In his state of the state address last night, Governor Roy Cooper laid out a hopeful vision for the state, mixing Democratic policy proposals for the base while offering conciliatory language aimed at building a working relationship with Republicans. He irked GOP legislators when he called the state of the state “promising” and led off discussing the plight of HB2. Republicans wanted a rhetorical pat on the back from the Governor for what they believe they’ve done to restore North Carolina’s economy.
Cooper spent much of his time discussing the need to overcome partisanship. He used the term “work together” six times in his speech. He called his budget “Common Ground Solutions,” indicating Democrats and Republicans can find reasons to like it. While he maintained core Democratic goals like raising teacher pay to the national average, he offered the GOP a bit of an olive branch and asked for partnership, not division, in governing the state. Cooper’s been in politics long enough to know that the parties will always have their differences, but he’s also been there long enough to see compromise work.
The Republican response delivered by Senate President Pro-tem Phil Berger couldn’t have been more different. He came across as bitter and partisan. He blamed the “institutions of the left, the press, the Democratic Party, liberal special interests” for causing division and raining on the GOP parade instead of celebrating what he clearly sees a huge success story. He complains that the Democrats and their allies call Republicans names and accuse them of being racist, bigoted and immoral. Berger should spend a little time seeing what the right says about “libtards.” He doesn’t sound like a man looking to overcome obstacles. Instead, he sounds a lot like Pat McCrory–a thin-skinned politician nursing resentment.
Berger’s right that North Carolina’s economy is recovering nicely now, but it’s not the leader Republicans would have us believe. Our job growth is certainly improving but we lag behind South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Our unemployment rate is slightly above the national average. Our GDP was significantly above the national average last year, but still slower than the national average growth rate since the end of the depression. Republicans get credit for not hurting our economy but the powerhouse that they promised never really materialized.
However, our reputation under Republican control has taken a major hit. The bad headlines began almost as soon as the legislature came into session in 2013. North Carolina had always been known as a welcoming state, but the GOP seemed determined to change that image. They passed an anti-Sharia law bill clearly aimed at the Muslim community. They introduced a bill to institute a state religion even though it didn’t go anywhere. They fired a highly respected president of the UNC system for no reason. And their rhetoric clearly blamed teachers for failing schools.
The LGBT community and their friends and family can be forgiven if they believe that the GOP has intolerant instincts. Since Republicans took power in 2010, they’ve put an amendment on the ballot to block marriage equality. They passed a law allowing state employees to discriminate against gay couples. They passed House Bill 2 which was as much about overriding local nondiscrimination ordinances as regulating bathrooms. The totality of the of their legislation sure looks homophobic.
While the voter suppression bill passed by the GOP might have intended to protect power, it clearly was designed to reduce access to the polls for demographic groups that don’t vote Republican. Those groups included African-Americans, particularly older people. For people who have only gained full access to the polls in the last 50 years, the laws are not just insulting, they are threatening.
The tone and content of Cooper’s speech was right. He stuck to his Democratic principles while inviting Republicans to join him in governing. He focused on broad areas where both sides agree—better jobs, better schools, and a better economy—while downplaying their divisions. Berger’s response was sour and divisive. One speech was about leadership. The other was about partisanship.