Roy Cooper's stranglehold on N.C. politics
Little gets accomplished today without Cooper’s approval — and he’s fighting ruthlessly to keep it that way.
Four years ago, I published a ranking of the 50 most powerful people in North Carolina politics. Gov. Roy Cooper came in at No. 6.
Now, there were plenty of issues with that list, but Cooper’s position wasn’t one of them.
At the time, Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly had relegated the governor to near irrelevance. Twenty-eight times Cooper vetoed a measure passed by the General Assembly. Twenty-five times, that veto was overridden — giving House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger the power to shape the political landscape in North Carolina.
What a difference a few years can make. Today, Cooper is by far the most powerful political figure in the state — and it’s not even close. Through an iron-clad grip on the Democratic caucus, well-funded attorneys, and an expansive interpretation of executive power, Cooper has seized a stranglehold on North Carolina politics.
Today, little gets accomplished in N.C. politics without Gov. Roy Cooper’s approval — and he’s fighting ruthlessly to keep it that way.
Over the last two years, Cooper has vetoed 47 bills. Not a single one has been overridden, and General Assembly leaders have largely stopped trying. After years of battling the legislature, Cooper has now forced Moore and Berger to the bargaining table, and even appears on the brink of achieving his biggest political goal: Expanding Medicaid.
Even while doing so, Cooper has cultivated a public image as a steady, understated and pragmatic leader. He’s insulated himself from major failings throughout his administration, letting underlings take the blame while largely ignoring the issues. He’s made his case not to the people of North Carolina, but to the court system and the media.
It’s a different sort of power than North Carolina is used to, especially in a state long wary of executive authority. It’s a power rooted not in public persuasion and popularity, but in his ability to manipulate the political system to his ends.
The seeds that ultimately blossomed into this power were sown even before he took office on Jan. 1, 2017.
‘Sue until North Carolina is blue’
After Cooper edged out a 10,000-vote victory in the 2016 election, the General Assembly passed a flurry of bills designed to blunt the impact the Democrat could have as the state’s chief executive. The laws limited the number of appointments the governor could make, reduced the number of political positions in government, and — crucially — turned the state’s election apparatus from one controlled by the governor’s party to one overseen by a bipartisan board.
Cooper’s legal team immediately went to work, suing to block implementation of those laws. After a protracted legal battle, Cooper maintained control over the State Board of Elections and all 100 county boards that manage the state’s elections.
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That victory foreshadowed a political strategy that mired the state’s political landscape in uncertainty for the next two years — until Cooper could exert more control.
After taking office, Cooper’s legal battle expanded. Led by Cooper attorney Marc Elias, a consortium of activist groups spent the next two years suing the state over everything from laws changing the composition of the Court of Appeals to a constitutional amendment to require voter ID.
“Liberal dark money groups financed and controlled by allies of the Democratic Party are determined to use and abuse the court system to achieve unprecedented chaos,” then-N.C. Rep. David Lewis said at a press conference at the time. “In short, it appears they will sue until North Carolina is blue.”
Cooper didn’t win every battle, but he did win the one that mattered: Over state legislative districts. In a series of victories, Cooper’s team managed to steadily win court orders that required the General Assembly to draw districts friendlier to Democrats.
In 2018, Cooper made sure those districts flipped blue.
The governor tapped Democratic political consultant Morgan Jackson to oversee his strategy in General Assembly races in the 2018 cycle. The result was an initiative called “Break the Majority,” though the goal was actually a bit smaller: Ending the supermajority of Republicans in the General Assembly. By the summer of 2017, Cooper had already raised more than $1 million for the effort.
Democrats needed to flip four seats in 2018 to break the supermajority in the state House. They flipped 10. In the Senate, they needed six — and got exactly six. Many of these pick-ups came from the Wake and Mecklenburg districts subject to redistricting lawsuits.
Cooper exerts his influence
With the supermajorities broken, Cooper set about enforcing his veto. Immediately, it became clear that the governor had tight control over his caucus. Even bills that passed with enormous bipartisan support could now be effectively killed by Cooper’s veto.
The 2019 state budget bill, for example, was initially ratified with 33 votes in the Senate — more than the 30 that would be needed to override a veto. But after the governor sent the bill back, there were not enough votes to pass it into law. The budget died.
The scene played out time and again, to the tune of 47 sustained vetoes in a row. That was especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, where Cooper vigorously defended his power.
Cooper took advantage of a poorly written emergency management law to wield unilateral power over North Carolina’s response to the virus. The court system sided with him on this matter, as well.
The state of emergency he declared in March 2020 lasted for 888 days before finally ending this August. Over that time, he issued more than 150 separate executive orders, and in the early months, held a press conference every other day to outline what new mandates, restrictions or prohibitions would be in effect.
The General Assembly attempted to reign in the governor’s power on a number of occasions, to no avail. One bill would have required school districts to offer in-person learning to all students starting in March 2021. At the time, middle and high school students were still forced to stay home. The bill passed overwhelmingly in both chambers.
After it was vetoed, the Senate fell one vote short of overriding the veto. The House didn’t even try.
It’s unclear how exactly Cooper brought his caucus in line. But there are hints.
One Democratic senator, Kirk deViere of Fayetteville, regularly served as a swing vote in the last two legislative sessions. He sided with Republicans on numerous occasions, agreeing to help veto override efforts. While they were unsuccessful, Cooper was far from pleased about his willingness to defy his orders.
In this year’s primary, Cooper-affiliated groups poured more than $175,000 into the Democratic primary race in support of challenger Val Applewhite. Applewhite won in the primary.
Sen. deViere will be a senator no more.
‘I need enough Senators’
In the 2020 elections, Republicans picked back up four state House seats, but lost one in the Senate. The overall state of play remained the same. Cooper was re-elected, by about 250,000 votes.
In this year’s session, the General Assembly appeared to have largely lost its appetite to battle with Roy Cooper — something the governor attributes to his veto power.
“We've been able to stave off those culture wars. We've been able to use the veto as a leverage to get more investment in our schools, community colleges, and universities,” Cooper told WUNC in August.
But this year, in a mid-term election that appears unfriendly to Democrats, the prospect of a Republican supermajority is back on the table.
Cooper has now taken the rare step of cutting television commercials for N.C. Senate candidates in key swing districts, like New Hanover County’s District 7. Backing Democrat Marcia Morgan, Cooper describes sitting Sen. Michael Lee as an obstacle to his power. He specifically cites the prospect of a Republican supermajority passing abortion restrictions in the next legislative session.
“As your governor, I’ll veto it, but I need enough Senators to uphold it,” Cooper says. “Michale Lee has never voted to uphold my veto, and he never will, especially. an extreme abortion ban. But Marcia Morgan will. That’s why I’m supporting her, and I need you to support her too.”
Is Cooper the most powerful governor in North Carolina history?
Of course, this relatively brief article oversimplifies the last six years of N.C. politics. There were plenty of other factors at play, like the impact of President Donald Trump on suburban voters in the 2018 cycle. National Democrats were also heavily involved in redistricting fights across the country.
The General Assembly has failed to advance bills promoting parental rights in education and protecting women’s sports not just because of Gov. Cooper, but also because of potential blowback among voters in the suburbs.
And the state legislature is certainly not powerless today. Cooper’s proposed budgets are still used as door stops, and Berger and Moore have still gotten plenty accomplished during the last two years.
But Cooper’s power over the General Assembly is unusual for a state that has traditionally vested most of its power in the latter.
North Carolina was the last state in the U.S. to extend veto power to the governor (in 1996), and Cooper has used it more than all other governors combined.
Until 1837, the state’s governor was chosen directly by the General Assembly, and served just a one-year term. After that, the governorship was popularly elected, but governors could serve just one four-year term.
That changed with Gov. Jim Hunt, who convinced the General Assembly to support a constitutional amendment allowing governors to serve two consecutive terms — and then took advantage of it. Hunt served consecutive terms twice, for 16 total years in the Executive Mansion. Over that time, he convinced the legislature to raise the gas tax and create the Smart Start early childhood education program. He also built an extensive political organization that dominated state politics, and had considerable sway with the General Assembly.
Hunt would be the only other true candidate for the title of most powerful governor in North Carolina history (though you could perhaps make a case for Kerr Scott, as well).
For now, the mantle properly belongs with Hunt.
It’s hard to compare Cooper’s power with that of past North Carolina governors because it’s so different. Traditionally, governors wield power through personal popularity, a compelling vision, building consensus, and then arm-twisting legislators using that leverage. You can judge that power based on accomplishment.
For all his power, Gov. Roy Cooper does not have any major accomplishments to his name. Cooper’s influence has been primarily in opposition to the Republican majority in the General Assembly, styming their policy goals rather than achieving his own. That’s his pitch in this election cycle, as well.
That could change with Medicaid expansion. After years of vehement opposition, both Moore and Berger have expressed a desire to reach a deal. Should one come to fruition, Cooper could claim a major victory — and reach the apex of his power.
Cooper’s legacy would be of a governor who subdued a hostile legislature and bent it to his will, making him perhaps the most powerful in state history.
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