Berger broke the mold

Staff WriterJuly 5, 2009 

This is a state government town, and there are lots of folks who know Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger. I'm not sure how many know his story.

This is not the guy, had you met him growing up, who you would have predicted might someday be running your state Senate. That could happen if Republicans flip a half-dozen seats.

If you think all Republicans were born on the country club side of town, Berger does not fit the mold.

When he graduated from high school in Danville, Va., he went to work at one of the local factories. He wasn't a good student, and college wasn't for him, he thought.

This was back in 1970, when decent-paying blue-collar work was still plentiful, before global trade vaporized most of the strong-back jobs on both sides of the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

His epiphany came while muscling bulky sheets of pressed wood off a conveyor belt. "It took me about a month of doing that," he said, "to figure out this ain't what I want to do for the rest of my life."

He landed at a Kroger, rose to produce manager, and had the flexibility in his hours (because he did the schedule) to enroll in community college. He worked full time and went to class nights, mornings and lunch hours. He transferred to Averett College, graduated, and then earned a law degree at Wake Forest.

He settled with his wife in Eden, about 45 minutes from his hometown, launched a law practice, raised a family, got politically active and won election to the Senate in 2000.

And today, his is one of the leading voices criticizing the taxing and spending plans of the Democrats who run both chambers of the legislature and the executive branch. Last week, he met with our editorial board, portraying the Democrats not only as extravagant but also incompetent.

The challenge he has -- and he admits it's not easy -- is to convince voters that Republicans in charge would be frugal without starving schools, mental health, roads and other essential services. It's tough to get that across, because Raleigh is filled with interest groups expert at putting out the message that short of big tax increases, class sizes will soar, the mentally ill will be neglected, services for the elderly will be slashed, and so on.

But it's also a challenge to get the nuance right when you're from Rockingham County, where unemployment has been stubbornly high for years in the wake of decades of textile layoffs. Now the jobless rate back home has climbed to 14 percent and would be higher if commuters weren't filling the roads to jobs elsewhere. Aren't many of Berger's constituents precisely the ones who need state help the most?

His response is this: There have to be priorities set. There are services government provides that, in tough times, "they've got to do more of." And to do that, government has to eliminate lower-priority spending. The folks back home, he says, "don't understand why the government can't make do like they have to make do.

"When times are tough, you get laid off, you get your hours cut back, you cut back. It's a simple as that."

Which sounds like something he learned at the end of a conveyor belt and behind the produce counter, many years ago.

Senior editor Dan Barkin is filling in for Rob Christensen, who is on vacation. or 919-829-4562

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