Gov. Roy Cooper in his inaugural address Saturday urged consensus on issues such as education and health care, while promising to fight laws that make anyone “less in the eyes of their fellow citizens.”
Cooper, a Democrat, extolled North Carolina’s history as a leader in public education and civil rights while encouraging a look to the future. Cooper decried partisan fighting and the legislature’s interest in taking on divisive social questions as he returned to the contentious issue of HB2, a law passed with overwhelming support in the Republican-led legislature last year that limits LGBT protections. The law also requires transgender people to use bathrooms in government buildings that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates. An attempt in late December to repeal the law failed.
Unlike some ceremonial addresses that rely on gauzy platitudes, Cooper used the speech that officially launched his governorship as a platform to frame specific, controversial policy issues.
He again engaged the argument for repealing HB2.
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As he described the fallout from the law – jobs lost and the state’s reputation damaged – Cooper maintained there are enough votes in the legislature to repeal the law “with no strings attached.”
“This is not complicated,” he said. “In fact, it’s very simple. Let. Them. Vote.”
Cooper spoke at the Executive Mansion, about two hours after he delivered an update on the winter storm that has North Carolina in a state of emergency.
The forecast for snow and below-freezing temperatures forced the cancellation and rescheduling of many of this weekend’s inaugural events. Cooper spoke into a television camera, not to the thousands who were expected to attend a ceremony in downtown Raleigh. The inaugural parade was canceled and the ball rescheduled from Saturday night to Friday night.
Cooper said he would work for tax cuts for the middle class and incentives for small businesses to create jobs. While promising to work for consensus, Cooper said he would “draw the line” at laws that attempt to “make any North Carolinian less in the eyes of their fellow citizens.”
“I will stand up for you if the legislature cannot or will not,” he said.
Cooper is a former state senator and was state attorney general for 16 years before he narrowly defeated one-term Republican Pat McCrory to win the governorship. McCrory challenged ballots in dozens of counties, and did not concede the race until a month after Election Day.
State Republican leaders were largely silent on Cooper’s speech.
In the weeks since his victory, Cooper has been at loggerheads with legislative leaders. Cooper blamed them, and Senate leader Phil Berger blamed Cooper, for the failed attempt to repeal HB2. What was said to be a deal to repeal the law dissolved in declarations of mistrust between Republican senators and the Charlotte city council. Charlotte passed the ordinance that the legislature counteracted with HB2.
The Senate brought to a vote a bill that would have repealed the law but would also have imposed a six-month moratorium on any city passing an ordinance similar to Charlotte’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Berger said the repeal effort failed because Cooper told Senate Democrats not to vote for it. A repeal bill did not make it to a vote of the state House.
Shortly after Cooper’s victory in the governor’s race was declared, the legislature passed laws stripping him of some of his power. Copper is suing over changes the legislature made to the State Board of Elections.
Last week, Cooper said he would try to expand Medicaid, adding hundreds of thousands of people to the government health insurance plan – even though a state law prevents Medicaid expansion without legislative approval.
Republican legislators decried the move, saying Cooper is breaking the law and violating the state constitution.
Cooper used his speech to try to recast the question, saying health care is an issue where all sides can find common ground.
“I know we can come together to improve health care when we all agree that getting more families covered isn’t just a moral obligation but a financial responsibility, because we want all folks to pay fewer medical bills and have more money in their pockets,” he said.
“So don’t let the last few months discourage you,” he said. “There’s a lot to accomplish, and I can’t wait to get started.”