Roy Cooper didn’t run for governor in 2016 as a hard-left progressive. He won the election — one of the narrowest gubernatorial contests in American history — by convincing ticket-splitters who voted for Donald Trump and Richard Burr that Cooper would be a reasonable, consensus-building leader in Raleigh.
It wasn’t an unrealistic expectation. Cooper has been a public servant for decades, first in the state house and senate and later as attorney general for 16 years. He has a track record. If you used his votes and policies before 2016 to place him on a political gridiron, he’d have been somewhere around the blue team’s 35- or 40-yard line.
As governor, however, Cooper hasn’t come close to fulfilling that promise. He’s wandered leftward.
He’s also kept a relatively low profile, which wasn’t hard to do given ongoing public fascination with the circus in Washington. As a result, Cooper isn’t exactly unpopular. But nearly a quarter of voters have mixed or unfixed views about him. As voters begin tuning into the 2020 campaign, Republicans will seek to define him as a left-wing ideologue, not a pragmatist.
They will point out, for example, that regardless of how the current budget impasse is resolved, Cooper was willing to make pay raises for teachers and state employees conditional on expanding Medicaid. Supportive politicians of both parties have badly misread polls about Medicaid expansion. I won’t restate the policy argument here. I’ll simply point out that it isn’t a top voting issue for most North Carolinians, especially those critical few voters who still split their tickets.
Large numbers of voters are public employees, the family members of public employees, or receive the services provided by public employees. Again, setting aside the merits of the case, such voters prioritize pay raises for public employees. They don’t see Medicaid the same way.
Although Cooper’s defenders have tried to suggest otherwise, the governor has essentially issued an ultimatum: no new budget without Medicaid expansion. Much of state government will continue to operate normally under previously authorized spending levels. So, the most-significant effect of the budget impasse is that teachers and state employees aren’t getting raises. The ultimatum, then, is really no pay raises with Medicaid expansion. That’s an extreme position.
Want something even more extreme? A couple of weeks ago, Gov. Cooper submitted a brief in a case in which the NAACP is suing to stop the implementation of a voter-ID requirement for the upcoming election cycle.
You may recall that the solid majority of North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment last fall requiring voter ID. The NAACP’s argument is that because prior legislative elections occurred under district maps subsequently challenged on Voting Rights Act grounds, the resulting GOP majorities in the General Assembly did not really represent the voters. By placing voter ID on the ballot in 2018, they exercised legislative authority that they did not lawfully possess, or so goes the argument.
In his brief, Cooper endorsed the argument, calling the Republican-led legislature “illegitimate.” Although he and the plaintiffs have tried to limit the scope to constitutional amendments, in an attempt to avoid their argument’s obvious absurdity, logic won’t cooperate. If the General Assembly has been unlawfully constituted for years, why has Cooper signed so many bills coming over from the legislature? Why has he engaged in budget negotiations with illegitimate legislative leaders? Do all acts of a legislature vanish into the legal netherworld if a court subsequently finds fault with districts or some other aspect of the electoral process?
At least with constitutional amendments, the people themselves have the ultimate say. An unlawfully constituted General Assembly cannot amend the constitution unless voters agree. But it could enact purportedly illegitimate budgets and laws.
Heeding the most progressive Furies of his party, Cooper has put himself in a position of declaring that a popular vote of the people to enact voter ID is a violation of democratic principle. He’s not the fella North Carolinians thought they were electing in 2016.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.