Roy Cooper on his run for governor: NC has gone ‘off the tracks’

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper greets fellow Democrats before speaking to the Uptown Democratic Forum, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. Cooper is running for governor.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper greets fellow Democrats before speaking to the Uptown Democratic Forum, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. Cooper is running for governor. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

For as long as Democrat Roy Cooper has been in office, people assumed that one day he would run for governor.

They predicted it when the former Morehead Scholar was elected to the N.C. House in 1986 at the age of 27.

They said it when he became Senate majority leader 12 years later, and when he was elected attorney general in 2000.

Now Cooper, 58, is finally running. He faces Durham businessman Ken Spaulding in a gubernatorial primary March 15.

“North Carolina has gone off the tracks,” Cooper told a group of Charlotte Democrats this month. “I love this job, but when I saw what’s been happening to my state … I knew I had to step up and do this.”

In the legislature, the Nash County native was known as a workhorse who took on tough issues, including DWI laws and day care standards. When Gov. Jim Hunt wanted someone to handle his early childhood Smart Start program, he turned to Cooper. So did Senate leaders when they needed somebody to oversee congressional redistricting.

But when Cooper got to the Justice Department, he stayed. Now in his fourth term, he’s the state’s longest-serving attorney general.

“He’s been a good, solid but not flashy attorney general,” says Burley Mitchell, a Democrat and former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. “He has done a very good, workman-like job.”

Cooper has come under fire from Spaulding for defending laws such as a new voter ID measure which, under the state Constitution, he’s required to defend. He has come under fire from Republicans for voicing his personal opposition to laws he disagrees with.

“That’s troubling,” says Republican Bob Orr, a former high court justice. “It’s like you’re undermining the arguments that your lawyers are supposed to be making.”

This month, Republican legislative leaders hired outside counsel to defend a law that allows magistrates to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages. Cooper had said he would have vetoed the bill.

In a statement, Senate GOP Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said, “Cooper is publicly disparaging the case of his clients – the people of North Carolina – and instead arguing the opposition’s case for them.”

Cooper calls the move “a waste of taxpayer money.”

“Our attorneys argue these cases to the very best of their ability,” he says. “These attorneys want to win their case. They’re professionals … That’s a smokescreen for them to hire lawyers that will toe their line.”

Jim Cooney, a Charlotte defense lawyer, has often found himself on the opposite side of Cooper’s Justice Department. But he says Cooper’s office changed the way it treats cases and no longer has a “one size fits all” approach. He says that was evident in the much publicized 2006 Duke lacrosse case.

Not only did the attorney general eventually drop kidnapping and other charges against the three players indicted, but Cooper took the unusual step of declaring them innocent.

“That was really, really important,” says Cooney, who has contributed to Cooper. “By declaring them innocent he gave them their lives back. That would not have happened in the ’90s …

“Over the years (his department) has become more sensitive to the justice system and its flaws,” says Cooney. “What I’ve seen is kind of a willingness to learn and a willingness to appreciate that not all cases are the same.”

Cooper says until now, he’s never had the urge to leave his current post.

“I love the job,” he says. “Being the chief law enforcement officer of the state and being able to help protect everyday people against the big guys is appealing to me.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

Roy Cooper

Party: Democrat

Age: 58

Home: Rocky Mount.

Occupation: Attorney general.

Elected offices: Attorney general, 2001-present; N.C. Senate 1991-2001; N.C. House 1987-91.

Family: Wife, Kristin; three children.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1979; law degree, UNC-Chapel Hill, 1982.

Worth knowing: Played quarterback on high school football team and basketball at Northern Nash. In one prep game, he blocked a shot by Phil Ford, who would go on to stardom at UNC and the NBA.