Attorney General Roy Cooper delivered a concise and measured speech to local Democrats at their Centurion Banquet — he’s frustrated, but motivated for change in North Carolina and wants to lead the way from the governor’s seat.
Cooper said he expects to make a formal announcement later this year, but told a crowd of about 100 at the Democrat gathering at the Sampson Agri-Civic Center Thursday night of his intentions to seek the governor’s seat in 2016.
“I’m frustrated, I’m motivated and I’m optimistic,” Cooper said in his keynote address.
Cooper has served as Attorney General since 2001. In that capacity, he regularly visits schools across the state and is constantly confronted with tales of an exodus of teachers from the system, not just for better pay but “for basic respect they are not getting now,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the morale this low, and that should be frightening to us,” Cooper attested.
When Gov. Jim Hunt was in office, Cooper said, North Carolina was ranked 20th in teacher pay. Now there are reports that the state has dropped to 42nd in the nation in teacher pay and 46th in per pupil expenditures, the attorney general cited. Similar cuts have been made at community colleges and universities, what Cooper called the “economic engine.”
He also expressed frustration over the state not expanding Medicaid.
“I talk to a lot of rural economic developers, hospital administrators, health care providers, working people — they and I are frustrated that this governor and this Legislature refuse billions of our tax money that we have already paid to Washington that would come back here to hundreds of thousands of working North Carolinians,” Cooper asserted. “But they have said no, even though the federal government is going to pay 100 percent of it.”
Additionally, GOP-led tax reform legislation in 2013 was supposed to give everyone a tax break, Cooper said. That did not happen, with corporations and the “ultra-rich” pocketing that money, he said.
Cooper railed on unfunded mandates, saying that “Raleigh is getting into the business of local governments,” putting the same unfunded mandates on them that they complain about Washington doing to the state.
“I don’t think they understand the challenges faced by rural North Carolina,” the attorney general said of the current state leadership. “I have seen some of the worst legislation in my lifetime but I have decided that this is not the North Carolina that I know or that many of you know. I decided that I have to do something about this. We have begun planning my race for governor of North Carolina, and I’m excited about that.”
In his introduction of Cooper, N.C. Rep. Larry Bell credited the attorney general’s accomplishments over the years. Among them, he said, Cooper has helped increase DNA testing of crime scene evidence, started a computer forensics unit to hunt child predators and launched a site to track such offenders. In order to tackle the issue of meth labs in recent years, Bell noted, Cooper made it tougher for criminals to get the drug’s key ingredient and helped make punishment more stringent for meth makers.
Born and raised in Nash County, Cooper attended public schools and worked summers on the farm. His mother worked as a school teacher and his father farmed and practiced law in Nashville, the county seat.
A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar, Cooper went back home after finishing law school and ultimately got into politics. Since that time, he has won every election into which he has thrown his hat, including prior stints with the N.C. Senate and House. In the most recent in 2012, he was elected to his fourth term as Attorney General with no opposition — a feat not accomplished in more than 70 years.
Cooper and wife Kristin have three grown children, Hilary, Natalie and Claire. Along with his service as Attorney General, he has engaged in fundraising efforts for the March of Dimes, Barium Springs Home for Children and the United Way.
He said he wants to continue to work for North Carolina citizens from the governor’s office and called on his fellow Democrats to help.
“We have to move North Carolina forward,” Cooper implored, “and I’m optimistic because of the kind of state we are.”
A change is sorely needed, he and others said.
“It’s been said that our party is suffering many difficulties these days,” said Democrat county commissioner Albert Kirby, who provided a welcome from the county board. “And it’s true that for the first time in over 100 years Republicans control the state. That needs to come to an end. The problem, if there is one in the Democrat party, is that Democrats have momentarily forgotten who they are — momentarily strayed and lost their way.”
He said that the core principles are still very clearly demonstrated in Sampson and across the state. He said he was optimistic for a Democratic resurgence in North Carolina, one he felt would be ushered in by Cooper.
Bell and Kirby both referred to Cooper as “the next governor of North Carolina.”
“He is a person who cares deeply about his home state,” Bell said of the attorney general. “He has worked hard to keep people safe by fighting crime, protecting consumers and helping crime victims.”
“We are coming back as a party,” Kirby said. “The spirit of the Democrats in 2016 is awakened.”
Cooper echoed that belief.
“I believe the people of North Carolina want to support public education and want to support leaders who believe in education as a key to the future,” Cooper said, noting conversations with many unaffiliated and moderate Republicans who feel the same way. “We need to bring back common sense, we need to bring back people who can pull parties together, understand the issues and can find solutions. That’s who we are in North Carolina.”
That will necessitate strengthening the Democratic Party, and running quality candidates at all levels of government, especially at the state level.
“We need to understand that 2016 is a critical point in this state,” he concluded.
Sampson Democrat Party chairman Tomeka Blue drove that point home.
“You are our backbone,” she told those in attendance. “We cannot continue the goal of electing good Democrats without you. There is a lot of work to be done. We need your support and we need a lot of feet on the ground. That’s how we’re going to win elections.”