Today in North Carolina

Berger shows smarts

June 20, 2014 

The N.C. Association of Educators has a middling record of electing the candidates it endorses, and Phil Berger knows why:

Many teachers are Republicans, and many Republicans care about public education. The NCAE has a strong Democratic identity, so some people assume all teachers are Democrats.

Sen. Berger, R-Rockingham, showed North Carolinians why he’s the state’s most powerful politician when he sat down recently for a civil conversation with 15 teachers who were taking part in a Moral Monday protest.

Contrast Berger with Gov. Pat McCrory who last year fibbed about meeting with protestors, and contrast him with House Speaker Thom Tillis, who, when protestors occupied his office, slipped away to avoid them before they were arrested the next morning.

When protestors finally chose Berger’s office as their sit-in site, Berger found time to meet with them. To Berger’s advantage here, teachers are likely the constituent group of Moral Monday protestors who are least offensive to Republican sensibilities, even if these 15 were all Democrats.

Berger might believe in the old advice to hold enemies close, or he might have learned to engage protestors from previous Democratic legislative leaders like Sen. Marc Basnight.

Faced with major protests, Basnight and most Democratic House speakers would defuse some of the protest anger by either meeting their leaders privately or sending a key lieutenant to do so.

Over the last 35 years, the Legislative Building has seen numerous protests. Some were just as big and raucous as any of the individual Moral Monday protests, but none endured more than a few days or weeks.

Lawmakers witnessed the Equal Rights Amendment protests of 1980-81, the Moral Majority protests of the 1980s, the UNC student protests of the 1990s and, most dramatic of all, the farmer protests in the late 1990s. Farmers protested over hog-farm rules and the tobacco settlement.

Democratic leaders in those days understood that they needed the votes of the conservative Democrats who were protesting. By meeting with them, they defused the anger, found some points of compromise, got the protestors to go home and remained in power until 2011.

Contrast that strategy with McCrory, who insulted abortion protestors with a cookie drop, and Tillis, who hid from protestors. (Tillis is an adherent of the modern-day tradition of running for statewide office by hiding from all but one’s strongest supporters and donors.)

Back to Berger. He compromised on his Read to Achieve program because it was angering parents. He showed respect to teachers by giving them his time and engaging in civil discussion. Berger understands that he can’t ignore teachers or the many parents concerned about education any more than Democrats could ignore farmers.

The Tillis approach led to 2 a.m. arrests, the McCrory approach to trespass citations. The Berger approach ended without either.

Berger didn’t end the protests, but Republican teachers and Republicans who support schools likely feel better about him than they do about their other two leaders.

Paul O’Connor wrote “Today in North Carolina” for many years. He’s filling in while the providers of this column find a permanent replacement for Scott Mooneyham.

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