By David Zucchino
Roy Cooper is in a very lonely place. He's a Democratic state attorney general surrounded by conservative Republicans who control North Carolina state government.
Now those Republicans have put Cooper in an awkward spot. He has publicly condemned GOP-sponsored laws on voter identification and gay marriage, yet must defend those same laws in court.
Further complicating matters, Cooper plans to run for governor in 2016. That has prompted Republican charges that he's more interested in being governor than upholding North Carolina's laws.
Cooper, in his 13th year as the state's elected attorney general, says he will defend in court laws he personally opposes. But he says he will also continue to criticize the public policy behind those laws.
"If I believe a law is bad for North Carolina, I will say so," Cooper, 56, said in an interview at his downtown office. "I have a responsibility to say so."
At the same time, he said: "It is the duty under the law for this office to defend the state when it gets sued — even if I personally disagree with the public policy. This office is going to follow the law."
Cooper's office in this bustling state capital is just down the street from the Legislature, where both houses are controlled by Republicans. A few blocks away is the governor's mansion, occupied by Republican Pat McCrory.
The geography underscores Cooper's outsider status and the difficult maneuvering he faces in court — and in the court of public opinion in a state almost evenly divided between conservative and liberal voters.
Last week, Cooper took his battle against Republicans onto the national stage. In a Huffington Post op-ed, he accused the party of destroying North Carolina's reputation as a leader of the progressive South.
"It's as if the tea party created its own playground of extremist fantasies," Cooper wrote.
Democrats and liberals have been marginalized here since November, when Republicans seized control of the governor's mansion and Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Lawmakers passed a flurry of laws reflecting conservative views on taxes, the environment, education and abortion.
In July, the Legislature passed one of the nation's most restrictive voting laws.
The measure requires voters to show a government-issued ID, shortens the early voting period, and ends same-day registration and pre-registration of high school students. It also weakens political contribution disclosure rules and allows political parties to rake in unlimited corporate donations.
Democrats and civil rights groups have said the law is intended to suppress voting by blacks, the poor, students and the elderly — reliably Democratic voters who are more likely to lack a state-issued ID and rely on early voting, early registration and same-day registration. Republicans have said the law helps prevent voter fraud, although they have not cited instances of widespread fraud.
In September, the Justice Department sued North Carolina, saying elements of the voting law discriminated against minorities. Civil rights groups have also filed lawsuits against the measure in state and federal court.
Cooper has called the law "regressive" and says it restricts voting rights. But he says his office will be in state and federal court to defend it.
The Legislature and Gov. McCrory responded by hiring lawyers to advise them on fighting the lawsuits, saying Cooper would not forcefully defend the law. Some Republicans have demanded that Cooper recuse himself and appoint an independent counsel.
"The comments he has made [against] this legislation have compromised his ability to represent the state of North Carolina," said Bob Stephens, McCrory's chief legal counsel.
Cooper has said hiring outside lawyers is a waste of taxpayer money.
The attorney general has also riled Republicans by supporting marriage equality. He opposed a Republican-backed amendment last year that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Voters approved the amendment by a 2-to-1 ratio.
Cooper said his office would defend the amendment against a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Last week, the register of deeds in Buncombe County in western North Carolina became one of the first public officials in the South to seek approval to grant same-sex marriage licenses. The register, Drew Reisinger, 30, said he would withhold his signature from applications by at least 10 same-sex couples, pending advice from Cooper.
Cooper said the licenses could not be legally issued because the state constitution outlaws gay marriage.
Though he has not formally announced a run for governor, Cooper has been raising money and lifting his political profile, said Gary Pearce, a Democratic consultant in Raleigh who advised four-term governor Jim Hunt.
Pearce said Cooper, normally a low-key politician, had been forced to make a public splash by state Democrats who have urged the party to fight back harder against Republican political control.
"The knock on Roy is that he's too cautious, too careful," Pearce said. "I think he made a conscious decision that if I don't get out there now, other people will move in."
In the Huffington Post op-ed, Cooper said Republicans "set out to deliberately and systematically undo 50 years of progress." He cited "tax giveaways for the top 1%," cuts to unemployment benefits, an end to child-care tax credits and rejection of federal Medicaid dollars.
"This is not the North Carolina any of us recognize," Cooper wrote.
Claude Pope, the state Republican Party chairman, called the piece a "left-wing diatribe."
"Roy Cooper has given up on his job as attorney general and is now fully devoting his energy to winning the Democratic primary on the taxpayer's dime by taking far-left positions," Pope said.
Cooper, in the interview, said he was interested in running for governor but would devote the three remaining years of his term to his attorney general duties. Meanwhile, he said, he has been traveling across the state, listening to voters concerned that Republicans have tarnished "North Carolina's national brand."
Even business leaders and moderate Republicans have expressed alarm that conservative policies are discouraging companies from moving to North Carolina, Cooper said.
"They have buyer's remorse," he said of some voters who elected the Republican majority.
Even as he defends the state in court, Cooper said, anyone interested in running for governor "has to begin the planning process, and that is one of the things I'm doing."
He's not the only one, Cooper said. "The current governor is already running campaign ads."
(c) 2013, Los Angeles Times