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With Republican majorities, Cooper enters tense political landscape

North Carolina Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper speaks at the North Carolina Democratic Party in Raleigh. Cooper officially was announced the winner on Dec. 5. 

North Carolina Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper speaks at the North Carolina Democratic Party in Raleigh. Cooper officially was announced the winner on Dec. 5. 

Bills pushed through the N.C. General Assembly by Republicans stripped the executive branch of powers afforded to past governors. Cooper has filed a lawsuit challenging the laws.

Later, an agreement to repeal House Bill 2 fell through upon reaching the General Assembly.

After a year in which North Carolina faced national criticism, Cooper might find difficulties changing the state’s perception, said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor.

“He’s got an opportunity to make a big difference in North Carolina, to shift not just the image but the substance of the state,” he said. “(But) he has to contend with the persistence of a large Republican majority in the legislature.”

A state divided

Cooper, who was elected by a slim margin over McCrory in November, will face veto-proof supermajorities in both the N.C. House and Senate.

Their relationship got off to a rocky start when Republican legislative leaders passed a series of bills in mid-December that rolled back the appointment powers of the governor’s office.

“I think the Republican leadership is not advancing any kind of olive branch to the governor,” said N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

Cooper is challenging the laws in court — a move which is not uncommon for North Carolina governors, according to Guillory.

Mitch Kokai, a spokesperson for the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, said he is surprised by the animosity between Cooper and Republican legislators.

“Once an election is over, the most savvy and canny politicians will realize, ‘O.K., I’m going to have to work with whoever is holding these other offices’,” he said.

Cooper, the negotiator

But the new governor brings negotiating skills that McCrory lacked, said Rob Schofield, the policy director at N.C. Policy Watch.

He said Cooper demonstrated this when striking a deal to repeal HB2 with Republican leaders in the legislature — even though the agreement failed.

“It’s not like everyone’s going to be singing ‘Kumbaya,’ but I do think there’s some prospect for them to get some useful things done at some point,” he said.

McKissick is cautiously optimistic Cooper can work across the aisle.

“He understands the importance of relationships and knows many of the main players that are currently in control at the General Assembly,” he said.

This already fragile relationship will be most tested the times Cooper and the Republicans can’t compromise on an issue, said Kokai.

“Then the question will be, do we cause a huge rift to form where we can’t get anything done?” he said.

North Carolina’s image

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The N.C. General Assembly has received criticism for its role in controversial laws, among them HB2.

In the past year, voting districts drawn by the legislature were ruled to be “racial gerrymanders,” and a 2013 voter ID law was found to contain discriminatory intent.

“There has been an enormous erosion in the faith in democracy that people have, and in government and public structures in general,” Schofield said.

Lingering issues like HB2 continue to hurt the state’s image, Guillory said.

Cooper, who campaigned on repealing the bill, benefited from the unpopularity of the law, McKissick said.

He said Cooper’s election indicates North Carolinians’ hope to be perceived as more politically progressive.

“I think it’s an endorsement of the North Carolina that we’ve historically been,” he said.

Schofield says he anticipates a battle between Cooper and the General Assembly over the Republicans’ ideological lawmaking.

“I think they’re going to continue to pursue that until someone boots them out of office,” he said.