Governor-elect Roy Cooper hosted a victory rally Tuesday night, a chance for hundreds of Democrats to celebrate a rare and long-delayed win in an otherwise grim year for their party.
The Cooper rally southwest of downtown came one day after Gov. Pat McCrory conceded defeat. McCrory gave up as a recount that he had sought of 90,000 ballots in Durham County wound to a close.
Cooper alluded to his narrow victory in his speech and called for the state to come together.
“We have probably never been as politically divided as we are now,” he said. “With your help, we can leave the politics of cynicism and fear in the rear-view mirror, and together we can build something better.”
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Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, said he hopes the two political parties can find common ground in responding to damage from Hurricane Matthew in October and addressing infrastructure issues.
“We can also work to find a way to work together on many issues,” he said. “Regardless of whether you voted for me, I will be a governor who works for everyone – all of you.”
McCrory’s concession came nearly a month after Election Day, following dozens of election complaints filed by Republicans with help from the governor’s campaign. The majority of them were dismissed by GOP-controlled county election boards.
Josh Stein, a Democrat who won the race for attorney general, addressed the delays as he warmed up the crowd for Cooper.
“After weeks of hollow and inaccurate charges to undermine the integrity of the election, North Carolina finally has certainty in our elections for two important offices,” Stein said, referring to the concessions this week by McCrory and Stein’s opponent, Republican state Sen. Buck Newton.
Cooper had declared himself governor-elect weeks before. But with GOP allegations of voter fraud and speculation that the legislature could intervene, Democrats were hesitant to celebrate until the governor conceded.
Democrats at Tuesday’s rally said they felt a sense of relief that the governor’s race was finally settled. “I thought it was long overdue for him to concede,” Carol Rahmani of Raleigh said.
Many Democrats had been worried that the unproven allegations of voter fraud might prompt the GOP legislature to intervene and keep McCrory in office.
“Dirty tricks like that tend to happen,” Rahmani said, adding that Cooper’s victory was clear early on. “In an election year where the state went Republican, it’s a big statement.”
A rare speech
Tuesday night’s rally marked Cooper’s first public speech since Election Day – his only public comments for much of the past month came in brief video statements.
Even as Cooper spoke Tuesday night, Trump still loomed. He was roughly an hour’s drive away, thanking supporters at a rally in Fayetteville.
The competing celebrations underscored that Cooper’s victory was an isolated bright spot for Democrats this year. Trump won North Carolina, and Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr easily won re-election, while the GOP kept its supermajorities in both the state House and Senate.
Democrats did, however, keep the office of attorney general. And while Republicans swept the N.C. Court of Appeals races, Democrat Mike Morgan unseated an incumbent Republican to tilt the balance of the N.C. Supreme Court to the Democrats, 4-3.
The bully pulpit
Still, Cooper’s power as governor will be limited by the state legislature, where the GOP has enough votes to override Cooper’s vetoes of bills that Democrats oppose. And he’ll need support from Republican legislators to accomplish his policy goals.
Cooper’s biggest cheers came when he addressed House Bill 2, the LGBT law that played a major role in McCrory’s defeat.
“I will fight all kinds of discrimination,” Cooper said. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s smart. With this election, North Carolina is on its way to repairing its reputation. Let’s finish the job and repeal House Bill 2.”
The governor doesn’t have the power to repeal HB2 unless he gets the backing of House and Senate leaders, and they’ve said they’re not interested in a full repeal.
But Tuesday’s rally was a reminder that the office of governor does come with a powerful microphone, giving Democrats a clear leader that the party has been lacking in recent years.
“He’s got the power of the bully pulpit being governor, but he’s not as comfortable with it” as previous governors, Meredith College political scientist David McLennan said. “That may be his biggest tool to push back on the General Assembly – trying to rally public opinion as he did on HB2.”
Cooper will have control over cabinet agencies, including the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Transportation. He’ll likely begin appointing cabinet secretaries in the coming weeks; a transition website has been soliciting resumes from job seekers.
Cooper’s speech highlighted subjects he wants to address as governor, including health care, women’s rights, environmental issues and freedom for local governments to set their own policies.
“I want to make sure that North Carolinians are healthy, both physically and mentally, that law enforcement is strong and fair, that voting is easier … and that middle-class taxpayers and small businesses are the ones who get the breaks,” Cooper said.
Among his other appointment powers, Cooper will restructure the state and county elections boards with majority Democratic members, as required by state law. The state board appoints county board members.
“I cannot wait to get started,” he said. “Enjoy tonight, for tomorrow we get to work.”