RALEIGH, N.C. — Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters were still in the streets of North Carolina when the dueling branches of the state government started bickering about the aftermath.
Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, sought an Oct. 9 start for a special session about storm recovery. The General Assembly’s Republican leaders wanted to return to Raleigh more than a week earlier, on Sept. 28.
They agreed to split the difference and open the session Tuesday. But few people are betting that the dealmaking momentum will last long.
Instead, the partisan rancor that has come to define the state’s politics in recent years is expected to play a role in North Carolina’s long-term response to the storm, which left at least 37 people dead in North Carolina and unleashed a panoply of troubles. And hard on the heels of the special legislative session will come a storm-shadowed election that will determine whether Republicans retain veto-proof supermajorities in the Legislature.
“The currents will be moving under the surface,” said Gary Pearce, a columnist who was a longtime aide to Jim Hunt, a Democrat who was North Carolina’s longest-serving governor. “You can’t take politics out of anything, and this state is so, so polarized, so politicized, and the last eight years have been so angry and bitter, that even in a disaster like this, it’s going to be hard for people to set it aside.”
Few state governments in America have been as divided in recent years as the one in North Carolina, where Democrats and Republicans have regularly fought pitched battles over issues like redistricting, voting rights, bathroom access for transgender people, education, and executive authority.
And with a new set of challenges connected to the storm, including unnerving environmental hazards and tens of thousands of damaged homes and displaced residents, the capital’s most influential figures are not yet clenching their fists. Instead, elected officials from both parties have been publicly declaring their desire for bipartisanship and consensus in the special session.
“It’s important to me, and I think it’s important to other folks in the Legislature and folks in the executive branch, that the people that have been devastated by this event do not see us as doing anything other than trying to help,” Phil Berger, the Republican leader in the state Senate, said in an interview in his narrow office overlooking Jones Street.
Berger, who will do much to set the tone of the special session, outlined an initial round of proposals that even Democratic lawmakers say will draw wide support, like extending regulatory deadlines and appropriating money to pay teachers for the missed school days that must be made up.
The harder work of doling out storm-recovery spending will come later, when lawmakers have more complete damage assessments from Cooper’s administration. Those deliberations, officials say, could be far more politically charged as legislators weigh how much to spend and where to direct those dollars.
“When a storm rolls in, it doesn’t come with a party label, and our response can’t, either,” Cooper said in an interview Thursday. “I know that both Democratic and Republican legislators have counties in their districts that were absolutely devastated by this storm, and I think the people expect us to go to Raleigh and to agree on the best way to help them, and they don’t want us arguing about it incessantly.”
Cooper said he was choosing to “remain hopeful” about the atmosphere of the storm recovery debate. But battle-hardened Democrats and Republicans are already giving signs that political tribalism may soon intrude.
Representative David Lewis, a Republican, appeared to suggest in a widely circulated e-mail that one of the state’s most prominent social justice groups was “exploiting the terrible natural disaster, which includes loss of life and property, to advance a political agenda.” (He did not return a call for comment.) And Representative Darren G. Jackson, the Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives, said he was not aware of any lawmakers in his party who had been invited to collaborate with Republicans on storm legislation.
“The sides don’t have to talk to each other, so they don’t,” Jackson said over a lunch of country ham and butter beans near the Capitol. “I don’t think they’re going to be asking us for our input or asking us to co-sponsor their bills. But I don’t think they’ll openly be taking pot shots at us, either.”
A spokesman for the House Speaker, Tim Moore, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Moore, a Republican who has toured disaster areas in recent weeks, has said lawmakers were prepared to ensure that relief money “actually gets out to where it’s supposed to be” — a sign that Raleigh was already raw with hurricane politics even before Florence.
Democrats, furious, saw the move as a nakedly partisan attack on Cooper, who did not take office until nearly three months after the storm ravaged the state.
“It is my hope that the executive branch has learned some lessons from how things were handled in the aftermath of Matthew,” Berger, the Senate leader, said. “A lot of the difficulties we’ve had with the executive branch have been differences of philosophy. It is my hope that we all share the same philosophy with reference to trying to get peoples’ lives back to normal.”
South Carolina, the other state hardest hit by Florence, is almost guaranteed to have an easier time politically with its recovery efforts. Gov. Henry McMaster and the lawmakers who control the state Legislature are all Republicans and do not seem to wake up each morning with their knives already sharpened, as their counterparts appear to in Raleigh.
McMaster is on the November ballot, but Cooper’s term in North Carolina runs another two years, and there are few marquee state races this year. The main prizes at stake in November are the supermajorities the Republicans hope to retain in the Legislative Building.
It is not clear how much the devastation from the hurricane or the machinations in Raleigh over recovery will tilt the scales. The state allows same-day voter registration and no-excuse-required absentee voting, which may lessen the risk that residents displaced by the storm will be unable to vote.
Dozens of legislative races are seen as at least somewhat competitive, but only a handful are in the counties that the hurricane hit the hardest. And political strategists and independent researchers said the storm’s timing, more than seven weeks before Election Day, may minimize its electoral consequences.
J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, said overall voter turnout in 2016 was only slightly lower in counties that received federal disaster declarations after Hurricane Matthew, an early October storm, than it was elsewhere in the state. Those counties also reported somewhat higher rates of in-person voting.
But before getting to the election, the state must first endure the special legislative session, a venue that has proved particularly susceptible to hardball politicking over the years. Berger said he would not be surprised if “outside groups would either try to push other agenda items or accuse us of pushing agenda items.”
But perhaps, lawmakers said, the state government will belie its fractious reputation this time.
“It gives us an opportunity to show people that there are things that we can work together on,” Berger said.
Cooper’s top political adviser, Morgan Jackson, said he was reserving judgment. So were plenty of others.
“The proof will be in the pudding,” Jackson said. “Voters are hopeful — and they’re watching.”