Early Sunday morning, while most of us were still toasting the New Year, Roy Cooper swore an oath to become the seventy-fifth governor of the state of North Carolina.
It's been an eventful month for Cooper since he officially became governor-elect on December 5, the day Governor McCrory finally conceded. In that time, there have been three special sessions: one to pass a relief package for victims of Hurricane Matthew, another (called the same day) to strip Cooper of some of his powers and hand them to the legislature and Republicans on the Council of State, and the failed attempt to repeal HB 2.
So, even before he took office, Cooper was given a taste of what Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have in store for him; given the duo's gerrymandered dominance of the General Assembly, it's not going to get easier for the new governor anytime soon.
Still, progressives shouldn't forget that it was with their help that a Democrat was elected governor, albeit by the narrowest of margins, in a year in which Donald Trump won the state of North Carolina with relative ease and Democrats elsewhere were decimated. With that in mind, we came up with a wish list—ways Cooper should wield his power to counter both the new federal government and the General Assembly, and what he should do to protect the state's most vulnerable—of what we want to see out of the Executive Mansion over the next four years.
If there's one lesson North Carolina Dems could take from the last eight years of Republican governors taking President Obama to court—over everything from coal-ash emission regulations to the federal government's directive to schools to accommodate transgender students—it's that the states can be the frontlines of defense against the Trump administration.
No one should know this better than Cooper, the state's attorney general for sixteen years. Cooper played a different role than the one he'll need his successor, Josh Stein, to play; when McCrory and the legislature were sued over Amendment 1 and HB 2, Cooper refused to defend them, forcing the state to spend millions on outside counsel to prop up indefensible laws.
Stein, like Cooper, is a Democrat, which means that the governor's office and the attorney general's office will be able to coordinate legal action against a federal government that will, for instance, likely gut environmental regulations.
As evidenced by the legislative attack on his powers as governor last month—among other things, his cabinet appointments will have to be approved by the Senate, and some education oversight powers have been transferred to new Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson—Cooper will have to deal with his own backyard as well.
McCrory provided him with a precedent: McCrory v. Berger, the 2016 case about the Coal Ash Commission. In that 6–1 N.C. Supreme Court decision, Chief Justice Mark Martin wrote that the General Assembly "exerted too much control over commissions that have final executive authority. By doing so, it has prevented the governor from performing his express constitutional duty to take care that the laws are faithfully executed."
Cooper can challenge the legislature when it tries to take away that "express constitutional duty," starting with the powers lawmakers have already stripped.
"I think that there's an argument that can certainly be made that the legislation passed in the special session violated the Constitution," says N.C. Justice Center executive director Rick Glazier, a former Democratic state representative. "I think there are further arguments that the bills passed in the [session] were unconstitutional under several provisions of the N.C. Constitution."
Indeed, the Republican-controlled State Board of Education sued the legislature last week over the transferring of some of its powers to Johnson; a Superior Court judge temporarily blocked the law last Thursday. And on Friday, Cooper filed a lawsuit to stop the legislature's Republican-friendly changes to the State Board of Elections; again, a judge temporarily halted the law.
Beyond these issues, Cooper will certainly have no lack of battles to fight.
"A lot of it has to do with his ability to use the bully pulpit, to create administrative regulations, his willingness to take the legislature to court when necessary—and in his ability to negotiate," Glazier says. "There are issues where he and the legislature do have general agreement and can negotiate good policy."
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, McCrory called on President Obama to stop sending Syrian refugees to North Carolina. Cooper backed the McCrory and Trump position, saying in a statement, "I support asking the federal government to pause refugee entries to make sure we have the most effective screening process possible so our humanitarian efforts are not hijacked."
The statement was remarkably squishy, even for Cooper, a centrist Democrat if there ever was one. Here are the facts: since 2011, when unrest began in Syria, North Carolina has accepted 768 refugees from Syria, according to the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System. In the same period, the state accepted 1,293 refugees from Iraq. Syrian refugees go through an intense vetting process, which a senior administration official told Time is the "most rigorous screening of any traveler to the U.S." All of this underscores an important point: those fleeing Syria are fleeing because of ISIS, not because they're in it.
Some pro-immigrant activists say Cooper's track record with undocumented immigrants has been similarly lackluster. In January 2014, his office sent an advisory letter stating that state law would have to be changed in order for undocumented students residing in North Carolina under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—an Obama policy granting two-year reprieves from deportation to undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors—to receive in-state tuition, even if they've lived in the state for most of their lives. A group of student activists later accused Cooper of "throwing immigrant students under the bus."
"What is he going to do to counter the evil of white supremacist Donald Trump?" activist and undocumented immigrant Viridiana Martinez asks. "He can start out by supporting equal access to higher education for DACA holders and immigrant youth and also supporting an initiative for driving permits for undocumented people."
Martinez isn't convinced Cooper will come through, especially given the fact that his office backed the N.C. School of Math and Science earlier this year when it denied admission to a DACA student.
"So, he's already kind of taken a side," she says. "He's being a Dixiecrat. He's not being crazy like Trump, but his actions sure as hell let us know what kind of anti-immigrant politician he is."
Over the past four years, the General Assembly has launched repeated assaults on LGBTQ rights, including the since-overturned Amendment 1, a law that allows magistrates to refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, and, of course, HB 2.
Cooper thought he'd scored a big win prior to taking office when he brokered a deal for the city of Charlotte to repeal its nondiscrimination ordinance in exchange for a repeal of HB 2. You know what happened next: McCrory called a special session for December 21, Berger tried to attach a "cooling-off period" to the repeal, preventing cities from passing new nondiscrimination ordinances, Senate Democrats balked, and the deal fell apart.
For now, it looks like HB 2 will be solved in the courts, although the possibility remains that Republicans could cave against mounting pressure from the business community. But if Cooper really wants to force the issue, he could take some pressure off the state's more progressive municipalities and come out for statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.
"I would love for there to be laws that cover the entire state, but if there are not, then I'll take whatever opportunity I have to at least protect residents of Durham," says Durham city council member Jillian Johnson.
Carrboro alderman Damon Seils wants the new administration to back local control of these issues, which HB 2 overrode. "I hope [Cooper and Stein] would not defend HB 2 and legislation like it against challenges, whether they come from local governments," he says. "Looking beyond that, I would hope they could come out in favor of their local governments to do what's in the best interest of their communities."
Equality NC executive director Chris Sgro, a former state representative, says that the conversation needs to stay focused on HB 2 until it's happened.
"I am hopeful that the Cooper administration recognizes that, above and beyond the economic impact that HB 2 has had on North Carolina, that it provides real harm to gay and transgender North Carolinians every single day," Sgro says. "The unfortunate reality is that in order for that to be most meaningful, the focus needs to be on the repeal of HB 2."
Corruption and transparency have been problematic on both sides of the aisle in North Carolina: former Democratic governor Mike Easley and former House Speaker Jim Black both pleaded guilty to felonies related to campaign finance illegalities, and outgoing Republican state senator Fletcher Hartsell was indicted in September on six counts of money laundering, five counts of mail fraud, and three counts of wire fraud.
Part of the problem is that the way North Carolina's government conducts its business isn't conducive to transparency. The McCrory administration repeatedly fought attempts, including by this paper, to obtain public records, and his lawyers made the case that McCrory was protected by "sovereign immunity" and couldn't be sued to hand over public records. (The Court of Appeals didn't buy that argument.)
Meanwhile, legislators—like others around the country—have routinely asserted legislative privilege when it comes to releasing emails and schedules. When the Associated Press asked for the schedules and emails from Berger, Moore, Democratic Senate leader Dan Blue, and House Democratic leader Larry Hall for the first week of last February, they got nothing from Hall, only a few emails (and no schedules) from Berger and Moore, and nearly five hundred emails from Blue.
Given that the most controversial things the legislature did this year—HB 2 and eroding Cooper's powers—were dropped on the public at a moment's notice, Cooper would do himself well to set his administration apart not only from McCrory, but from Berger and Moore as well.
"It benefits the governor to have as transparent a process and administration as possible," Glazier says. "I think it's instrumental in regaining public confidence. Being transparent, being responsive to public records requests, holding town halls across the state, more press conferences, all of that is part and parcel" of being a successful governor.
Over the past four years, Cooper's predecessor, a former Duke Energy executive, undermined efforts to combat pollution and environmental degradation. After his former company's coal ash spilled into the Dan River in February 2014, McCrory's regulators took two and a half years to settle on a paltry $6 million fine for what the Southern Environmental Law Center called "thousands of obvious violations of law." Another fine against Duke Energy over groundwater contamination at a plant in Wilmington was reduced from $25.1 million to $7 million in 2015.
Then, after state toxicologist Ken Rudo testified in a deposition that the administration deliberately misled people who live near coal ash ponds about the quality of their drinking water, the administration embarked on a smear campaign against Rudo that resulted in the resignation of state epidemiologist Megan Davies, who said in a resignation letter that she couldn't "work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public."
As attorney general, Cooper didn't go along with McCrory's push to render environmental regulations toothless. Of the twenty-six states that signed on to the lawsuit fighting Obama administration regulations on coal plants, for example, North Carolina was the only one not represented by its attorney general.
Representative Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, an outspoken environmental advocate, says reforming the Department of Environmental Quality will be essential. The transition from Governor Bev Purdue's administration to McCrory's more business-friendly approach, Harrison says, was "just a wholesale shift in attitude. Everything McCrory stood for, Cooper will be the complete opposite when it comes to environmental protections."
Cooper's job will be to hold corporations like Duke accountable, to prepare North Carolina for the coming storm of climate change, and to once again base policy decisions on science and the best interests of the state's environment rather than ideology. That means replacing schemes like SolarBees—the failed $1.4 million project to stop algae growth in Jordan Lake—with real environmental rules that make local governments and developers pay to reduce nutrient pollution.
"The hope is that the Cooper administration restores public trust in this agency that's supposed to protect environment and our public health," says Upper Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr. "I don't think anyone can disagree that, in order to get cleaner water, you need to stop the pollution, not mask the pollution once it's already there."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Roy Cooper VS. The World."