It was a lunchtime remark by his father, a Nash County lawyer long active in politics, that launched Roy Cooper’s career.
The two men had been discussing potential candidates to challenge an entrenched state House incumbent when his father said, “What about you?”
“I said, ‘What about me?’ ” Cooper, 59, said in a recent interview. “ ‘Let’s get this done.’ ”
So in 1986, he ran against an 11-term representative and won in a landslide that was the biggest primary upset in the state that year. He campaigned on raising teacher pay and returning to a part-time citizen legislature with shorter sessions, instead of a body mostly made up of wealthy or retired men.
It was a decision that launched a political career that has so far never seen a defeat at the polls. And although in recent years some wondered whether he had waited too long to reach the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, his decision to charge ahead had long been expected.
“The folks in this county have been looking for him to run for governor for a long time,” said John Williford, a former law partner in Nash County. “He was always somebody people had high expectations for.”
Early clients shaped goals
Cooper and his brother, Pell, who is now a district court judge, grew up working on their parents’ tobacco farm. It had been in the family for a long time, but the boys’ parents’ main income was from his father’s law practice and his mother’s job as a teacher.
Cooper went to UNC-Chapel Hill on a Morehead scholarship, where he earned his law degree, and then returned to Rocky Mount to join his father’s firm. Williford says Cooper was a quick study and fit well into the jack-of-all-trades demands of a small law practice. Cooper, in a recent interview, said the people he met in that job formed his later interest in protecting consumers.
“One of the things that I noticed in my private law practice was the fact that so many people had gotten ripped off and would come into my office, whether it was a scam, whether it was predatory business taking advantage of them,” Cooper said. “So when I went to the General Assembly I started working on laws that helped to protect the consumer.”
During his 14 years in the legislature he commuted between home and Raleigh while becoming managing partner in the law firm and raising three daughters. While in office he met his future wife, Kristin, who was a legislative attorney, at a study committee meeting on auto salvage titles.
Power struggle boosted Cooper
Cooper’s rise to leadership positions in the legislature was turbulent.
He was among a group of 20 Democratic House members who joined forces with Republicans to unseat House Speaker Liston Ramsey and break up the entrenched faction that controlled the chamber.
The fallout was extensive. Those who opposed Ramsey landed plum committee assignments and those on the losing end found they had been exiled. Cooper became chairman of the House judiciary committee.
Rep. Leo Daughtry, a 14-term Republican lawmaker from Smithfield, said Cooper benefited more from the upheaval than from any inherent political skills he might have had.
“There was a lot of bad blood – a lot of bad blood,” said Daughtry. “A number of people made a big jump when Ramsey was dethroned.”
Appointed to a fill a vacancy in the state Senate, Cooper became majority leader, one of the top lieutenants to longtime powerhouse Senate leader Marc Basnight. In that role, Cooper had to find a way to work with the GOP-controlled House on such thorny issues as redistricting.
“I think he had the ability to work with a pretty broad range of people, listen to what they were saying, figuring out where the common ground might be,” said Leslie J. Winner, who served in the Senate with him and went on to become general counsel for the UNC system and later run the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. “He was not afraid to take on the big issues.”
By the time he left the Senate, Cooper had decided to run for attorney general, and some saw that as an inevitable stepping stone to run for governor one day.
Winner recalls that when she decided not to run for re-election in 1998 she gave Cooper $1,000 from her campaign account and told him she wanted it to one day be the first contribution to his campaign for governor.
“It took him a long time to get around to using it,” she said.
Rep. John Blust, a nine-term Republican legislator from Greensboro who went to law school with Cooper, says Cooper became part of the Democratic chokehold on the General Assembly. In a GOP press conference earlier this year, Blust cited as an example an incident from several years after Cooper became attorney general.
A slush fund had been uncovered that allowed Democratic legislative leaders to hand out money to organizations in favored lawmakers’ districts. Cooper condemned the practice but said no laws had been broken, which Blust and other Republicans saw as protection for fellow Democrats.
“He really has been part of the old-boy Democrat establishment that was in this state,” Blust said.
Rep. Darren Jackson, a four-term Democrat from Raleigh, disputed Blust’s remarks.
“The reality is that as attorney general, Roy Cooper has prosecuted both Democrats and Republicans for public corruption,” Jackson said. “Meanwhile, Gov. McCrory has created a culture of pay-to-play that has no place in state government.”
Jackson cited the example of a prison maintenance contractor who said in a meeting that he wanted something in return for his large political contributions. McCrory has said he didn’t hear the comment.
His most challenging case
Cooper’s tenure as attorney general has included a long list of controversial decisions in high-profile cases.
McCrory has repeatedly accused Cooper of playing politics in choosing how aggressively to defend the state against lawsuits brought over controversial legislation that the legislature has passed since Republicans took over in 2011. Cooper has refused to pursue some cases on appeal but has declined to defend just one law from the start — this year’s House Bill 2 limiting LGBT rights — while defending the state in more than two dozen lawsuits in that time.
Cooper inherited pervasive problems in the State Crime Lab, and Republicans have accused him of not adequately addressing them. Nine years after Cooper became attorney general, it was discovered that crucial lab results had been withheld in the case of a Wake County man who had already been in prison for 17 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Cooper ordered an audit that found 230 blood-evidence cases had been tainted, and took steps to improve the lab.
Cooper spent months looking into the infamous Duke lacrosse case.
In 2006, three lacrosse players were charged with raping an N.C. Central University student who worked as a stripper. Crystal Mangum’s story eventually unraveled and led to the disbarment of the Durham County district attorney.
Amid the glare of intense news media coverage and community uproar, Cooper’s office exonerated the athletes and said Mangum’s story wasn’t true. Cooper calls it his most challenging case.
“The Duke lacrosse case put North Carolina in a bad light, internationally,” Cooper said in the recent interview. “It was important that we go in and right the wrongs of that case, and I think we did.”
By his own admission, Cooper takes time to make decisions.
“Sometimes you’re required to make a quicker decision,” he said. “But most of the time in government and public policy you make a better decision when you get all the facts, when you get public input and you get advice from people who know and understand the issue.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1979; law degree, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1982.
Professional experience: Attorney at family law firm of Fields & Cooper.
Political experience: Attorney general, 2001-present; N.C. Senate 1991-2001; N.C. House 1987-91.
Family: Wife, Kristin; three children.