19 People of 2019: Deb Butler
Dec 17, 2019
Deb Butler knew something was amiss the second she took her seat on the House floor. The day before, Democratic leaders had informed their caucus not to expect a vote that morning.
The day before, Democratic leaders had informed their caucus not to expect a vote that morning, September 11. The Wilmington representative’s side of the room was nearly empty; Governor Cooper was scheduled to be at a remembrance ceremony, and many of her colleagues were busy preparing for other meetings. But nearly every Republican seat was full.
A lump formed in her throat.
It had already been a hellish year for Butler, who had suddenly lost her wife, Anni Parra, to an aneurysm three days after Christmas. After getting a call at work, Butler sped to the hospital, where doctors informed her that Parra had no hope of any quality of life. A few years ago, life-and-death decisions would have been left to Parra’s parents or siblings. But because of a 2014 N.C. Supreme Court ruling overturning the state’s ban on gay marriage, the burden fell to Butler.
“It made me keenly aware that what I do as a lawmaker matters,” she says.
She was only the second openly LGBTQ member of the General Assembly when she was appointed in 2017. She entered the arena facing a Republican supermajority that had rammed through HB 2 and stripped Governor Cooper of his power before he’d even taken office.
But the GOP’s grip had loosened in 2018, when Democrats won enough seats to break the supermajority and give Cooper a veto, which he had used in budget negotiations.
He wanted to force Republicans to come to an agreement on Medicaid expansion along with higher teacher raises. Republicans wanted nothing to do with it, especially Medicaid. There was gridlock.
The long, hot summer dragged on without a resolution. Republicans blamed the governor for holding teachers’ pay hostage over Medicaid. The governor blamed Republicans for holding teachers’ pay and poor people’s health care hostage over corporate tax cuts. There was no end in sight.
And then Republicans played dirty. Or, at least, that’s the Democrats’ version. The Republicans certainly don’t see it that way. By their lights, they merely exploited the rules of the game. It’s not their fault that the Dems let their guard down and took them at their word. What kind of sucker would do that?
Either way, here’s what went down: On September 10, GOP leaders informed the Democratic caucus not to expect any meaningful votes the next morning. At 8:30 a.m., House Speaker Tim Moore called the session to order. Then, just minutes before the eighteenth anniversary of when the first plane struck the North Tower, he began to call the motion to override the governor’s budget veto.
Of the House’s 120 members, only 64 were present; of them, only nine were Democrats.
Republicans had the supermajority they needed.
At first, Butler was terrified. Then she was furious. She stood. A microphone was in her hand. She started to yell.
“You shall not do this to democracy in North Carolina, Mr. Speaker,” she shouted.
A police officer stepped closer to her as Moore instructed her to yield the floor.
“I will not yield! I will not yield, Mr. Speaker! You shall not usurp the process, Mr. Speaker. How dare you subject this body to trickery, deceptive practices, hijacking the process. We have been here day and night for months defending what we believe.”
Her male colleagues formed a human shield around her, and she continued to cry out.
“It is so typical of the way you conduct yourselves. How dare you do this, Mr. Speaker!”
Her plea fell on deaf ears. The House quickly voted to overturn Cooper’s veto.
There were no news crews there that morning, but a colleague captured the scene on a camera phone. The video went viral, resonating on a national stage: one woman standing up to injustice; one powerful voice, even in a moment of futility, trying to make a difference.
Even when the odds are hopeless, you keep fighting.
After Butler lost her wife, she ended up in the hospital with a back injury. All of the world’s unluckiness was crashing down upon her. But she remembers one constituent, who had also lost her spouse, offering this: “You know, Deb, there’s just no way through this but through it.”
“I don’t know why, but it made me remember to just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Butler says.
Republicans won that battle, but they didn’t win the war. The state and national media pilloried the GOP’s tactics, and, with Democrats on full alert, Republicans in the Senate were unable to muster enough votes to override the veto before the General Assembly adjourned for the year. Instead, the legislature passed a handful of “mini-budgets,” while Republicans and Cooper failed to come to terms on Medicaid and teacher pay.
“Long before Rep. Butler stood up against the assault on our democracy on 9/11, she had already made a name for herself as a sparkplug for progress,” Governor Cooper told the INDY. “When she spoke out on the floor that day, she wasn’t just advocating for herself or her colleagues in the legislature—she was standing up for our fundamental rights as North Carolinians.”
Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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