Governor Roy Cooper says the future of the state is promising. The Democrat delivered his first "State of the State" address during a joint session of the General Assembly Monday night.
Cooper spoke to North Carolinians while standing before Republican supermajorities -- a collection of conservatives who render his veto largely useless and moved to strip the governor of some powers in recent months. It was a little awkward, but cordial enough.
The Governor began his address by saying North Carolinians are welcoming, but some of our laws are not.
“I’m going to say this first thing because of the urgency and to go ahead and get it out of the way,” Cooper said. “Tonight, I call on the legislature once again to repeal House Bill 2.”
Cooper made four references to the notorious piece of legislation, calling action urgent, before moving on to other topics. A week ago, the first-term Democrat rolled out his budget proposal – a largely symbolic ritual. Speaking in the North Carolina House, he again used his bully pulpit to call on lawmakers to adopt some of his spending ideas.
“My plan gives an average 10 percent raise over the next two years.” he said. “Over this pace, we can bring teacher salaries up to best in the southeast in three years. And to at least the national average in five years.”
Cooper is a 30-year veteran of the political machine in Raleigh. He served in both chambers of the General Assembly and as the state’s attorney general for 16 years.
As governorships go, Cooper has relatively little power. He has chosen to fight some battles publicly, others in court, and some behind the scenes. He has previously called on lawmakers to expand Medicaid. He touched on the uncertainty of healthcare during his address, carefully avoiding the actual word Medicaid.
"We also have rural hospitals that struggle to stay open, and provide good healthcare across the state,” he said. “If we work together we can improve the health of thousands of North Carolinians."
Cooper’s relationship with leading Republicans is divisive, however, he took a largely conciliatory tone, using the phrase “common ground” 13 times during his speech, and even pledging a few promises.
"I promise to listen, to engage, to build consensus, to compromise when possible. I promise to fight only when we can’t come to agreement, or you give me no choice," Cooper said.
It seems like a safe bet, or promise, that executive and legislative branches will continue to fight. Moments after the Governor left the chamber, Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger – the most powerful political figure in the state – delivered his response. Any lingering collegiality was gone.
"Tonight we heard the left’s new champion,” Berger said. “Roy Cooper is pushing their agenda for the future of North Carolina. Except, it’s not a vision for the future of North Carolina at all. It’s a mirage. It’s merely a retreat to our troubled past."
Berger has presided over veto-proof majorities for five years, and he ticked off his policy accomplishments – including a better business climate, lower taxes, expanded charter schools, education grants and opportunity scholarships. Then, Berger took aim at the left – criticizing the press, the Democratic Party, and liberal special interest groups.
"They organize rallies, organize protests, they disrupt public meetings, they attempt to sabotage our state’s economy and put regular North Carolinians out of business," Berger said.
The speech and response come at a moment when Raleigh is one of the nation’s hubs for partisan bickering. Cooper has sued Berger over what he asserts are unconstitutional power grabs. Berger says Cooper’s victory last fall, by less than 11,000 votes, does not give him any sort of mandate. The Republican leader also offered this:
"Instead of seeking middle ground he’s sued to block common-sense popular reforms, like voter ID and laws he doesn’t like, he simply ignores,” Berger said. “Governor Cooper talks often of compromise, but works behind the scenes to kill real compromises."
That’s a claim Cooper has denied. For months the nation has watched as battles over bathrooms, Voter ID, and good old power have played out here in the Old North State. For a little while on Monday night, the adversaries gathered under one roof. But don’t expect this partisan melee to subside any time soon.