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The rocky but open road ahead for a new governor

Since Roy Cooper clinched the election for governor, two narratives have been advanced to project how his early months in office will, or should, play out. The new Democratic governor will soon take the oath of office in a moment of uncertainty and Republican muscle-flexing – but he is not bereft of real opportunities to exercise leadership.

The predominant narrative focuses on Cooper’s relationship with a General Assembly with a veto-proof Republican majority in both House and Senate. This narrative holds that the GOP will thwart Cooper, depriving him of successes in pursuing his agenda on education and an array of policy.

The alternative stream of analysis posits Cooper as a restoration of the state’s classic moderate-progressive Democratic governance. Public school advocates supported Cooper and welcomed his victory. Gary Pearce, former Gov. Jim Hunt’s long-time adviser and biographer, wrote recently on his blog that “the progressive movement in North Carolina has an elected leader with the power to capture the public’s attention, make news and force sustained coverage of what’s going on in Raleigh.”

So what power, influence, leverage will Cooper have or not have? The answer comes from the study of state governorships by Thad Beyle, who taught political science for decades at UNC-Chapel Hill and propelled innumerable students into North Carolina’s public life. Beyle taught that governors have a mix of formal and informal powers, and he regularly ranked North Carolina’s governorship as relatively weak in formal power.

Cooper, of course, will have the carefully-limited veto power afforded North Carolina governors. But Republicans have the votes to override. And while Cooper performed a rare political feat in defeating an incumbent, his margin of victory was so narrow that he can’t claim a potent mandate.

This week the legislature moved to limit the governor’s formal executive powers, of choosing leaders of state departments and agencies for which a governor is responsible, and of appointing policy-making and advisory boards and commissions. In attempting to weaken the state’s chief executive between election and inauguration, Republican lawmakers violated what Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price, a former political science professor, said is “our absolute commitment to the peaceful transition of power after elections.” According to an article in The Charlotte Observer, both former Republican Governor Jim Martin and Democratic Governor Jim Hunt think the proposals go too far.

As governor, Cooper can refresh state government in ways not defined by the governor-legislative clashes dominating the news. Two findings by the election exit poll are relevant here: 1) While Cooper got 89 percent of the votes of liberals and Gov. Pat McCrory got 81 percent of conservatives, Cooper out-polled McCrory 61-38 among moderates. 2) While McCrory won a majority of voters 45 and older, Cooper won 61 percent of voters age 18-29 and 53 percent age 30-44.

Building upon his base of younger and moderate voters, Cooper has an opportunity to bring into state government a post-baby boom cohort of leaders and managers. In recent years, Republicans have worked diligently in nurturing a supply of up-and-coming political and government operatives, and now Cooper can serve as a catalyst for raising up new Democratic talent.

While Cooper seeks to redefine state government, North Carolina appears enmeshed in a prolonged period of hyper-partisan contentiousness and perhaps policy stalemate. The General Assembly is under a court order to redraw districts leading up to what may be legislative elections in 2017 and 2018 — and redistricting almost always make lawmakers tense and irritable.

But through 2017, Cooper has opportunities to use a governor’s informal powers to commission research, to develop partnerships, to define priorities and, as Pearce emphasized, use the bully pulpit. Governor Hunt put together a bipartisan commission to recommend the framework for SmartStart. Gov. Mike Easley appointed an Education First Task Force that led to his administration’s high school initiatives.

While Republican legislators are moving toward an all-legislator task force on state allocations to local school districts, Cooper has the power to set in motion a broader analysis of education policy and practice in a forum that suits his leadership style. The Democratic governor may have few, or no, legislative successes in his first year amid persistent partisanship, but he can take time to promote fresh thinking and build public will for an agenda to pursue over the four years of the term he won.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.