If the 2010 Republican wave reoriented North Carolina politics in conservatives’ favor, Roy Cooper’s election in 2016 came as desperately needed relief for the progressive opposition. Progressives had experienced the intervening years as a natural disaster. After a slow ascent up the political ladder that took decades, Cooper delivered a ray of hope for North Carolinians who had seen their state profoundly tarnished.
When Cooper took office, the state was nothing less than a disaster zone. Right-wing Republicans abetted by an inept governor in Pat McCrory had banked in a radically conservative direction. Public education was in shambles. With HB2, the internationally derided anti-trans “bathroom bill,” McCrory and his allies/tormentors in the General Assembly had branded North Carolina as a den of extreme bigotry. We were reviled, rejected, and shunned.
In came Cooper–to a distinctly hostile welcome. In the waning days of McCrory’s administration, Republican legislators stripped the incoming governor of nearly every power they could think of, and the failed lame duck on Blount Street dutifully signed the bills. Cooper sued to get some of the powers back, but nevertheless his first two years were a time of veto overrides and constant, bitter political warfare against a legislature that never accepted his legitimacy.
It began to look like Cooper would go down as another Jim Martin: a talented, able governor whose ambitions were thwarted by a hostile NCGA. But he organized for the next election, recruiting strong candidates in every district, and raised enormous sums; it paid off when Democrats broke the veto-proof majority. Still, gridlock continued in 2019 and Phil Berger remained the most influential politician in the state.
Then came COVID.
In the most devastating year America had seen since World War II, Cooper distinguished himself as a leader. With broad public support, he initiated lockdowns and imposed a mask requirement to stanch the proliferation of the COVID-19 virus. He didn’t flinch when right-wing terrorists invaded downtown Raleigh with assault rifles, trying to frighten his administration into lifting COVID restrictions. Nor did he allow the legislature to strong-arm him into reopening gyms or bowling allies or whatever other facilities they tried to pry open against his will. As a result, North Carolina has had the lowest COVID death rate of any large state, and has dramatically outperformed neighbors led by know-nothing Dixie Republicans.
By far Cooper’s greatest contribution to the state has been saving lives from the pandemic. But parallel to this success is a sweeping improvement in our state’s image. When McCrory left office, we were a pariah. Nevertheless, after four years of steady work by the Cooper administration, we are once again an accepted and even respected member of the American commonwealth. The British polling firm YOUGOV found that N.C. was the fifth-most admired state in the country.
Will Cooper go down as a transformational governor? I think so. Yes, the post-2010 paradigm of state government has remained intact. But the state is dramatically different now from what it was five years ago. In a spiritual sense, it is possible to live in North Carolina and not feel shame at what your government is doing. Or, more pointedly, doing to vulnerable people. Terry Sanford brought a “New Day” to North Carolina. So has Roy Asberry Cooper III.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.