- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

OXFORD, N.C. (AP) - In politically divided North Carolina, weary voters are hoping elected officials can set aside differences and effectively govern after a bruising election and bitter fight over transgender restroom access.

The Republican-controlled legislature is due back Wednesday, tasked with working with a newly elected Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who is already fighting GOP lawmakers in court over their recent moves to curtail his powers.

Across the political spectrum, voters say they wish state leaders would get along - a sentiment felt keenly in evenly divided Granville County, home to roughly 60,000 people. Exemplifying the state’s urban-rural divide, Granville County lies at the edge of metro areas surrounding the cities of Raleigh and Democratic-leaning Durham but also has sparsely populated stretches of countryside once famed for tobacco growing.

“I’m just hoping that it will be seamless, and they’ll allow Roy Cooper to do what he was elected to do and not try to gridlock him,” Oxford resident Jim Catalana said of the legislature.

But a respite might not come anytime soon.

Cooper has already sued over legal provisions to limit his power that state lawmakers enacted after he narrowly beat Republican incumbent Pat McCrory. And legal wrangling over the state’s electoral map continued on Tuesday as the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked a lower court’s order to redraw legislative districts and hold special elections this year.

Catalana said he hopes 2017 brings positive change after the economic backlash over the law known as House Bill 2. HB2 excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from anti-discrimination protections and is known best for requiring transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates.

Catalana, an unaffiliated voter, voted four years ago for McCrory, but said HB2 was partly why he picked Cooper this time. Granville County gave Cooper the narrowest margin of any county he won.

Though he describes himself as politically conservative, voter Brent Stewart said that returning to rules in place before HB2 was enacted last year would suit him. “What has been in place has worked for years,” said Stewart, who owns a restaurant in Oxford, the county seat.

He split his ballot between Cooper and Republican President-elect Donald Trump - who also won Granville County by a few hundred votes. Stewart hopes Republicans and Democrats can agree on business-friendly policies that don’t tie up small businesses in regulations.

“I think most citizens, everyone wants a reduction in having so much red tape,” he said.

A failed deal to repeal HB2 in December left both parties frustrated. Legislators will take up organizational issues Wednesday, then reconvene later this month to work on new legislation.

Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing fight over whether state lawmakers will have to run in special elections this year. A federal court ruled last summer that 28 state legislative districts were illegally race-based, but its order to draw new districts has been halted while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether to take up the case.

New fights also are emerging - such as Cooper’s effort to expand Medicaid despite a 2013 law preventing him from doing so without legislative approval.

Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger swiftly condemned the move. “This is crazy. It’s blatantly illegal. And - no surprise here - it breaks Cooper’s campaign promise not to raise taxes on North Carolina families,” Berger said.

In his inaugural address Saturday, Cooper sounded conciliatory but also jabbed at lawmakers: “Now is not the time to point fingers or dwell on recent battles.”

“I don’t think anyone believes that North Carolina families sit around the kitchen table every night thinking that their lives would change for the better if only the legislature would spend its time on the hot-button social issues of the day.”

Toni Richardson, a Democrat who works in Oxford and lives in neighboring Vance County, said she wants lawmakers to focus on job creation. The 62-year-old faulted McCrory for signing measures to curtail Cooper’s power.

McCrory “had a bad attitude and took it out on Roy Cooper, and that isn’t fair,” Richardson said.

Leaving the Oxford post office with a handful of letters, Democrat Gwen Toler said she saw glimmers of bipartisan cooperation on disaster relief following a 2016 hurricane and wildfires. But then came weeks of sparring over vote-counting in the close governor’s race.

The retired secretary hopes state government will tackle homelessness, rising tuition costs and veterans’ issues. “Not nonsense like the HB2 law,” she said. “Who goes in what bathroom - it’s stupid to me.”

Toler, who’s about to turn 60, said society’s divisions are reflected in greater distrust among neighbors.

Said Toler: “I wish there was more love in the community.”


Follow Drew at www.twitter.com/jonldrew.

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