Sen. Phil Berger, self-made and self-certain, is likely the most powerful politician in NC

Published May 11, 2014

by Jay Price, News and Observer, May 10, 2014.

Last summer Ellie Kinnaird, an Orange County Democrat, resigned after 17 years in the state Senate to organize a grass-roots counterattack on the new voter ID law.

Her chamber’s version of the bill had been shepherded into law by the staunchly conservative Senate leader, Phil Berger, a Republican whose views on major political subjects such as taxes and education could not be more different from those of Kinnaird.

Kinnaird had resigned because of Berger and the GOP majority that he engineered. Despite that, here is what she thinks of him: “Oh, he is always gracious, and if you had something you wanted to talk about, he would always talk with you.”

Berger, she said, always let her and other Democrats have their say, rather than simply using his overwhelming majority or the rules to halt debate.

Among those who actually know him, those views are typical of Democrats and Republicans alike.

As Berger, a 61-year-old lawyer from Eden, prepares for his fourth session at the helm of the Senate, many believe he is now the most powerful politician in North Carolina.

He became that through meticulous, long-range planning to craft a majority, a laserlike focus on major goals, a blue-collar work ethic that he honed with actual manual labor, and a natural geniality that he has used as a glue to bind his caucus. That caucus now holds a veto-proof 33-17 majority, thanks in part to his savvy candidate recruiting and ceaseless fundraising.

Since his elevation in 2011 to Senate president pro tem, Berger has been cast as villain and hero. Liberals believe changes like the tax cuts, changes to the education system and the voter ID law have placed the state on a path to ruin.

Many conservatives, meanwhile, praise him for his role in those same things, which have collectively given North Carolina one of the most dramatic policy shifts of any state in recent history.

Berger is average in height, wears a beard that is mostly stubble and business suits that always seem new.

He may be a polarizing figure, but in an era when politics often seems synonymous with personal attacks, Berger is all business, and that business is policy.

“I’ve never heard him say an ill word about anybody,” says Peter Brunstetter, a former senator and close ally. “In the environment we’re in now, where politics are so personally charged and personalities are such a big deal, and you’ve got Fox News and MSNBC, he’s kind of an eye in the storm.”

Studying, and painting

Many out-of-town lawmakers stay in Raleigh every night during a session. Berger, though, often climbs into the driver’s seat of his plain-vanilla Mercury sedan and points it west, then north for the 1 hour and 40 minute commute home to Eden, which sits on the Virginia border north of Greensboro.

His law office there shares little with the giant firms in Raleigh in their tall buildings. It’s a modest square brick house. There is a Bible on a coffee table in the waiting area and a sign on the wall that says the minimum consultation fee is $150.

His wife, Pat, runs the office. Work is a recurring theme for the Bergers.

Philip Edward Berger was born in 1952 in New Rochelle, N.Y., though his mother was originally from Caswell County. His father, Francis, lost his job when Berger was 5. The family moved south, eventually settling in Danville, Va., where his father found a factory job running a machine that made saw blades. Berger remembers helping him some nights use tweezers to pull steel splinters out of his fingers.

He grew up in a working-class neighborhood. Among the things he took away from that childhood: There’s nothing wrong with hard work even if it gets your hands and clothes dirty, and it’s important to take responsibility for yourself.

He and Pat were high school sweethearts. After graduation, he worked his way through community college, which he completed at night, and Averett College.

After he graduated – the first person in his family to earn a college degree – he and Pat headed for law school at Wake Forest University, their sons, Phil Jr. and Kevin, in tow.

Pat Berger got a job with the university. After classes, her husband painted apartments at night.

Berger first practiced law in Charlotte, then clerked for a year at the N.C. Court of Appeals before joining an Eden law firm in 1984. Then in 2001, he and his two sons – including Phil Jr., now a U.S. House candidate – started the Berger Law Firm.

His political career began with the Republican primary for a state House seat in 1994. He came up seven votes short and decided that was enough of politics. But five years later, Virginia Foxx, then a state senator he had met, asked him to run for a local Senate seat. This time, he won.

Beliefs formed early

Berger had a basic political philosophy that he says had its seeds in his working-class upbringing.

“I think as far back as I can remember, I had pretty consistent thoughts about the appropriate role of government, the impact of high taxes on economic development, the responsibility that people have to look out for themselves and their families,” he says. “I think it’s just part of how I grew up and who I interacted with.”

Kinnaird said Berger’s rise from that blue-collar background clearly shaped him. He believes that if he can do it, everybody else can, too, she says.

“The flaw with that is, he probably had a good, solid family,” Kinnaird says. “If you’ve got a mother who’s a drug addict and a father who beats you up, it’s a little harder to make something of yourself.”

Berger concedes those things, but says that the differences he has with liberals mainly are about the means rather than the ends.

It’s critically important, he says, that there is an education system that works for a wide range of students. His major education legislation included phasing out teacher tenure, shifting toward performance-based raises, and a mandate that most third-graders read at grade level before promotion.

He says he supports programs such as Medicaid that take care of people if they are truly in need. “I think the balance you need to reach is, at some point, the incentive for people to do that, to go out and push themselves to places they can go, can be destroyed if help from the government is too robust,” he says.

Learning from Democrats

Berger entered the Senate naive about its mechanics and what it meant to be a Republican when the Democrats held a large majority. He quickly learned when what he regarded as a perfectly sensible amendment he had crafted to a death penalty bill was killed by parliamentary maneuver.

That’s when he started to think big, about how the Republicans could change that dynamic. The best demonstration of how to do things big was the Democratic machine built by Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and his top lieutenant, Tony Rand.

A key technique: Under state law, the senators could raise money and transfer it to the state party, which could then funnel it to a chosen candidate without the normal limit per donor of $4,000.

In 2004, the year that the Republican minority made Berger its leader, Basnight’s campaign gave $1.3 million to the state Democratic Party. Fred Smith gave the most to the party of anyone in the Republican Senate caucus, $180,000. By 2008, the Democrats were still pulling in much more, but Republicans were gaining. Then came 2010.

Nationally, conservative groups were pouring resources into key state legislative races in hopes of taking power in as many places as possible so as to have control of redistricting for legislative districts and U.S. House seats. Also, it was the first mid-term election during the administration of President Barack Obama, something that has frequently been hard on the party in the White House.

Berger was the largest contributor to his state party, $544,000, and his Senate cohorts added more than $1.26 million.

Basnight’s contributions to the Democratic Party had dipped to $989,845. Other Democratic senators kicked in nearly $1 million, but it was their last gasp.

It also helped, said Tom Fetzer, then the GOP state party chairman and now a lobbyist, that Berger and his chief of staff, Jim Blaine, had become expert in identifying candidates who could win and were themselves able to raise lots of money.

The Republicans took a veto-proof majority in the Senate, giving the GOP control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in more than a century. Two years later, they took the governor’s mansion, too.

Work gets tougher

Republicans have now approved much of the major legislation that had been on their to-do list, and Berger says it may be more difficult to keep the caucus completely on the same page as it moves to second-tier issues where there may be less agreement.

That legislative agenda has not been popular with educators and other groups that have come together in the “Moral Monday” protests. What if some of the legislation turns out to be misguided?

Berger says he asked a car salesman once how his job worked. The reply: “You try something, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else.”

“What I would say is if we see it ain’t working, we’re going to try something else,” he says.

Berger says, however, that he sees evidence of progress. He cites the drop in unemployment rates as one example.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect you can change things by flipping a switch,” he says. “But I do think it was important for us to make a change in direction.”