Cooper, Berger can choose cooperation or contention

By Mitch Kokai

Raleigh, NC – More than one N.C. political battle in recent years has generated a court case titled Cooper v. Berger. Last week’s election ensured that the two men behind those names will have to deal with each other again for at least the next two years.

photo of golden cogwheel on black background
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán

Despite a history of continual partisan combat, both made statements on election night suggesting that they might be willing to take a new approach.

“Congratulations to tonight’s other North Carolina victors, including Gov. Roy Cooper and Mark Robinson.” State Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, offered that comment in an email after 11 p.m. on Nov. 3.

By that time, it was clear that Berger had won more than just his own re-election. He knew he and his Republican allies would continue to control the General Assembly’s upper chamber with a 28-22 majority.

N.C. voters also elected Robinson as the state’s first African-American lieutenant governor. It’s no surprise that Berger would single out the history-making political newcomer. Robinson’s official duties will include presiding over Senate sessions. As fellow Republicans, it’s likely that he and Berger will agree on most issues.

More interesting politically was Berger’s decision to start his congratulatory remarks with a nod to the Democrat Cooper. More than any other figures over the past four years, Cooper and Berger have represented opposing camps in major conflicts over North Carolina’s public policy. Especially during the past two years, those conflicts often have ended in stalemate.

Berger has seen interesting changes in the legislature’s relationships with the Governor’s Mansion over the past decade. When he and fellow Republicans won control of the General Assembly in the 2010 election, they shocked the Raleigh political establishment. That included sitting Gov. Bev Perdue. Her political success had been based in large part on strong working relationships with former colleagues from her days as a Democratic state senator and lieutenant governor.

After having vetoed just a single bill during her first two years in the state’s top executive job, Perdue tried to shoot down 19 bills authored by Republicans in 2011 and 2012.

But Berger’s Republicans enjoyed a veto-proof supermajority in the Senate, while his House counterparts needed a handful of Democrats to join them in overruling Perdue. Under that arrangement, the General Assembly voted to override 11 of Perdue’s 19 vetoes. Lawmakers successfully overturned both of the governor’s attempts to block Republican-written state budgets.

Relations between the legislative and executive branches improved with the arrival of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013. But occasional disagreements continued. Lawmakers overrode four of McCrory’s six total vetoes over his four-year term. The governor also took Berger and colleagues to court over appointments to state boards. McCrory won a case that helped pave the way for his successor’s legal action.

When Cooper beat McCrory in the 2016 governor’s race, Republican lawmakers responded by rewriting state laws to limit the new Democratic governor’s power. Like the outgoing governor, the incoming resident of the state’s Executive Mansion was not afraid to take legislators to court.

Hence the series of court cases labeled Cooper v. Berger. Sometimes the governor won, as in the case of a ruling blocking lawmakers from changing the political makeup of the state elections board. Other times, Berger and the General Assembly prevailed. Courts upheld lawmakers’ power to confirm or reject the governor’s Cabinet appointments, for instance.

In addition to lawsuits, Cooper has employed his veto stamp far more often than any other executive who has held the power in North Carolina since 1997. In 2018 he broke Perdue’s record by rejecting 28 bills in a two-year legislative session. With veto-proof supermajorities, Republicans overrode Cooper 23 times. Two of those overrides helped secure approval for Republican-drafted state budgets.

The 2018 election changed the political calculus. After campaigning successfully to break GOP supermajorities, Cooper spent the next two years blocking most major Republican initiatives. Berger and fellow lawmakers were unable to override a single one of Cooper’s 25 vetoes in 2019 and 2020. The stalemate blocked any action on a comprehensive budget.

Now voters have returned both Cooper and Berger to their respective positions of power. That could mean more gridlock in 2021. But Berger suggests he seeks a different outcome.

“I hope over the next two years we see a departure from the divisive partisan lawsuits that have hamstrung attempts at good-faith negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the legislature and the executive branch,” he said in his election night news release.

Berger repeated his congratulatory message for Cooper the following morning. “I look forward to working with him,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we will have an opportunity to get some more things done in the next two years than we were able to get done in the last two years.”

Cooper also sounded a conciliatory note on election night. “We have to work harder than ever to understand each other’s perspective, to strive to respect each other, even though our political beliefs may still be different,” he said during his victory speech.

It shouldn’t take long to determine whether the emphasis on cooperation extends beyond rhetoric. We’ll see the evidence in the political figures’ priority lists.

Cooper has spent much of the past four years calling for Medicaid expansion. He has signaled his interest in cutting funding for Opportunity Scholarships that help low-income students attend private schools. He has opposed efforts to spur economic growth by reducing tax rates. Each of these stances places the governor in direct opposition to Berger and the vast majority of legislative Republicans.

If neither side budges on these key issues, 2021 could mark the beginning of another chapter of Cooper versus Berger.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.