North Carolina’s newly elected Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, is facing off against a solidly Republican General Assembly.
Leadership Asheville Forum invited Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper to share what his insight and research in political science reveal about North Carolina. His areas of expertise include state politics and policy, political psychology, and Southern politics.
Although Cooper studies local and federal politics, he said he is especially interested in how we’re represented on the state level. “I think state politics is really where the action is.” He quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who referred to states as “laboratories of democracy” whereby if its citizens so choose, social and economic experiments may be tried without risk to the rest of the country.
What happens if we enact early voting, if we enact voter ID, if we have multimember districts versus single member districts, if we pay our legislators $400 a year (New Hampshire) or if we pay our legislators $137,000 (California)? “We don’t have to worry or wonder. We can find out. States have the answers. Congress can be a little boring to study because it doesn’t vary. States vary in all these really interesting, weird, and fun ways,” he said.
North Carolina is truly a purple state, an underreported fact according to Cooper. Despite being overwhelmed by a Republican General Assembly, there are more registered Democrats in the state than Republicans. In the 2008 presidential election N.C. voted blue (Democrat), but in all the states where Obama won, his margin in N.C. was the smallest. The same was true in the 2012 presidential election when N.C. voted red (Republican) in favor of Mitt Romney. When Cooper “crunched the numbers” after the 2016 election he found once again that Trump’s winning margin in N.C. was the smallest of any state.
There’s a reason it’s difficult to stay informed about state politics in America. For all 50 states there are only about 500 reporters. At first glance that provides ten reporters per state, but Georgia alone has 25 of them, and California has about 50. “You start to do the math and realize there are few watchdogs left reporting on state politics, so if you feel it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on in Raleigh, it’s because it is.” He added that Gary Robertson with the Associated Press, and staff at WRAL do a great job of covering N.C. statehouse politics, but it’s not their job to report on other states.
In context with what’s happening in this legislative session, many Republicans retired, but their seats went to others who are about as conservative as the ones that left. We have a Republican super majority in both houses, and a barely elected Democratic governor. “Before Roy Cooper and everything that’s happening now, if you look at the institutional powers of the North Carolina governor, regardless of party we had the 43rd most powerful governor in the country. I think we’ve now made him the 50th, because he’s facing a super majority, and frankly didn’t have that much in his institutional tool kit to begin with.”
Cooper said North Carolina has one of the biggest gaps between public opinion and policy in the country. “The second biggest contextual point is that our legislators make $13,951 per year, plus a per diem of $100. This relatively low salary qualitatively and qualitatively narrows the number of candidates available to run for office.”
Cooper imagines the conversation between a young couple with children and jobs as they evaluate the demands being in office would have on their schedule. “OK honey, I want you to watch the kids. I’m going to make $14,000 per year being in Raleigh.” The other asks how long they will be in Raleigh. “That’s a great question dear, in the long session it will be longer than the short session except for 2004-2005 when the short session was longer. It could end anywhere from July through August.” While this might be feasible for a candidate who lives 30 minutes from Raleigh, it is probably not for one who lives five hours away. The salary limits who can run, how many staff they can hire if elected, and how much available time they will have to study important issues.
In North Carolina the governor proposes the budget, and the N.C. Senate or the N.C. House of Representatives passes it in the biannual long session, alternately. “In this legislative session we have the subtext of a party power struggle. It affects education, the judiciary, and other issues across state government. There’s a movement now to make judges have party identification memberships. There’s been a big partisan battle to reduce the size of the board of governors for the University of North Carolina system to insulate the legislature from the universities.”
Cooper’s new book “The Resilience of Southern Identity, Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People” has been published, and can be found or ordered at your favorite bookstore. “If you live in the South, or are trying to understand why so many people identify with the region, I would encourage you to pick up a copy,” Cooper said.
By Mark-Ellis Bennett