Opinion

Berger misstates the state of the state

Gov. Roy Cooper, left, shakes hands with House Speaker Tim Moore, center and Senate Leader Phil Berger prior to Cooper’s biennial State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly at the Legislative Building Monday evening, Feb. 26, 2019.
Gov. Roy Cooper, left, shakes hands with House Speaker Tim Moore, center and Senate Leader Phil Berger prior to Cooper’s biennial State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly at the Legislative Building Monday evening, Feb. 26, 2019. tlong@newsobserver.com

Governor Roy Cooper has now delivered two calm, hopeful, conciliatory, moderate and bridge-building state of the state addresses. Each has been followed by a cranky rejoinder from Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger. I know I’m the last person Republicans would turn to for advice. But I wish they’d pick someone else. Tim Moore can’t be that bad, can he?

My first objection is to Berger’s churlishness. The ever-pleasant governor heads a party, Berger asserts, committed to “radical policies like abortion on demand and socialism.” And Cooper has, oddly, rejected “the time honored rule of law” in favor of a new brand of hyper-partisanship. Really? Roy Cooper? What has Berger got to be so mad about? It’s as if being the most powerful person in North Carolina doesn’t sit well with him.

But, to be candid, tone is not my paramount complaint. The rub for me is the absurdity of what Berger says. I’m guessing the North Carolina Republican record of the last decade has its defenders — though they surely face a massive up-hill slog. But they can’t press the outrages Berger proffers. English has its limits.

The first time around (March, 2017), you might recall, Berger said the entire revolutionary Republican “platform” was guided by Thoreau’s maxim, “that government is best which governs least.” There are a lot of ways to characterize the bathroom bill, the forced abortion sonogram requirement, the decree that gays and lesbians can’t marry their chosen partners, and the license for magistrates to discriminate against North Carolinians they dislike. But letting folks chill isn’t one of them.

This time, just as remarkably, Berger explained, “we came into power in 2010 with a simple philosophy, providing an equal opportunity for success to everyone willing to work for it.” Republicans believe “every person deserves a fair shot, regardless of ZIP code, color, or family income.” No kidding.

Equal opportunity was the defining mission when Republicans took to their closed-door, all-white caucuses, in the House and Senate, to repeal the Racial Justice Act, deliver the most racially-punitive electoral districts in American history, alter election rules to handicap black voters, eliminate state race discrimination suits, aid and abet the further racial segregation of the public schools, and protect police camera footage from public disclosure. It’s a good thing the white people’s party was on equality’s side.

Next, Berger praised a Republican record of “effective governing dealing in facts, not fanciful and unrealistic” assertions. Man. We’ve had voter ID laws to slay non-existent fraud, as Republicans demanded Mark Harris be immediately seated. We’ve humiliated the state internationally to protect girls from non-existent bathroom assaults. We’ve overturned municipal elections in the perjured named of democracy. We’ve cheated democratic norms so relentlessly we frequently can’t even present an operational government. “Facts” have played no role in these determinations. None.

And last, Berger protested that the Democrats have attacked the judiciary, “which should be the least political branch of government, to frustrate the will of the people of our great state.” I know you think I’m making this up.

A quick refresher. Berger’s boys have required judges’ races to be partisan, abolished public funding, limited judicial review of legislative acts, manipulated the size of the court of appeals, tried to constrict the governor’s judicial appointment powers, threatened disobedient judges with impeachment, interfered with individual Supreme Court elections, and intervened to put Berger’s son at the top of the ticket in a court of appeals race. Who knew the majority leader believed in judicial independence and the rule of law? Certainly no lawyer in North Carolina.

Can’t the Grand Old Party beat this?

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina. His recently published book is “The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina.”

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