Attorney General Roy Cooper presented himself to voters Monday as a standard-bearer who can restore North Carolina to a legacy tarnished by three years of Republican domination by recommitting to education and fighting for the working class and small businesses.
Cooper formally launched his campaign aimed at unseating Gov. Pat McCrory with an announcement at Nash Community College that was long expected, but became his first opportunity to outline his beliefs to a statewide audience.
Cooper contrasted his rural roots as a small-town lawyer with that of McCrory, a big-city mayor and power-company executive whose agenda, he argues, contrasts with the needs of everyday people.
“Growing up here in eastern North Carolina it felt like we were a state on the move, brimming with new jobs and new technologies, anchored by a world-class university system and strong public schools. But no longer,” Cooper said. “The crowd that’s in charge in Raleigh is leading us down the wrong path. Giving to those at the top while forcing everyone else to pay more and get less…
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“But I know North Carolina can lead the South again.”
The setting for Cooper’s announcement in eastern North Carolina was a traditional stronghold for the Democratic Party – a region of the state that produced recent Democratic governors. For three decades, Cooper has been a part of that structure, first as a member of the General Assembly and for the past 14 years as the state’s attorney general.
Cooper’s remarks, only 13 minutes in length, were met by a raucus crowd of hundreds in the college auditorium, former Gov. Jim Hunt among them. The speech lacked in specifics but outlined some of Cooper’s themes for the next year.
Wages aren’t increasing, he said, and a college education is getting more expensive. There aren’t enough good-paying jobs, he said, and schools need resources to stop their best teachers from leaving.
“The truth is Gov. McCrory has the wrong priorities for North Carolina, giving away the store to those at the top at the expense of the middle-class and our schools,” Cooper said. “… This is not the North Carolina that I know, and that’s why I must do this.”
The state Republican Party met with reporters ahead of the announcement and characterized Cooper as part of an entrenched liberal establishment that has hindered the state’s economic growth.
Executive director Dallas Woodhouse presented a Republican counter-attack that was taken from the 1985 movie title, “Back to the Future.” He displayed cartoon pictures of Cooper with previous Democratic governors, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Roy Cooper isn’t the future. He is the past,” Woodhouse said. “He isn’t the solution. We think he’s part of the longstanding problem.”
Cooper, 58, considered running for the office in 2008 but sought re-election for the attorney general’s office instead. He was courted to run against U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in 2010 but declined. And he did not run for the governor’s office in 2012 after Perdue dropped out of a re-election contest, instead becoming a four-term chief attorney for the state.
Under Cooper’s watch, the State Bureau of Investigation and the state crime lab have come under fire for handling of evidence. Republicans moved the SBI away from his command. He also took over a tangled and controversial investigation of alleged gang rape by Duke University athletes, eventually in 2007 making the extraordinary determination that the crime never happened.
In his first term, McCrory, also 58, has moved the state in a different direction that is seen as more favorable to business interests, through deregulation and tax code overhaul. He has also had to fight off several controversies, including his administration’s hiring of well-paid and inexperienced key staff. He has faced persistent questions about his ties to Duke Energy, where the governor worked for nearly three decades.
The governor has also claimed key victories, counting this past session of the General Assembly among them, as he has tried to steer a more moderate course than that of some state lawmakers.
While the general election is a little more than 13 months away, polling has shown the race close, with a slight but consistent lead for the governor. Cooper has been hampered by a lack of name recognition in spite of his many years in public office.
A Sept. 30 survey by Public Policy Polling found McCrory leading Cooper 44 to 41 percent, just outside the margin of error of 2.8 percentage points. Matched against Ken Spaulding, a Durham lawyer who is the only other declared candidate in the Democratic primary, McCrory leads 46 to 34 percent.
Spaulding, who trails substantially in fund-raising at this early stage, is striking at Cooper on the same issue as Republicans: suggesting that Cooper is part of the political establishment. Spaulding released a statement Monday saying the primary will present an important decision for North Carolina.
“The primary voters will have a choice between Roy Cooper, the status quo and the establishment’s hand-picked career politician who through his office has sided in court with the Republicans against the voting rights of all North Carolinians, and a candidate in me, who will never take the voters for granted and who is willing to work hard for the people’s respect and support.”
At the mid-way point in the year, Cooper had outraised McCrory in campaign contributions by about $900,000. Spaulding trailed far behind.
The voter pool
North Carolina has roughly 6.37 million registered voters. A breakdown by registration:
Democrat: 41.2 percent (2,627,000 million)
Republican: 30.6 percent (1,949,000 million)
Unaffiliated: 28.1 percent (1,792,000 million)
NOTE: Percentages do not equal 100 due to rounding.
Source: N.C. State Board of Elections