Rob Christensen

Florence will raise Roy Cooper’s profile, but that can be a double-edged sword

The move seems right out of the gubernatorial playbook. When the winds begin to blow, governors ditch their coats and ties for an emergency management shirt, giving them a quasi-military/police look.

So it was with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who has been appearing more regularly on TV than meteorologist Greg Fishel.

In September, you could hardly turn on the TV without seeing Cooper, as he dealt with the unfolding tragedy of Hurricane Florence. He warned residents to evacuate threatened areas and reported on the loss of life, rescues, and the widespread damage. And he urged the legislature to return for a special session to deal with the crisis.

This is his moment.

Part of it was the gravity of the situation – a deadly storm that will take years to recover from.

But is also a time when many people who don’t closely follow politics – which is most people – will size up Cooper as the state’s chief executive.

“This is the governor in a non-political role, the governor as protector and manager,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

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Florence almost certainly has raised the profile of Cooper, a Democrat who has often been largely sidelined by a hostile Republican legislature which has vetoed or blocked most of his proposals. Cooper’s temperament – cautious, soft-spoken, and reticent – has also contributed to his relatively low profile.

Reflecting the understanding that this is a critical period, Cooper’s Twitter account put out video feeds of the governor touring New Bern and Wilmington.

That prompted the Charlotte Observer editorial page to ask: “Do we really need videos that seem like they were brought to us from the Campaign to Re-Elect Roy Cooper?”

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But the political consequences of hurricanes can hardly be ignored.

Hurricane Fran in 1996 resulted in a suspension of the fall campaign, robbing Republican Robin Hayes, now state GOP chairman, of any momentum in his challenge to Democratic incumbent Gov. Jim Hunt.

Hurricane Matthew helped revive the flagging candidacy of Republican Pat McCrory in 2016, allowing him to nearly pull off a win after trailing most of the campaign against Cooper.

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Hurricanes place chief executives in leadership roles that are nonpolitical and that have quasi-military/law enforcement flavors. It tends to show them in action-oriented situations, helping orchestrate the state’s emergency resources. But it also enables them to display caring and compassion while touring the devastated areas.

Like Republican then-Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Cooper was cordial and professional this month when visiting hard-hit New Bern with Republican President Donald Trump. (Christie, preparing to run for the presidency, was criticized at the time for getting too chummy with Democratic President Barack Obama, but Christie explained that he was responsible for putting his constituents first.)

Dealing with hurricanes can also be a double-edged sword if the situation is handled poorly.

“Members of the public look through politics in a partisan lens more than ever today,” Taylor said, “but as opposed to more obviously ideological policies this means the governor’s performance might be faulted by Democratic allies and praised, if grudgingly, by Republican foes.”

“A poor performance like (President George W.) Bush’s in response to Katrina in 2005 can send an executive’s job approval ratings tumbling. It can also embolden legislative opposition – particularly to undertake investigations and oversight of the administration’s handling of emergencies such as Cooper’s response to Matthew,” Taylor said.

Contemplating a political comeback in 2020, McCrory has said “the governor’s office has dropped the ball” in distributing federal aid following Hurricane Matthew. GOP lawmakers have created a subcommittee to investigate Cooper’s handling of Hurricane Matthew funds.

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Republicans have criticized the Cooper administration for having awarded little of the $236 million of federal housing aid in one particular program, as The News & Observer has reported. The New York Times recently reported that about $2 million from that program has been spent so far.

But Sadie Weiner, a Cooper spokeswoman, said $751 million has been spent on programs for housing recovery, public infrastructure repair and small business assistance. She also said that $82 million of an expected $95 million has been distributed in federal emergency money for such recovery projects as buyouts, elevation and reconstruction of heavily damaged homes.

GOP lawmakers, in their oversight capacity, have a responsibility to determine why the money has not moved faster. But they also hope to weaken a popular governor – muddying his image as an effective executive.

Currently, Cooper appears to be in good political health.

His approval ratings have ranged around 50 percent, making him the 22nd highest rated governor in the country or slightly above the national average, according to Morning Consult’s Governor Approval Rankings released earlier this year.

Cooper is more popular in his state than such well-known governors like Jerry Brown of California, Rick Snyder of Michigan or Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

His numbers are very similar to such potential presidential candidates as Andrew Cuomo of New York and John Kasich of Ohio.

But his ratings are not as good as such governors as Rick Scott of Florida, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, or Greg Abbott of Texas.

Just looking at North Carolina, Cooper is much more popular than his two immediate predecessors, McCrory and Democrat Bev Perdue, were at this juncture of their administrations, according to polls. McCrory would later be harmed by the HB2 controversy, which created a national backlash when he signed a bill that regulated bathroom use by transgender people and curtailed local governments’ nondiscrimination ordinances.

Hurricane Florence will likely provide Cooper with a boost in the polls. But whether he can sustain the bump depends on how he manages the hurricane’s aftermath.

Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack
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