GREENSBORO (AP) — Attorney General Roy Cooper has been spending more time on the Democratic banquet circuit, letting the party faithful know he’s ready to fight the new Republican agenda in Raleigh. And, by the way, he’s ready for bigger things.
Cooper’s recent words and actions leave little doubt about his gubernatorial aspirations for 2016, even with GOP Gov. Pat McCrory on the job for less than a year. Reticent in the past on issues unrelated to crime and law enforcement, Cooper is now taking a more vocal role challenging Republicans who control both the legislative and executive branches for the first time in 140 years.
“In just nine short months, they have set out to deliberately and systematically undo 50 years of progress,” Cooper told the nearly 300 people at Guilford County party’s unity dinner earlier this month. “This is not the North Carolina that any of us recognizes.”
His stump speech, which blasts Republicans for refusing to expand Medicaid and raise teacher salaries while passing what he calls a tax overhaul that favors the rich, reflects Cooper’s willingness to captain a Democratic team whose players dominated state politics for generations but are now off the field. The state Democratic Party also has been in internal strife while losses mounted.
“Folks are running out of hope,” said Guilford County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Alston, who like Cooper grew up in Nash County. “They don’t know what to do next.”
Cooper, now 56 and an elected official for more than 25 years, is quick to say he’s not in the governor’s race yet – only planning for one.
“North Carolina is facing an unprecedented change in direction and I am deeply concerned about where North Carolina is headed. So I want to get out and talk about how we can change and how we need to move North Carolina forward,” Cooper said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Republicans and McCrory’s camp are harping on Cooper for running a quasi-campaign three years out from the next election and questioning his effectiveness as attorney general. They’re focusing on Cooper’s public comments opposing legislation his office is now required to defend in lawsuits.
Cooper said he can personally criticize an election overhaul law and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage while ensuring state attorneys from his office robustly defend the same laws. McCrory was skeptical enough to hire an outside attorney to help defend the election changes.
“We would hope that the attorney general would put the people of North Carolina before his political ambitions, but given his comments of late, that might be tough for him,” McCrory deputy communications director Ryan Tronovitch wrote in an email late last week.
Cooper points out an independent expenditure group this fall ran television commercials promoting McCrory’s policies. “This governor already has an outside group running campaign ads, so you have to start the planning process, and that’s what I’m doing,” he told the AP.
Cooper, a former House member and Senate majority leader first elected as attorney general in 2000, always has been viewed as a potential gubernatorial candidate. But he declined to enter the race in 2008 or 2012, leading people to question whether he’d ever do it.
“The knock on Roy was he’s too cautious,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked for four-term Gov. Jim Hunt. “A lot of people didn’t think he would run. So he needed to make a statement and send a strong signal that no, this year’s different.”
Cooper didn’t need to be blunt about his plans in Greensboro – others did it for him. Local attorney Tom Terrell introduced Cooper, a classmate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the late 1970s, and recalled how classmates thought of him.
“We stood there and predicted that one day our friend Roy Cooper was going to become the governor of the state of North Carolina,” he said.
Retired public relations firm owner and Guilford party attendee Stan Meyer liked what he heard from Cooper’s 20-minute address: “He has the name recognition. He has good ideas. He knows his way around Raleigh. I mean, he has everything a good governor should have.”
Cooper already has an early primary rival in Durham attorney Ken Spaulding, who criticized him last week for his handling of the pending litigation.
Right now Cooper, as a law-and-order Democrat, is the more worrisome gubernatorial opponent to Republicans. He won re-election easily in 2008. The GOP didn’t even field a candidate against him in 2012, even after problems within a state crime laboratory at his agency surfaced, although most happened before Cooper became attorney general.
“The McCrory campaign will take any challenger who’s run statewide as many times as Roy Cooper seriously,” state Republican strategist Marc Rotterman said. He believes Republican economic initiatives will ultimately resonate well with voters, and notes: “Three years is more than a lifetime in politics.”
Cooper is at a new stage in his personal life, too, as the last of his daughters left for college this fall. He said the fact he and his wife are empty-nesters isn’t connected directly to his decision to step up.
“I’m worried about the future of my children and grandchildren and I’m deeply concerned about the people of this state. I’ve never felt this way before,” he said, repeating for emphasis: “I’ve never felt this way before.”