RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Four of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's nominees to state positions were rejected Thursday by the Republican-dominated General Assembly, including two choices to the State Board of Education he announced over a year ago.
The legislature, meeting in a joint House-Senate session, voted against the confirmation of Sandra Byrd of Asheville and J.B. Buxton of Raleigh for the state education board. A third choice, current member Reginald Kenan of Duplin County, was reappointed to an eight-year term.
Earlier Thursday, the state House voted 48-65 against the confirmation of Bryan Beatty as a special Superior Court judge and voted 40-74 against Robert Harris' nomination to join the state Industrial Commission.
Rejecting by vote any governor's nominee — let alone four in one day — is rare. Democrats were particularly incensed by the dismissals of the education board members. Cooper announced those nominations in May 2017, and lawmakers declined to hold the joint session several times over the past 13 months. The votes came on what's likely the next-to-last day of this year's primary work session.
One GOP senator cited Byrd's involvement in a lawsuit challenging the legislature's decision to spend taxpayer funds for students to attend private K-12 schools. These "Opportunity Scholarships" were ultimately upheld. Republicans gave no reason during the joint session about Buxton, once an education adviser to then-Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and former candidate for state schools superintendent.
"We've just seen the most extreme example of petty partisanship that we've seen since the Republicans took over," said Democratic Rep. Graig Meyer of Orange County. Meyer spoke after the education board session.
There was no advance word publicly that Beatty's nomination was in trouble, and two top House leaders — one Democrat and one Republican — encouraged Beatty's confirmation. He's a former State Bureau of Investigation director and public safety secretary under Democratic governors who recently wrapped up nearly a decade on the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
But House Majority Leader John Bell of Wayne County, who voted against Beatty's confirmation, said that some fellow Republicans "had some past dealings with him. They communicated concern in the way those meetings and communications were dealt with."
Harris had been a commission deputy for more than a decade hearing these cases. But business interests — including the North Carolina Chamber — opposed his nomination for a seat that state law designates for someone representative of employers. They pointed to his case rulings, which they say too often favored employees.
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Republican actions were another sign GOP leaders are set on controlling memberships of all boards and commissions.
"Voting down a capable nominee for the Industrial Commission for being 'too pro-worker' is bad for our families," Porter said. "Shelving a talented candidate for a judicial vacancy affects the swift delivery of justice. And blocking Gov. Cooper's experienced nominees from serving on the State Board of Education is harmful to our education system."
Byrd is a former high school teacher and administrator at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Sen. Chad Barefoot of Wake County said Byrd had been a plaintiff "in at least one lawsuit challenging education in North Carolina" during a time in which the constitutional relationship between the State Board of Education and current Superintendent Mark Johnson has been frayed through unrelated litigation.
"I think there is a trepidation to make appointments to the state board in a way that could further degradate that relationship," Barefoot said. But Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat supporting Byrd, said to "exclude people with valid passionate convictions because they don't agree with yours is a very poor reason" against confirmation.
(DISCLOSURE - Sandra Byrd is a member of Blue Ridge Public Radio's board of directors)