The state of the state? Divided, volatile and—maybe—on the rise

The state of the state? Divided, volatile and—maybe—on the rise

Gov. Roy Cooper’s Monday address to both chambers of the legislature – the “State of the State” – was, of course, pageantry.

Not that it’s entirely low-stakes, that it doesn’t mean something for the governor, strolling into chambers so dominated by his nemeses in the Republican Party, to run down a blueprint for a purple-state makeover. There’s something to be said for the bully pulpit after all.

But Cooper’s moderate agenda – a sensible approach to funding public schools, Medicaid expansion and job growth – is no secret.

And there’s little chance of convincing the three men perched behind him Monday – Senate President Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, almost certainly Cooper’s opponent in 2020.

Cooper could have only stunned had he lobbed new gun laws, or professed an infatuation with the Green New Deal, federal climate change legislation and GOP dartboard blithely name-checked as “pie in the sky” by Berger in his terse response to the governor Monday.

Cooper is no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but conservative leadership will still lampoon Cooper’s careful speech Monday, which above all, seemed to extol the virtues of dogged determination.

In this case, it’s determination to reform North Carolina’s parochial image, determination to deliver billions of dollars for belated school infrastructure, and, of course, determination to blast through the GOP’s desultory Medicaid wall.

None of this is particularly liberal as it is imminently logical, but Cooper and the Democrats will have to convince Republicans and the voters behind them that the governor’s pragmatism is no liberal lunacy; it’s not, as Berger suggested Monday, “radical policies like abortion-on-demand.”

Perhaps the Republican Party’s greatest success over the last ten years is its retrofitting of norms, convincing many North Carolinians that the state’s decades-long reputation for moderation was a Marxist nightmare, that the current leadership’s pugilistic penchant for low taxes, social conservatism and win-at-any-cost nihilism is in the ballpark.

Voters tossed Republicans’ veto-proof majority in November, but Cooper still faces a legislature dominated by Republicans, so his address this week hinged upon bipartisanship. Indeed, if anything is to be passed this session, it will require some measure of cooperation to survive Cooper’s veto.

We’ll need both sides’ best effort, else we’ll see a budget blockade this year that lingers painfully into late summer.

“I believe we have broad agreement on what we want for our state,” Cooper said Monday. “We need to seek common ground and build solutions upon it.”

For his part, Berger suggested too that Republicans would have to negotiate, but there are far fewer examples of good-faith bipartisanship from the GOP leaders to choose from in the last decade. And good faith is in scarcely short supply.

The GOP will have to do better than last year, when party leadership developed the state’s $24 billion budget without allowing a single Democratic amendment.

But there’s reason to believe today that the Democratic governor is not the outsider he was two years ago, judging by the fitful applause from House and Senate Republicans throughout the night. And Democrats can boast of their relative success in carving up the GOP’s legislative supermajority last year, despite GOP-drawn voting maps that warp a supremely conflicted state like a fun house mirror.

Less than two years ago, unaffiliated voters surged past Republicans in voter registration, and they’re gaining fast on Democrats. And in the 2018 state legislative races, Democrats picked up about 51 percent of the total vote, but only won 44 percent of the seats.

The gerrymandering’s more galling in Congressional races, where Democrats tallied nearly half the votes, but won just 3 of 12 called seats (No one knows what to make of the 13th seat, the hopelessly corrupted 9th District contest).

“We’re in charge,” state Republican Party Director Dallas Woodhouse told The N.Y. Times last year. “That’s the way it works.”

For now, at least.

A 2018 state court challenge to the GOP legislative districts may finally pry the maps from lawmakers’ clammy grasp.

A bipartisan group of legislators is aiming to do the same, and the state House Republicans who’ve signed on – lawmakers like Chuck McGrady, Jon Hardister, Holly Grange, Craig Horn, John Faircloth, John Fraley, Bobby Hanig, Stephen Ross and Wayne Sasser – should be lauded for their political courage, even if the bill founders in the frostier Senate. Asking politicians to act against their own self-interest may be anathema to partisans, but not the people.

Gestures like this may be doomed in 2019, but there’s reason to believe such proposals are gaining momentum, as much in the courts as in the legislature, and that North Carolina may see its way clear of this partisan morass.

That in a few short years, North Carolina will be led not by the far right, that – finally – a state brimming with logical, reasonable, compassionate, and, for the most part, nonpartisan people may see themselves in their leaders.

Now that’s pie in the sky.