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From minority leader to HB 2, Berger’s tone grows harsh

By Paul T. O’Connor

RALEIGH — Reporters look for what is new, and that’s what the legislative press corps did that day years back when the budget was approved in just hours.

It wasn’t news that legislative Democrats had just crammed another budget through the Assembly. They’d been doing that for years, allowing Republicans neither input nor even time to read the inches-thick document before holding the final vote.

The news was one Republican’s response.

It was 2009 or 2010, and Sen. Phil Berger, then the Senate minority leader, called a press conference, one that turned out to be surprising.

Over lunch last week, one old reporter friend asked, “Don’t you remember how shocked we were that Berger got angry?”

Berger’s anger, it turned out, was the news.

When Republicans took legislative control in 2011 and Berger became Senate president pro tem, most long-time legislative observers thought they knew what they were getting: A lawyer with a judicial temperament, measured, overly polite, somewhat quiet but always available, and, most of all, someone who never got angry, at least not in public.

Fast forward to the 2017 session and Berger may be that same person in private, but when it comes to statements issued from his office, well, he might just be mistaken for the Greek god Zeus hurling thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus.

Several lobbyists, reporters and Republican legislators, all speaking privately over the past month, reassured me that I’m not imagining this. Berger’s tone has grown angrier and angrier.

He’s been harsh, almost personal, lately in his response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s statements and actions on the separation of powers, on HB 2 repeal and on a teacher pay raise plan that doesn’t sound much different from Berger’s own ideas.

Even Cooper’s appointment of an ethics board chairman Friday prompted a few nasty adverbs.

One lobbyist traced the animosity back to Berger’s final days as minority leader when some members of his caucus nearly revolted because they wanted more forceful leadership. The angry party wanted an angry leader.

One House Republican tied Berger’s harsh pronouncements to his frustration with Cooper over the failed deal to repeal HB 2 in December. But that doesn’t explain several years’ worth of harsh language, even some directed at former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

A conservative lobbyist credited power politics. In 2013, Berger wasn’t willing to share power with the outsider McCrory, and in 2017 he’s even less willing to do so with Democrat Cooper.

It’s almost universally suspected that the harsh tone comes not from Berger but from his staff, the people who prepare the press releases. But Berger’s senior adviser Jim Blaine, in a conversation a few weeks ago, dismissed that talk, saying no one puts words in his boss’s mouth.

My take? All of the above, and this fact of life:

Politics diminishes people.

Few end a political career as better people than they were when they entered, that is, more charitable, more tolerant, more generous.

That observation is even truer in these days when all sectors of the spectrum are enraged.

We elect some fine people to office – and a lot of losers, too – all in the hopes that they will find a way to work together for our interests. Instead, they just seem to get angry at each other.

Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.



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