ROCKINGHAM — Roy Cooper says cash-starved public schools, an overtaxed middle class and statewide spats over social issues prodded him into the governor’s race.
The four-term Democratic attorney general confirmed Saturday that he would seek the executive mansion in 2016, telling an audience of Democrats from a dozen North Carolina counties that Republican rule has left him “frustrated but motivated.”
“From January to June of 2013, some of the worst legislation passed that I have ever seen,” Cooper said during the 8th Congressional District Democratic convention. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do something about it.’
“I talked to my wife, Kristin. I talked to my daughters. We are beginning to plan my campaign for governor of North Carolina. We will have an official announcement later.”
The Richmond County Judicial Center’s second-floor courtroom erupted into spontaneous applause. Cooper received standing ovations before and after his brief remarks, which came midway through the four-hour district convention.
Cooper’s entrance in the race sets up a likely showdown with incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who is expected to seek re-election. Cooper will face Ken Spaulding, a former state lawmaker and transportation board member, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“People believe in public education in North Carolina,” Cooper said. “When you look at our state, we have been a forward-thinking beacon in the South.”
Investing in education was a key theme for Cooper, who said a teacher told him this week that colleagues are fleeing the state’s schools.
“They’re leaving the North Carolina public school system not only for better pay, but for basic respect,” he said.
The Tar Heel State ranks 47th in teacher pay and 46th in per-pupil spending among the 50 U.S. states. When Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt was in office, Cooper said, North Carolina was 20th in teacher pay.
“North Carolina is better than this, folks,” Cooper said. “We know it, and we can make a difference.”
Cooper said the Republican-led General Assembly made the wrong call when it turned away federal funding to expand the state’s Medicaid program.
“Our governor and our legislators have released billions of our federal tax dollars that we have already paid to Washington to provide health insurance to hundreds of thousands of working North Carolinians and seniors,” he said.
The attorney general also expressed frustration with legislative leaders’ focus on social issues, including opposition to same-sex marriage and a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians based on owners’ religious beliefs.
“I’m frustrated because I’m tired of seeing North Carolina on the late-night comedy shows,” Cooper said. “I’m tired of the projection of intolerance, of ‘We don’t want you in North Carolina.’”
The GOP’s 2013 tax reform slashed corporate income tax rates and helped wealthy taxpayers at the expense of the middle class, Cooper said.
State Republican leaders say a Cooper administration would expand state government, increase the tax burden on all wage-earners and stifle economic growth.
“There is no greater enemy to North Carolina taxpayers than Roy Cooper, who voted for billions in tax increases on hard-working North Carolinians when he and the big government crowd ran North Carolina,” N.C. GOP senior adviser Ricky Diaz said in a statement to the Daily Journal. “He also said he’s ‘encouraged’ by Moral Mondays, whose radical pro-union, high tax agenda would increase the size of government by 50 percent, meaning a $4,000 tax increase on every family of four in North Carolina.
“Bringing North Carolina back down that same big-government path that failed our state in the past would halt the progress being made to create jobs under Governor McCrory’s leadership.”
Cooper has criticized McCrory for a policy of applying staff-time surcharges to public records requests that can make information prohibitively expensive to obtain.
In 2014, McCrory’s office charged requesters the hourly wage and benefits of the employee fulfilling records requests for any task that took more than a half-hour to complete. The Associated Press has paid $54 per hour for copies of the governor’s emails.
As attorney general and the co-author of a guidebook to North Carolina public records and open meetings laws, Cooper has said the fees violate the spirit of those statutes. McCrory’s office now only applies the fees to requests that take more than four hours to fulfill.
Diaz said Cooper’s office has not yet turned over 14 years’ worth of public records the GOP requested in March. State sunshine laws do not specify a timetable for release, but say requests should be fulfilled “as promptly as possible.”
“He said he would comply with NCGOP’s public records request for documents relating to his time as attorney general, but hasn’t,” Diaz said. “It shouldn’t take the threat of legal action to get a our chief law enforcement officer to comply with the law. When will he comply and fulfill his promise to release these documents?”
Cooper aides say the N.C. Department of Justice began releasing the records two weeks ago, but they are still being compiled due to the large scope of the request.