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Christensen: Spaulding and Cooper go nose to nose

Ken Spaulding, left, and Roy Cooper.
Ken Spaulding, left, and Roy Cooper. Raleigh

This has been the year of the angry voter – the angry conservative who is supporting Donald Trump, and the angry white liberal who is backing Bernie Sanders.

Is there also an angry black voter? Ken Spaulding, a former state representative and a Durham lawyer, hopes so. At a Democratic Party forum Friday night, Spaulding sought to tap into the “Black Lives Matter” movement in criticizing Attorney General Roy Cooper.

While saying he is not an angry black man, Spaulding repeatedly invoked “Black Lives Matter” as he lit into Cooper, who by most metrics – polls, endorsements, contributions – is the frontrunner in the March 15 Democratic primary for governor.

He blasted Cooper for defending in court some laws passed by the Republican legislature affecting voting rights and extending school vouchers to allow some parents to send children to private schools.

“I think it is wrong for you, Mr. Attorney General, to be defending these Republicans in this matter,” Spaulding said, his voice often rising. He said Cooper should have been testing the constitutionality of the laws, rather than defending them.

“There is a clear distinction here,” Spaulding said. “I know what I am talking about. I graduated from the same law school (University of North Carolina) as my opponent. I think my opponent has been on the wrong side of this issue.”

Cooper, sitting inches away from Spaulding, at the same table at state Democratic headquarters, showed no emotion.

But Cooper defended himself, saying that his job description as attorney general requires him to defend the state when it is sued.

“As attorney general for 15 years, I follow the law,” Cooper said. “I know what the law is. One of the duties of the attorney general is to defend the state when it is sued. One of the reasons I am running for governor is that I am sick and tired of the laws that are being passed by this governor and this General Assembly.”

Cooper said he worked with the NAACP to file an amicus brief to protect the Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court. “There is no question I am very much opposed to these voting restrictions that have been put into place by Gov. McCrory and the Republican leaders of the legislature,” he said.

Besides working to repeal the voting laws passed by Republicans, Cooper said he would work to broaden voter participation through such vehicles as online voter registration, which is used in other states.

Spaulding has been making similar charges as he has campaigned across the state. But the forum sponsored by the Democratic Party’s African-American and Hispanic caucuses gave him his first opportunity to go face-to-face with Cooper. At the end of the forum Cooper thanked the caucuses for the “spirited” discussion.

Such charges have put Cooper in a bit of a political bind — catching criticism from both sides. Attorneys general traditionally have represented the state in lawsuits. But the Republicans have so distrusted Cooper that the legislature has spent a record $7 million on outside legal counsel since they took control in 2011, and Gov. Pat McCrory has spent another $1.3 million on private lawyers, according to WRAL.

“The Attorney General has, in many instances, disparaged and criticized the policies adopted by the General Assembly,” Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said last year in explaining the legal fees. “It’s difficult to feel comfortable going into court with a lawyer who has indicated he’s more sympathetic to the opposing side.”

Spaulding also scored Cooper for his refusal to retry a case against former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, who shot to death Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old black man.

Ferrell was in an auto accident in a white residential neighborhood at night, and he banged on a door seeking help. Responding to a call of a reported burglary, police shot Ferrell 10 times. When the jury deadlocked 8-4 to acquit Kerrick, a mistrial was declared. Cooper, whose office handled the prosecution, announced that it would not refile charges because the prosecutors didn’t think they could get a conviction. The charges were dropped.

“Black lives do matter,” Spaulding said. “They couldn’t find enough energy or effort to have another trial. That’s not right for that young man. That’s not right for North Carolina.”

Cooper declined to comment on Spaulding’s remarks about the case.

Cooper can afford to absorb some shots from Spaulding, but he can not say anything that might alienate the African-American community, a vital part of the Democratic coalition.