By Jack Betts
Bob Rucho was mad. For more than a year, he had worked on a comprehensive tax-reform bill that would change North Carolina’s antiquated revenue system in dramatic ways — including an end to tax breaks for special interests, a proposal sparking heartburn in virtually every tax lobbyist in Raleigh. But Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis, both fellow Republicans from Mecklenburg County, had backed away from his plan in favor of a compromise that included some of his ideas but didn’t go nearly as far. So on June 13, a riled-up Rucho did an unusual and some would say rash thing: He resigned as co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In a letter to the man who appointed him — Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger — he cited their “fundamental disagreement on the most effective model of tax reform,” then unloaded on McCrory and Tillis, who he claimed lacked “the political backbone to fight special interest groups.”
Picking a fight with the Senate’s top leader might seem a way to wind up in a tiny office in the bowels of the Legislative Building. But Berger didn’t bite. “I hereby respectfully decline to accept your resignation … ,” he replied, signing his letter: “Loyally, Phil.” What could have been a nasty public split blew over. Rucho was soon back in the fold, supporting legislation — much of it shepherded by Berger — that shifted the direction of state government sharply rightward. Over the course of the 2013 long session, the General Assembly adopted a strong voter-ID requirement that also compressed the time for early voting, did away with regulations Republicans believed got in the way of business, slowed the growth of the state budget, approved vouchers to send children to private schools, restricted access to abortions and imposed a flat-rate income tax — the first significant tax reform in decades.
“Berger just poured oil on troubled waters,” Republican political strategist Carter Wrenn says. “The issue was cutting taxes, and they had gotten all mired down in all these little special-interest things — sales taxes on tractors and such — and Berger got the issue back on ‘how much are we going to cut?’” Democratic strategist Gary Pearce, Wrenn’s blogging partner on talkingaboutpolitics.com, named the Eden lawyer the GOP’s MVP, “head and shoulders above the rest.” Rob Christensen, the state’s most influential political columnist, wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer that Berger had become “the new Marc Basnight, the most powerful figure in state government,” referring to Berger’s predecessor, a Democrat who ran the Senate — and whose influence reached far beyond that chamber — for 18 years. For the fundamental changes wrought by the latest session and those he has positioned himself to bring about in future ones, Phil Berger is Business North Carolina’s Mover and Shaker of the Year.
How did a 61-year-old small-town lawyer achieve such stature in only his second term as Senate chief? He’s part of a Republican team, with Tillis and McCrory, running the legislative and executive branches for the first time since Reconstruction. Pearce puts their performance in baseball terms. Berger, he wrote, “has been throwing heat all season,” while Tillis “hobbled himself” by announcing this would be his last session as speaker — he’s running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Kay Hagan — then getting pushed around by everyone. McCrory “looks like an outfielder who loses every fly ball in the sun. He’s been a follower, not a leader, and a confused-looking follower at that.” Politically, Berger staked out the right as his: McCrory, who had run on his record as Charlotte’s moderate-Republican mayor, and Tillis, the “business Republican” embraced by the GOP establishment, couldn’t quibble with his conservative stances without alienating their party’s base.
And Berger, as it turned out, is a true believer. He “is no finger-to-the-wind politician,” Wrenn wrote. “People might be arguing for years whether he is right or wrong — but either way, you have to admit he’s got the rarest trait in politics: courage.” Tom Apodaca, the Hendersonville Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, calls him “the finest person I know in politics. He is so steady, not up and down, straight down the road. … I don’t like many people, but I like Berger.” Even Democrats give him high marks. “He listens to the members,” says Tony Rand, the Fayetteville lawyer who was Basnight’s second-in-command. “And I think they believe that he has their best interests at heart, individually and politically. At heart, he is a nice guy, a hard worker and a straight shooter.” He lets others speak first, makes sure everyone has a say and doesn’t rush to judgment. “He really is one of those guys that can sit back and make a decision not based on emotion,” says Phil Berger Jr., once his father’s law partner and now Rockingham County’s district attorney and a candidate for Congress.
Unlike his son, Berger has gotten ahead because he’s willing to stay put, which will make him even more powerful in 2014. Rucho calls him “a huge asset to the state at a time when we are going to have a change in House leadership and Gov. McCrory is still finding his way.” First elected in 2000, he drove home every night during those early years to be with his family. He became Senate minority leader in 2004, then assumed the top spot after Republicans captured control of the chamber in 2010. He, too, considered a bid for Hagan’s seat, which would have pitted him against Tillis in the primary, but announced in September that he will return to Raleigh, where he’ll reign in the short session that will convene May 14. Though, he admits, he didn’t have the fire to seek higher office this time, he says he might one day. Phil Berger, a self-made man, is also a patient one. None of this came to him quickly or easily.
Like many of North Carolina’s elected leaders these days — Tillis and McCrory among them — he is not a native Tar Heel. His mother grew up in Caswell County and moved to New York to find work during World War II. He was born in New Rochelle in 1952, and the family moved South after his father lost his job in an electronics factory. They lived with his mother’s parents before moving near Danville, Va., where he attended county schools and graduated from George Washington High in town. With no money for a four-year school, he enrolled at Danville Community College but dropped out after a year for a factory job stacking 4-by-8-foot sheets of hardboard and banding them for transport. “This made me think that this going-to-school thing was not such a bad idea after all.”
When Kroger opened a new grocery store in Danville, he latched on, within a few years rising to produce manager and taking enough night courses to finish community college. Enrolling at Averett College, Berger scheduled his shifts so he could take a full academic load and work full time. He majored in sociology because it had classes that jibed with his job. By the time he finished, he was certain of two things: He was a Republican, attracted by the party’s emphasis on self-reliance and hard work. And he wanted to go to law school. “I was just going to be a lawyer,” he says during an interview at the modest red-brick bungalow in Eden that houses Berger Law Firm, which he founded with his two sons in 2001. “No one in my family had graduated from college before.” He applied to several law schools, got in a few and chose Wake Forest because of its reputation and proximity to his and his wife’s families.
He and his wife, Pat, sold the little house where they were raising Phil Jr. and Kevin, packed their belongings in a U-Haul and moved into an apartment complex in Winston-Salem. She got a job in the university admissions office; he became friends with the complex manager, who gave him one painting vacant units. He would go to classes all day, come home, eat dinner, help tuck the boys in bed, then start work. “I could do a one-bedroom apartment in about four hours on average, depending on how clean the apartment was when people moved out.” He completed his courses in 2½ years, taking a heavy load to finish fast and start earning a living. “We had a responsibility to our family, a responsibility to our two children, and I wanted to give them better opportunities. Looking back on it, it was tough. But we did it, and we were none the worse for it. In fact, we were better off for it.”
During a brief stint at a small law firm in Charlotte, he got a call from N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Phillips about clerking in Raleigh. Phillips was a Democrat, and Berger became increasingly aware of political differences with his fellow clerks at the court. One day, he went into the judge’s office. “There is something you need to know. I’m a Republican.” Phillips’ response: So? “And that was a big relief to me.” Berger’s ability to work with others of widely divergent views would help him get where he was going. So would knowing what he believes in, though it would be years before many realized how profoundly conservative he is. His father was “a New York Republican,” but his own views hew farther right. He has read widely about politics all his life, and among his heroes are President Calvin Coolidge, author and journalist William F. Buckley and economist Milton Friedman. But most influential was Claude Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th century Frenchman whose writings form the basis for libertarian thought. His 1850 booklet The Law “was conformational to me,” says Berger, who after finishing law school had been pondering the proper role of government. “What should government do for me? Or more appropriately, what should the government be able to do to me?”
Bastiat thought everyone had a right to control his own person, property and, above all, liberty. If the law reaches beyond the bounds of protecting those rights, government power quickly expands because of three factors: “the total inertness of mankind, the omnipotence of the law and the infallibility of the legislator.” Lawmakers may invent social programs, advocate them and try them out at their personal expense, Bastiat wrote, “but I do dispute their right to impose these plans upon us by law — by force — and to compel us to pay for them with our taxes.” He warned against what he saw as “legalized plunder,” which occurs “if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong.” These writings, Berger says, strengthened his convictions that an individual “should be free to make choices in his or her life … so long as those choices do not bring harm to anyone else. And I believe an individual should be responsible for those choices. So government is necessary to carry on certain functions, but the authority allocated to government should be done so as to preserve the rights of the individual.”
After clerking for Phillips a year, he joined what became Walker, Melvin & Berger LLP in Eden in 1984. He worked on wills and real-estate transactions and defended clients in court. In time, he and his sons — who also went to Wake Forest law school — would form the family firm, where his wife also works. (Their daughter, Ashley, born the same year he dropped his oldest son off at college, is in law school at UNC Chapel Hill. She got her undergraduate degree at Wake.) In the 1980s, he had been chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Elections and, in 1994, ran for a state House seat, losing by seven votes in the primary. “I figured that was my one dabble in politics.” But Virginia Foxx, a state senator he had campaigned with in 1994 who had grown close to his family, called one Saturday morning: The senator from his district wasn’t seeking re-election in 2000. Would he consider running? “I thought he had the right values, the right personality and the right motivations for being in public life,” recalls Foxx, now in her fifth term in Congress. It, she says, was one of the best things she has done in politics.
He won and went to Raleigh in 2001 for his first session. The Senate then comprised 35 Democrats and 15 Republicans. “I was still green enough to think that didn’t make all that much difference.” He was soon to learn otherwise. He remembers a bill to limit prosecution of death-penalty cases. He had a few amendments he thought would improve the bill. But he was a Republican, and he did not have the votes. “I lost and lost and lost, and the rules were used on one amendment to even avoid a vote against it. That was not the last time I saw it happen, but I got better at predicting when it was coming.” The lessons he drew were simple: “If we wanted to change policy, we had to have the votes to do it.”
So began Berger’s quest to recruit more candidates, raise more money, hire better help and whittle away at the overwhelming advantage Democrats held in the Senate. He became minority leader — the top Republican job in the Democrat-controlled Senate — after the 2004 election. He and Apodaca recruited Jean Preston, a seven-term House member from Emerald Isle, to run for an open Senate seat in 2006. She won by a big margin. Berger considers that race “a turning point and a moment when he understood that Republicans could spread their message to a receptive audience all across the state,” his spokeswoman Shelly Carver says. That election was a bad year for Republicans, but Preston’s victory built momentum for what would come four years later. “In 2010,” Berger says, “I thought we had the wind at our backs.” Democrats were having problems in Washington and Raleigh, and Republicans won a majority in the state Senate and House for the first time in more than a century. The GOP began putting its stamp on state government, generally ignoring lame-duck Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat. In 2012, the GOP tightened its grip on the legislature — capturing veto-proof majorities in both chambers — and celebrating McCrory’s election as governor, the first time in living memory the party controlled both the legislative and executive branches. Republicans now have a 33-17 majority in the 50-member Senate.
But you need more than numbers to lead. Berger has been successful, former Sen. Pete Brunstetter says, because “he has had the vision all along of where he wanted to go, and he is a very persistent person.” He also doesn’t get distracted by personality issues, the Forsyth County Republican adds. “What makes him a good leader,” Rucho says, “are his conservative beliefs and the stands he takes on principle. You don’t always get what you want, but you focus on the direction.” Some Democrats give him high marks on style, letting them have their say in debates rather than using the rules to cut off discussion, for example, and he shares some of his predecessor’s leadership traits. Like Basnight, Berger has an open-door policy. But there are differences. Basnight would get an idea and impose it on his caucus. Berger, Apodaca notes, is more likely to come up with something after hearing his out. How they get their information also differs. “When Mark drove from Manteo to Raleigh for a session, he would listen to NPR. When Phil drives in from Eden, he listens to Sports Center, Fox News and maybe an audiobook.”
His quiet ways and calm manner might mislead folks into thinking he doesn’t have strong feelings. “He does have a temper,” Apodaca says, “but you don’t see it much.” Case in point: When he was getting hammered by teachers over school funding last fall, he steam-vented a scalding retort at the North Carolina Association of Educators, calling its efforts “bully tactics of an organized union that puts kids’ safety at risk to gin up its membership and inflate the salaries of its executives.” One thing that seems to have surprised Democrats is his commitment to what they consider extremely conservative positions. “I had served with Phil a number of years and had no idea he was that far to the right,” says Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, who thought he was more akin to the mountain Republicans the Asheville Democrat had served with for years. “He has taken an almost anti-government stance from the right. … I expected solutions from Phil. I expected him to make government better and leaner, and there are plenty of places to do that, but what we have seen instead is a lot of dismantling.” Nesbitt is baffled by Republican support for cutting off unemployment benefits to tens of thousands, refusing to raise teacher pay across the board and declining to expand Medicaid at federal expense.
Democrats may have been surprised, but not those who watched that party roll over the GOP for decades. As the minority party, Republicans knew that anything they proposed was likely to die without serious discussion, especially bills that did not dovetail with Democrat positions. If a Republican wanted to get anything done, it would have to be in small bites the Democrats might swallow. When Republicans finally won both chambers in 2010, they began pushing their bills through, and anyone astonished by how conservative this legislation has been probably wasn’t paying attention. After all, Republicans ran on many of the issues they’ve enacted into law. “We had an obligation to the people to do what we said we would do,” Berger says. “We promised not to raise taxes, we promised to balance the budget, to do medical-malpractice reform, to bring about regulatory reform, and we did them.”
Wrenn, who cut his political teeth as a strategist for longtime U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, says Berger’s conservatism is genuine, not something he picked up to play to the Republican base and tea party. They like the way he handled the budget last year: It grew, but Berger and his allies trimmed the rate of growth even less than the House wanted. “Berger is in the Jesse Helms tradition of the Republican Party,” Wrenn says, “which is that when we believe something, we want to advance it, and we are willing to fight for it, and we don’t mind taking the risk to fight for it.” But Berger says he’s no fan of shutting down government and doesn’t foresee Washington-style gridlock coming to Raleigh. “Most people want people in office who can get things done. In North Carolina, we are passing budgets, making policy, getting roads paved and making sure that people are getting the benefits they are entitled to.”
Still, the partisan divide is as sharp as a stiletto. Republicans clearly believe their initiatives are setting North Carolina back on the path to prosperity. Democrats think the state is abandoning initiatives that in the 20th century made it a magnet for economic growth. Voters will have their first chance 10 months from now to weigh in on the changes Republicans have brought about. While Democrats look forward to a day of reckoning, Berger doesn’t worry. He believes he and his allies have done all the right things. “I feel very good about where we are in North Carolina. We have put ourselves in position to live up to our potential.”
Jack Betts spent four decades covering politics and government. He lives in Meadows of Dan, Va.