Roy Cooper is having a happy new year — so far. It’s not half-bad, after all, to begin the year being sworn in to the office you’ve been aiming at for more than 20 years. Cooper, 59, was a Nash County lawyer in the family firm before joining the General Assembly in the state House and then moving to the Senate. He was thought of as a prospect for statewide office, and he won one in 2000, as attorney general.
Cooper flirted with a governor’s race a couple of times, but stayed on as AG, before seeing an opportunity in 2016 against incumbent Pat McCrory. Ordinarily, incumbency carries a big advantage, but McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, was out of his element in Raleigh and without much support or even passing attention from a Republican-run legislature, where leaders never sought his opinion and treated him as an afterthought.
Then came HB2, and some embarrassing maneuvers on redistricting and voter suppression from a GOP leadership out of control. McCrory just seemed to fade and, while holding his own in debates with Cooper, just couldn’t get hold of issues that resonated with enough voters. Yes, the race was close — 10,000 votes — but an incumbent never should have had a problem, not with his own party in control on Jones Street.
Cooper also was a strong candidate, with well-considered progressive positions pushing public education, including more help for teachers, and issues such as better wages and health care — and expanding a bounce-back from the Great Recession, which had hurt hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, many of whom remain under employed.
And Cooper pounded McCrory with HB2 — the catastrophic “bathroom bill” — as if Cooper were holding a Louisville Slugger and McCrory had on a horsehide suit. Cooper even brokered a deal to repeal HB2, which had overturned a Charlotte ordinance protecting transgender people against discrimination and also prohibited local governments from enacting anti-discrimination protections for those in the LGBT community. The effort fell apart after GOP leaders threw in a caveat that prohibited local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances for months. It was a petty, sneaky move.
What now, then, for Gov. Cooper?
He must address HB2, but on that and other issues he’ll need to use the governor’s office as the bully pulpit it can be. Cooper is going to find few people even willing to listen in the legislature, so he must go directly to the people of North Carolina. That is a connection the General Assembly cannot interrupt, and it can be effective.
The governor also needs to keep his legislative agenda simple, and geared to issues with which working families can identify: boosts in public education, programs to help people train for and find work, investment in infrastructure such as roads and bridges, improvements in the delivery of services neglected by the stripped-down departments McCrory is leaving behind, a renewed focus on the environment, worker safety and consumer protection.
These things will help Cooper quickly define himself as the governor for all — not just big business and the wealthy, who received endless tax breaks from Republicans who seemed to care little about the needs of average people.
So what happens if, as expected, Republicans simply oppose all initiatives from the governor, perhaps even denying his Cabinet appointees, not to mention facing off in court over the fact that they’ve already flirted with unconstitutional actions to weaken his office?
It’s back to the people, who’ll be looking at extra elections this year, as ordered by the courts, because of horrendous racial gerrymandering. The governor — unlike legislators safely huddled in districts — was elected statewide, after all, and that means something to the people of the state, who want their opinion valued. Roy Cooper needs to help them understand that he is their best and most compelling voice.