Citizen Green: Inside the state GOP, a rift and a race for dollars

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

The GOP’s consolidation of power in North Carolina inevitably leads to strains within the party as it becomes more important to jockey for position in the new hegemony rather than to assail the increasingly irrelevant Democrats.

The current fracture comes from aspirations for promotion from the state establishment to the national political scene.

While House Speaker Thom Tillis, a key author of the Republican Party’s corporatist, anti-poor and exclusionary agenda, is cloaking himself in the garments of moderation in his bid for the US Senate, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger Sr. has a conservative revolution to implement, politics be damned.

The lower House broke with their more elitist cohorts over Berger’s effort to dismantle teacher tenure and eliminate teacher assistants. When state Rep. Nelson Dollar and his fellow House members invited state superintendents to speak at a joint budget-writing meeting, their Senate counterparts took umbrage at the notion of the people speaking to their elected representatives. They walked out.

Meanwhile, the progeny of Berger Sr. has national political aspirations of his own. Phil Berger Jr. — who may or may not be the Republican nominee for the 6th Congressional District seat — depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s runoff election.

The state Senate’s ability to bury legislation coming out of the state House forms the backdrop of state Rep. John Blust of Guilford County’s hesitation to endorse Mark Walker, the populist, anti-establishment candidate in the Republican runoff.

The super PAC holds the advantage of being able to accept unlimited amounts of money from individual donors.

“Senator Phil Berger is the president pro tem of the Senate,” Blust said at a July 9 press conference, as reported by the News & Record. “He can make a bill disappear into committee and never be seen again. Should I come out against the son of that man?”

It’s not only politically expedient for a state lawmaker to endorse the GOP’s anointed candidate for Congress, but also for members of Greensboro City Council, who risk being kneecapped by a state bill to overturn a local ordinance concerning, say, billboard regulations, if they run afoul of the boss in Raleigh.

In tandem with Blust’s endorsement, the Walker campaign accused Berger of campaign-finance irregularities.

“It is clear that Phil Berger Sr. has leveraged his position and influence to steer political contributions to the super PAC supporting his son,” Walker said in a prepared statement. “This is in likely violation of state or federal law. Coordination between super PACs and campaigns is strictly prohibited, yet the Berger campaign and Keep Conservatives United have the same donors and have used parallel — almost identical — tactics to slander Phil Berger Jr.’s opponents.”

As I reported for Triad City Beat in April, the Keep Conservatives United super PAC raised upwards of $150,000 from a handful of donors who also happen to be significant contributors to Berger Sr., including Captive Aire President Robert Luddy and MBM Corp. President Steve Wordsworth. The money was spent on campaign ads in support of Phil Berger Jr. and to eviscerate his opponents. The super PAC holds the advantage of being able to accept unlimited amounts of money from individual donors.

“There’s a lot of overlap in the groups that are interested in influencing Phil Berger Sr. and giving to Jr.,” Democracy North Carolina Executive Director Bob Hall noted in April. “It’s pretty apparent that they’re trying to win influence with Sr. These included lobbyists who can’t by law give to Sr.’s campaign who are giving to Jr.’s campaign.”

And while federal law prohibits candidates from coordinating with super PACs, the line between Phil Berger Jr. and Keep Conservatives United has been rather thin, with the Berger campaign posting silent B-roll of their candidate online, which the super PAC has then incorporated into one of its ads. How convenient for a strapping political operation trying to keep its expenses down to find some free material laying around.

The linkages between Keep Conservatives United and the powerful leaders of the state Senate Republicans tightens further with a report of a $75,000 contribution from the Republican Senate Leadership Committee in late April. The Associated Press reports that the committee was chaired by Phil Berger Sr. last year, and that Berger Sr. joined its executive committee this year.

The Berger Jr. campaign has denied any coordination with Keep Conservatives United, but the charges appear to have struck a nerve with Berger Sr., eliciting a denunciation suggesting a level of antagonism that goes beyond the usual election-season jousting.

“How can a man who touts his Christian character in one breath bear false witness against his neighbor in his next breath?” Peter Barnes, a Berger Sr. spokesman, asked. “Mark Walker’s unsubstantiated and baseless assault on Senator Berger’s character and integrity is just one more example of a desperate candidate trying to escape from his own web of lies.”

It’s clear how Berger Sr. could leverage his political power to help his son’s campaign through Keep Conservatives United, but what hasn’t been explored so much is how Berger Sr. benefits from putting his son in Congress, aside from the glory and prestige to the family name. More federal funding to accelerate the completion of Interstate 73, linking manufacturers in the state Senate Republican leaders’ home district in Rockingham to Piedmont Triad International Airport, could be a start.

Meanwhile, there could be a price to pay for anyone who crosses the Berger machine.

“There’s no advantage to this, and it’s dangerous,” Blust said. “Whatever may come, I have to take the hit. But as an elected official, I believe I should be able to speak my mind without retribution.”