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GOP majority shoots down Cooper appointments

Posted June 28, 2018 2:50 p.m. EDT
Updated June 29, 2018 3:41 p.m. EDT

This is the sign in front of the North Carolina legislative building.

— Legislative Republicans turned back a number of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's appointments Thursday, giving little reason for the opposition in a couple of cases.

Cooper's three State Board of Education appointments had been pending more than a year, a running source of friction between the administration and the GOP-controlled legislature.

The majority accepted Cooper's reappointment of Reginald Kenan, but it voted down his new picks, retired professor Sandra Byrd and J.B. Buxton, a former deputy state superintendent and an adviser in former Gov. Mike Easley's administration.

They also went against former Secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety Bryan Beatty, a longtime state official Cooper tapped for a special Superior Court judgeship, and Robert Harris, one of Cooper's picks for the North Carolina Industrial Commission. His other Industrial Commission pick, Myra Griffin, was confirmed without controversy.

Harris' nomination was derailed by a lack of support from the state's business community. Byrd was shot down, at least in part, because she was part of a lawsuit challenging a private school voucher program created by the General Assembly.

Beatty and Buxton were voted down without explanation, and after the vote, legislators declined to get into specifics. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the Cooper administration didn't consult legislators before naming his appointees, a misstep that "bothered a number of people."

"We're supposed to be more than a rubber stamp," Berger said.

House Majority Leader John Bell said members of the House Republican caucus "felt there were better options out there for the school board" than Buxton. Berger, R-Rockingham, said the issues with Buxton were on the House side and that Senate members deferred to their colleagues.

Democrats said it sounded like partisan politics to them. The governor's office pointed out that the legislature confirmed people from Gov. Pat McCrory's administration to similar positions in the past, including his chief of staff's wife, who was appointed to the Industrial Commission two weeks before McCrory left office.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter sounded an alarm on separate legislation the General Assembly has approved this session to give the legislature power over a number of current gubernatorial appointments, including the power to fill judicial vacancies. He called Thursday's nominations process "a preview of how they plan to act."

Bell, R-Wayne, said that Beatty, an Easley appointee to the North Carolina Utilities Commission who has held a number of other roles in Democratic administrations, has had "run-ins" with GOP members over the years. Bell declined to go into specifics or to name legislators who had problems with Beatty, saying they had been discussed in caucus.

Legislators are often unwilling to say much about caucus discussions, which are held in secret daily at the legislature.

Porter said Beatty appeared before three separate legislative committees before Thursday's vote and never heard opposition. Members of a Senate committee that Beatty appeared before Wednesday spoke highly of him.

Later Thursday, an angry Rep. Mickey Michaux blasted House Republicans for voting against Beatty.

"Here’s a qualified black man who’s been appointed by the governor to become a judge," Michaux told them. "Nobody raised any question on this floor about his character or anything else."

"This motion died as a result of I don’t know what. I can tell you what I think it is," said Michaux, D-Durham. "I never thought that that type of thing would ever invade and infest this body."

The Board of Education and the Superior Court votes were taken in a joint session of the House and Senate.

The House rejected Harris' Industrial Commission nomination in its own session Thursday morning, although he faced similar opposition in the Senate. The majority moved quickly on the House vote, shooting down the nomination as Democrats asked that Harris simply be allowed to remove his name.

The vote keeps Cooper from appointing Harris to the commission through a recess appointment after the General Assembly adjourns, legislators said.

House leadership had been told the night before that Harris had withdrawn, but House Speaker Tim Moore said the House clerk's office never received a formal withdrawal letter from the governor. The governor's legislative liaison emailed a withdrawal letter from Harris himself to staff in the House Rules Committee Wednesday evening.

Moore, R-Cleveland, said he was told Thursday morning that the nomination would be pulled, then that it wouldn't be. After the vote, House Rules staffers said Harris' letter wasn't enough to withdraw the nomination.

House Democrats complained of a lack of courtesy. The governor's office called the episode "a blustery show of obstructing a qualified nominee."

Harris is a deputy commissioner at the Industrial Commission now, and even those against his nomination said they didn't want to impugn him. But the slot he was up for is reserved for a representative from the employer community on the commission, and the business community opposed his selection.

"It needs to be a true employer representative," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said on the House floor.

Porter said that voting down a nominee for being "too pro-worker" is bad for North Carolina families.

Bell said that the governor knew the House had problems with his nominees, and though the Harris withdrawal came at "the very last minute," the administration declined to withdraw the other failed appointments and start again.

"The response we got back was, 'Vote them down,'" Bell said.