The fierce battle between Governor Roy Cooper and his rivals in the General Assembly seems, at least on some issues, to have been supplanted by a grudging truce. Cooper and Senate chief Phil Berger still part company on nearly every issue of significance to North Carolina. But they have joined together in efforts to recruit jobs to the state, establish a budget plan, and reopen public schools to stave off further losses in student learning. It’s a significant achievement for both sides.
Ironically given the divisive nature of pandemic restrictions, it seems to have been COVID-19 that sparked the new spirit of cooperation between Cooper and Berger. A crisis can obscure a lot in terms of political difference, and like the Great Depression and World War II establishing a sense of common rapport in America, the COVID-19 pandemic has been followed by what seems sometimes like bonhomie between the governor and a legislature that had been his nemesis. Mandy Cohen, the DHHS Secretary despised by the far right, had constructive ties to the Republican NCGA. While legislative Republicans passed bills on business reopening to please their base, they emerged from the worst of the pandemic ready to deal with the governor.
On few issues of state politics do Cooper and Berger disagree more strongly than government spending. Berger is an ardent fiscal conservative, insisting every year that state spending stay below the rate of inflation and population growth–a truly radical stance that places him to the right of a so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Cooper, on the other hand, wisely and farsightedly advocates remedying our shortage of key investments in education, health, and the environment. Despite this gaping divide between the two men’s visions, they were able, over the course of months, to establish a budget agreement that leaned decisively to the right but contained substantial investments in Cooper’s top priorities.
More recently, Cooper has worked with the legislature to recruit major economic development projects to North Carolina. The administration successfully convinced companies like Toyota, Boom Supersonic, and the Vietnamese automaker VinFast to build huge factories on megasites across the Piedmont. Tellingly, Cooper managed to persuade the Republican-controlled legislature to authorize incentives packages large enough to close each deal and bring major investments to the state of North Carolina. Cooper and the Republicans have worked together hand-in-glove on this issue. At the end of the day, finally spearing the Big Enchilada of an auto plant caused Republicans and Democrats to join forces.
One thing to notice here is that Cooper is succeeding where former Governor Pat McCrory failed completely and utterly. McCrory was largely ignored every time the state House and Senate convened to negotiate a budget. One powerful state senator sneered that “the governor [McCrory]” doesn’t play much of a role in anything.” And North Carolina lost out on multiple game-changing economic development deals because McCrory could not extract adequate incentives from a legislature of his own party. North Carolina voters have chosen divided government–and in 2016, they chose their governor wisely.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.