Taylor Batten

McCrory got steamrolled; Cooper doesn’t have to be

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper reads to Durham schoolchildren last week.
N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper reads to Durham schoolchildren last week. The Herald-Sun via AP

Pat McCrory never figured out how to handle North Carolina’s dismissive legislature. After 14 years as a mayor and with no state politics experience, Gov. McCrory was overmatched from Day 1. Though he and the legislative majorities were both Republican, leaders on Jones Street alternated between ignoring him and mocking him. (Remember Sen. Tom Apodaca saying McCrory “doesn’t play much of a role in anything”?)

McCrory’s inability to hold his own against lawmakers helped make him the first incumbent North Carolina governor to lose reelection.

Now here comes Roy Cooper. As a Democrat, he’ll face at least as much defiance from conservative legislative leaders. So what strategy should he pursue? Should he veto every mildly offensive piece of legislation that crosses his desk? Should he take a consistently confrontational stance and wave the liberal Democratic flag? Or should he try to work with Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, seeking compromise where he can?

The answers lie in part in Cooper’s main goal. Is it to move North Carolina forward through smart public policy? Or is it to make sure he doesn’t follow McCrory, and Democrat Bev Perdue before that, as a third straight one-term governor? One would hope the two overlap, but Cooper might calculate that he can boost his reelection chances most by digging in against an unpopular legislature.

I can think of several approaches Cooper could take. Here are three. The first two carry serious pitfalls. The third just might work, and could help Cooper with both his reelection and his desire to achieve progress for North Carolina.

▪ Try to work with the legislature and compromise wherever possible to get things done.

This would be the best course in an ideal world. In this scenario, Cooper and legislative leaders don’t agree on everything, but they work together to try to find common ground and improve the state.

Two words: Yeah, right. Berger, Moore and other Republicans have made clear they have no intention of working closely with Cooper. They called an emergency special session in December to eviscerate the governor of much of his already-limited power. They are fighting him in court on several fronts already and they have a my-way-or-the-highway track record, even with the Republican McCrory in office.

There could be the occasional exception. Both sides seem to be inclined to raise teacher pay, for example. But I expect the legislature’s beatings of the governor to continue until morale improves.

▪ Fight the Republicans tooth and nail.

Under this approach, Cooper is a loud and proud liberal Democrat, fighting for every cause his base adores. He vetoes any legislation he doesn’t love. Those vetoes are overridden nearly every time, but Cooper can at least say he tried to stop the damage.

This might succeed in firing up the base. But it would fire up Republicans’ base as well, and could alienate crucial moderates. Cooper would risk coming across as being against everything, for nothing, and just another politician who can’t get anything done.

▪ Get the public on his side.

A majority of voters side with Cooper on some key issues, such as repealing HB2 and raising teacher pay. Republicans have centralized power and many local folks feel excluded. Cooper could mobilize regular people to raise their voices and pressure Republicans to cooperate.

“I think it’d be scary for Berger and Moore to see Roy across the state meeting with school officials and looking at infrastructure problems and going to farmer’s markets, going to local economic development projects and really rallying local progressivism,” said Mac McCorkle, a long-time Democratic consultant who now teaches at Duke.

That might be especially effective if Cooper appeared in the districts of vulnerable Republicans.

Another N.C. governor leveraged the public like that. And it helped Jim Hunt get elected a record four times.