North Carolina attorney general dislikes laws he must defend

October 17, 2013

Roy Cooper wants everyone to know how he really feels. That must be why he wrote a column lamenting why and how he thinks his home state of North Carolina is moving in the wrong direction – that, and perhaps he’s trying out for a gubernatorial run in 2016.

In “North Carolina: Threatening 50 Years of Progress in Ten Months,” a column for the Huffington Post Web site, Cooper lamented the state’s drift away from its reputation for Southern-styled moderation. He recalled former governor Terry Sanford’s 1960s vision for a New South, and the educational, financial, technological and tourism success of North Carolina, led by “progressive leaders” such as Sanford and former governor Jim Hunt. Then he contrasted it with today’s state of the state.

“For the first time since Reconstruction,” Cooper wrote, “North Carolina has a General Assembly and governorship controlled by the extreme factions of the Republican Party, and their legislative super majority means their power is unchecked. … It’s as if the Tea Party created its own playground of extremist fantasies.”

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. (Chuck Burton/AP)
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. (Chuck Burton/AP)

There is, however, a complication. As attorney general for North Carolina, Cooper, a Democrat, must defend the laws passed by that legislature and signed by first term GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. And to complete the drama, everyone expects Cooper to be at the top of the list of McCrory’s 2016 Democratic challengers.

In the column, Cooper criticized changes in the tax code, cuts in education funding and McCrory’s refusal to accept federal Medicaid dollars that would expand coverage in the state. He joined other voices protesting the conservative wave of state legislation passed this year, viewing the laws as a backward step.

The issue of same-sex marriage caused the latest disagreement between Cooper’s personal and official stands, despite a law banning it and an amendment to the North Carolina constitution, approved by a wide margin by voters last year, that affirms marriage between a man and a woman as the only domestic legal union “that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”

Even in a state where same-sex marriage is doubly forbidden, the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act has emboldened advocates. It’s also part of the Campaign for Southern Equality’s county-by-county challenge.

Last week, the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds denied three same-sex couples marriage licenses. This week in Asheville, N.C., Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger accepted marriage applications from same-sex couples, and said he would ask Cooper’s legal opinion on the constitutionality of the state ban. Cooper’s office has said he would uphold state law, but when asked his personal views, he told the Associated Press, “I support marriage equality.”

That caused Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, to say in a statement that Cooper “has compromised his impartiality and his ability to vigorously represent the State’s interest in defending its marriage and adoption laws. Elected public officials are not allowed to violate the will of the majority of voters in North Carolina just because they do not like the law, and our Attorney General should not be parading around the State undermining the very laws he is charged with defending.”

Cooper, headline speaker at next month’s gala of the Equality NC Foundation, said he appears at events for a variety of North Carolina organizations. (The foundation bills him as “North Carolina native son, vocal opponent of Amendment One, and all-around supporter of LGBT rights.”)

The values coalition’s doubts about Cooper’s impartiality mirror those of McCrory’s, who hired outside counsel to defend North Carolina’s new voter restrictions against lawsuits by, among others, the U.S. Justice Department.

Cooper had written a letter urging McCrory not to sign the bill, which he also slammed in his Huffington Post column. But he said he could defend it.

The North Carolina Republican Party reacted as expected to Cooper’s column, with chairman Claude Pope’s statement that “North Carolinian taxpayers aren’t paying Roy Cooper his salary to hit the campaign trail for three straight years and write op-eds for liberal media outlets, and those seem to be the only things he’s doing these days.”

It seems the 2016 gubernatorial campaign is under way.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3
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