Editorials

Berger talks, and dollars amplify the mic

Berger reacts to 3 judge panel ruling on elections board and ethics commission earlier this year

Video: Senate Bill 68 combines the current State Ethics Commission and State Board of Elections into a single board. It is headed to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, who has said he would veto it.
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Video: Senate Bill 68 combines the current State Ethics Commission and State Board of Elections into a single board. It is headed to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, who has said he would veto it.

Phil Berger, president pro-tem of the state Senate, leader of the Republicans and a skilled parliamentarian, is an affable fellow to be sure. But Berger’s popularity among his colleagues in the Republican caucus is likely boosted a bit by the fact that he in effect controlled a couple of million bucks in campaign money that came through a new committee set up in 2015. That committee, called the N.C. Republican Senatorial Committee, was set up under a 2015 law that allowed it to accept and distribute unlimited donations for campaigns.

Donations are unlimited because the committee is treated under the law as a political party would be. Donations from donors to individual campaigns are limited to $5,100.

The law came about because some top elected Republicans didn’t fancy former party chair Hasan Harnett, who ultimately was ousted.

The committee basically means that Berger wields even more power, because his campaign gave the committee $1.3 million from its coffers. Those coffers were full because of Berger’s powerful position. And, being unopposed for re-election, he didn’t need to spend much on a campaign.

Majority Leader Harry Brown did his part, giving the committee $350,000. Jim Goodnight, founder of SAS and a long-time GOP supporter, gave $50,000.

The committee’s money was spent on state senate campaigns of senators in contested races. It came in handy, and the party retained control of the upper chamber.

It’s true, of course, that once-powerful Democrats used to help other candidates in order to strengthen their own leadership positions, but Berger & Co. have taken the art of “helping out” other senators to an entirely new level.

And this isn’t just a case of money talking. It’s money doing all the talking. The committee enables someone like Berger, says Bob Hall of watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, to “pick and choose which Senate candidate he wants to support in a big way and which ones he wants to starve.” A senator who falls out of favor with Berger, for example, may find himself or herself in a tough and suddenly expensive re-election battle.

It appears that those who would like to see true campaign finance reform on both the state and national levels in order to curb the influence of money on elected officials probably won’t get much help from the president pro-tem’s office. Berger has mastered the game as it is; he isn’t likely to want to change the rules.

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