Why you should care
North Carolina helped seal Barack Obama’s presidential victory in ’08. It’s likely to be a battleground state again next year.
Phil Berger is not a man in a hurry. The North Carolina Senate leader seems to have all the time in the world — his scheduler enters his sun-drenched, wood-paneled office three, four times to get him to wrap up our interview and Berger cheerfully shoos him out. “You’re going to have to give me at least 10 more minutes,” he says in an easy Southern drawl. And why shouldn’t he have them? The Rockingham County Republican is, for now, sitting atop North Carolina’s political food chain.
Berger’s never been in a much of a rush, preferring to play the long game. That’s how this son of a mill worker went from community-college dropout to the state’s undisputed power broker. It’s how he helped swing this purple state deep red, in terms of policy. His methods are not gentle — stand in his way, and Berger will quietly but methodically mow you down — and yet thanks to his easygoing, amiable demeanor, he has avoided becoming a lightning rod. Most North Carolinians I spoke to hadn’t even heard of him. “As an operative … he is a master,” says Democratic political strategist Scott Falmlen.
Tar Heel Republicans have not wasted a minute since they won control of the Statehouse in 2010. Over the past four years, they’ve enacted a veritable wish list of conservative priorities — slashing taxes and social programs, abolishing teacher tenure and requiring voter identification at the polls — many over a governor’s veto. And not just a Democratic governor’s, either: The Berger-led Senate overrode Republican Pat McCrory’s first two vetoes in 2013.
It wasn’t always this way. For more than a century — from Reconstruction until five years ago — Democrats controlled North Carolina’s legislature, even as its voters sent Republicans to Washington, D.C. Expansions in public education and a relative tolerance toward racial integration gave the state a reputation as a progressive oasis in the South. With its large African-American population and the rise of a highly educated, tech-based workforce, members of the Left began to hope North Carolina was trending its way nationally, and Barack Obama’s narrowly won victory, in 2008, encouraged them. Then 2010 slugged them in the chest.
Many of the factors underlying the GOP’s North Carolina surge are the usual suspects: national political tides, state Democrats’ ineptness in fundraising, spending by conservative mega-donors. But some observers say Berger deserves a lot of credit, too — especially his long view, according to Virginia Foxx, a Republican who represents North Carolina’s 5th District in the U.S. Congress. “He worked extremely hard to gain the majority,” says Foxx, who recruited Berger to run for the state Senate in 2000. As Berger tells it, once he made it to Raleigh, he saw very quickly that if he wanted to have any real impact, “we had to be in the majority.”
No big thing, just reversing more than a century of political tradition. Berger’s strategy required party discipline and teamwork, revved-up fundraising and patience for slow, grinding gains. But then, this is a man who, at 20 years old, was working the swing shift on an assembly line at a wood mill plant, two kids at home, when he decided he wanted to be an attorney. It took years of juggling work, school and family life, but he ultimately got there. After clerking for an appeals court judge in Raleigh in 1983, he worked for a firm in the small northern town of Eden — “we just were not big-city people,” Berger says of himself and his wife. When Foxx recruited him, his only political experience was a campaign for North Carolina’s House in 1994, which he lost, though narrowly.
Times have changed. In recent years, Republicans have solidified their grip on power, winning the governor’s race and supermajorities in 2012. They redrew legislative district lines after the recent census with such artistry — and to such GOP advantage — that it’s now being challenged in the state Supreme Court. A measure requiring women to view a sonogram before getting an abortion has already been overturned, and the voter ID law could be next.
But liberals say Berger’s wild success might be Republicans’ undoing, and indeed, the sweeping changes have triggered a powerful political backlash. North Carolina was the only Southern state where Democrats made gains in the legislature in 2014, and the General Assembly’s approval rating hit a lowly 18 percent in March. Democrats intend to play on that discontent to turn out voters — especially minorities — in 2016, like they did in 2008.
Berger doesn’t seem or act threatened. The backlash is partly the expected result of displacing “the party that for 140 years has been calling the shots … and I understand that.” The breakneck pace of change was necessary, he says, “because we saw the state in trouble.” As for concerns that lowering corporate tax rates or reining in Medicaid spending — his next priority — will leave the poor further behind, Berger argues that the best way to counter economic inequality is to create opportunity.
It helps that the philosophy springs from his own bootstrap experience. “The opportunity existed for me to put the sweat in, to put the time in, to defer gratification” to make a better life, he says. At any rate, Berger doesn’t seem much interested in holding on to power for its own sake. As long as he has it, he means to use it.