allow the McCrory administration
to replace more state workers with political appointments, led to more
questions surrounding personnel decisions.

Meanwhile, McCrory stepped on a few landmines with simple words and gestures.

He caused consternation among university faculty after telling a
national radio audience that universities had been taken over by an
"educational elite" and questioning whether the state should
continuing subsidizing some liberal arts degrees.

After signing a controversial bill that put more restrictions on
abortion clinics and could lead to the closure of some, McCrory's
decision to deliver a plate full of cookies to protesters only led to
ridicule.



By late spring, the criticism of the Republican-led legislature and
McCrory had exploded into weekly protests led by state NAACP head the
Rev. William Barber.

Barber dubbed the protests "Moral Mondays," criticizing the decisions
to cut unemployment and Medicaid as moral failings of those given
advantages no longer looking out for the disadvantaged in society.

The protests grew from hundreds to thousands, with organizers goading
police into a few dozen arrests each week to keep the public spotlight
on the events. It worked, with national newspapers and cable TV
outlets soon following the protests and spelling out for a national
audience the decisions that prompted the complaints.

With the state Democratic Party pretty much in disarray, Barber became
the de facto leader of the left in North Carolina.

The protests didn't deter Republican lawmakers.

They passed a sweeping overhaul of the state's tax laws that, by
cutting back corporate and personal income taxes, supporters promised
would promote job growth and spark economic recovery. Critics called
it a tax cut for the wealthy masquerading as real tax reform.



In a party-line vote, legislators also enacted broad election law
changes that included a requirement that voters show a photo ID to
vote. Supporters said the change was needed to prevent Election Day
fraud and to improve public confidence in election results.

But the decision to throw in changes that included shortening the
early voting period, eliminating same-day registration, and curbing
local authority to extend polling hours prompted national figures like
Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell to condemn the law as an attempt to
limit minority voting.

The U.S. Department of Justice joined the NAACP and other groups in
suing to stop the law.

Lawmakers also approved significant changes to the public schools,
including allowing the parents of some students to receive vouchers to
attend private schools and substituting employment contracts for
teacher tenure. Like the elections law, lawsuits eventually followed
to challenge the decisions.

McCrory ran afoul of the legislature by vetoing two bills, one dealing
with employment checks of workers' immigration status and the other
drug testing of welfare recipients. His party affiliation did him no
good, as the Republican-controlled legislature showed no hesitation to
override the vetoes and show its strength, even if it served up a very
public loss to a governor of the same party.

The year closed with a crowded Republican field that includes state
House Speaker Thom Tillis, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and Cary
doctor Greg Brannon seeking to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay
Hagan in the 2014 elections.

Hagan looked to have a solid advantage in the race, but the problems
that have beset Obamacare damaged the Democratic brand everywhere. The
result is likely to be a heated race where tens of millions of dollars
pour in from outside the state to decide the race at the top of the
ticket.

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