Long ago it became apparent to me that Gov. Roy Cooper either does not care about his place in history or thinks his actions during the pandemic are enough for historians to write something of substance about his eight years as governor.

Because other than managing the virus with debatable results, there is almost nothing Cooper has accomplished. Not as traditionally defined. 

His actual most relevant legislative “victory” was signing a GOP budget that he had to be dragged into doing after vetoing multiple budgets. He finally signed some teacher pay raises after giving his most loyal voting base the shaft for years, but he also signed on to the kind of income tax reductions he loathes. 

When Cooper signed the two-year budget late last year he said:

“This budget moves North Carolina forward in important ways. Funding for high-speed internet, our universities and community colleges, clean air and drinking water and desperately needed pay increases for teachers and state employees are all critical for our state to emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever. I will continue to fight for progress where this budget falls short but believe that, on balance, it is an important step in the right direction.”

Not exactly a victory lap, but the 2021 signing marked the first time since coming into office in 2017, that Cooper signed a state budget.

Notice that Cooper’s statement said nothing about signing significant tax relief into law. 

Cooper is a lifelong politician. Elected to the General Assembly in 1986 during President Reagan’s last mid-term. He has served in the State House, and State Senate, as Attorney General, and is now in his second term as governor. That is 35 uninterrupted years in elected office.  His time in North Carolina elected office spans seven American presidents.  

However, during his six years as governor, he has literally become a footnote in history. There is not one significant government program that bears his name. Hunt had smart start. Easley has more in his first term. 

Yes, Cooper has had a legislature of the other party to contend with, but Gov. Jim Hunt continued to accomplish many things working with a GOP State House from 1995-1998. 

Five former N.C. governors held a news conference in August 2018 announcing their opposition to two constitutional amendments. At lectern is Republican Jim Martin. From left, Democrats Jim Hunt, Mike Easley, Bev Perdue, and Republican Pat McCrory. (CJ file photo)

Republican Gov. Jim Martin (1985-1993) helped North Carolina become the good roads state again, even though he had no veto and always faced a Democratic-controlled General Assembly. 

Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser helped create a statewide kindergarten program and achieved broad and sustained reorganizations of state government. He worked closely with his Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt and the fully Democrat-controlled General Assembly. Holshouser worked hard to avoid partisan conflict where possible, something Gov. Cooper has never really attempted. 

It’s also clear to me that Cooper despises Republicans. He does not think they belong at the policy table.  It’s important to remember that for Cooper’s first 24 years in elected office (1987-2011) that was mostly the case. Cooper clearly can’t stomach dealing with GOP lawmakers any more than he absolutely must. He has chosen this path at his own peril. 

However, should Cooper choose to lead, he could actually improve his place in history in his last couple of years. Here are three ways:


The first goal for GOP legislative leaders is to force the federal courts to reinstate North Carolina’s 20-week ban on abortions which has been blocked by federal courts for several years. 

However, there is already tremendous pressure on Republicans to enact even stricter abortion limitations. 

A federal court just reimposed South Carolina’s “heartbeat” abortion law which will prohibit abortions after six weeks. A similar law in Georgia is likely to be reinstated. 

After the recent abortion decision was handed down, Gov. Cooper tweeted:

“The last few days have been hard. But know that as long as I’m Governor, and voters keep enough Democrats in the legislature this November to sustain my veto, we will protect women’s reproductive freedom in North Carolina.”

But that is a heck of a gamble. The two most recent polls from the John Locke Foundation show the GOP with an astonishing double-digit lead over Democrats on the generic ballot. The Democrats could cut that advantage in half before November and the GOP would still win veto-proof supermajorities, capturing the state Supreme Court majority easily.

If Cooper really wants to preserve reasonable access to abortion, should he not try and cut a deal with the GOP?

Facing the remote possibility that the GOP could use supermajorities to enact sweeping bans of abortion, would it not be smart for Cooper to defy his liberal base and work with the legislature and sign an abortion ban after 10-12 weeks.  Of course, some GOP members will want to go further, and some liberals would not support any new restrictions, but would this not protect the Democrats from various worse-case scenarios? He would also be helping Republicans void a nasty inter-party fight that would be inevitable when the GOP has complete control, but would compromise be good for Cooper, Democrats, and the state?

I am sure we will never know.

Budget and Spending

Cooper may only have one last chance to influence spending decisions in North Carolina. It is extremely likely that the GOP will be able to enact whatever budget they choose in his last two years.

If Cooper once again vetoes a budget, at worst, the current budget will stay in place. Another veto will do nothing to get him the Medicaid expansion he so desperately wants. However, he can sign additional teacher and state worker raises and increases in spending for some projects he cares about. The choice is his.

Government reorganization

Article 3 Section 5 of the North Carolina Constitution gives the governor unique and broad powers to reorganize government, something Gov. Holshouser successfully achieved more than 40 years ago.

Specifically, Article 3 Section 5 reads:

Administrative reorganization. The General Assembly shall prescribe the functions, powers, and duties of the administrative departments and agencies of the State and may alter them from time to time, but the Governor may make such changes in the allocation of offices and agencies and in the allocation of those functions, powers, and duties as he considers necessary for efficient administration.  If those changes affect existing law, they shall be set forth in executive orders, which shall be submitted to the General Assembly not later than the sixtieth calendar day of its session, and shall become effective and shall have the force of law upon adjournment sine die of the session, unless specifically disapproved by resolution of either house of the General Assembly or specifically modified by joint resolution of both houses of the General Assembly.

The governor could work with the General Assembly for a significant overhaul of state government. He can make government more responsive, logical, and lean. Many of the administrative functions of North Carolina’s government were organized decades ago. Can some departments be consolidated, illuminated, and reorganized? The constitution gives Cooper broad powers to engage in making government better. 

However, this takes hard work and leadership. Can Cooper finally step up to the plate?