Bob Dylan’s low croon fills Sen. Phil Berger’s KIA SUV as he pulls up behind the Republican Party headquarters building on Hillsborough Street.
It’s the day before Berger will gavel in the two-year legislative session as president pro tempore of the state Senate. But first, he has party business to tie up.
On this rainy but mild January day, Berger’s mile-and-a-half transition from “official business” at the North Carolina General Assembly to “campaign business” at the party offices has been powered by SiriusXM ’60s on 6—a potpourri of surf music, folk singers, and British Invasion rockers.
The sixties, Berger argues, has the “most creative and lasting songs,” from the Beatles to Neil Sedaka, the Four Seasons to Simon and Garfunkel. But what about Dylan, the political troubadour inextricably linked to America’s progressive movement?
“For me, you’ve got to be in a thinking mood,” Berger says as “Lay, Lady, Lay” plays. “I don’t think you can just relax. He is jamming too much stuff in.”
In the decade since Berger helped overturn 112 years of Democratic rule in the North Carolina Senate—in the process becoming arguably the state’s most powerful politician—he hasn’t had much time to listen to Dylan.
That decade of Republican governance has remade the state and cemented its long-term shift from a Democratic stronghold to a center-right bastion that voted, albeit narrowly, for former President Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
Berger, a small-town lawyer from Eden, has set the terms of engagement for state-level politics since he took power. But compared to his back-slapping predecessor Marc Basnight, Berger cuts a quieter profile. His press office may engage with the #ncpol Twitterati, but the Republican leader personally is seen as private, cryptic, and relatively secretive. Still, on the eve of a consequential legislative session, Berger gave The Assembly access to his daily schedule, and he and his allies spoke at length about his career and legacy.
Berger’s allies say he brings a small-town, country-lawyer sensibility to the office while upholding the essential tenets of American conservatism: balanced budgets, limited government, and traditional social norms. Opponents and supporters alike agree that Berger’s immense power is paired with unusual cordiality and politeness.
“Mainstream media and the left’s image of him is fundamentally Darth Vader,” said Jim Blaine, who worked with Berger for two decades and helped him engineer the Republican takeover of the Senate in 2010. “Most of his detractors don’t know him. They have intense dislike of his policies. If you know him, he is as fine a person as you’ll ever run into.”
But his critics see the politeness as a veneer, distracting from Berger the ideologue, a typical Republican beholden to corporate interests and dogged in his pursuit of a partisan agenda.
“He is calculated in his actions and motivated to make change in the way he wants the state to be,” said Bob Hall, the former executive director of Democracy NC, who personally filed two ethics complaints against Berger. “That means a worse unemployment program. Worse workers’ comp. Worse for women’s rights. Worse for voting rights.”
But few disagree that Berger has become the most powerful man in Raleigh over the last decade. He’s in the running to become one of the most powerful politicians in state history, alongside the likes of Marc Basnight, Jim Black, and Liston Ramsey, according to Rob Christensen, a 45-year observer of North Carolina politics who retired from the News & Observer in 2018.
“Nowhere in the country did you have such a dramatic shift from center left to sharp right,” Christensen said. “Even in conservative circles, they put it out that North Carolina is a lab experiment on how you can sharply change policy.”
A Country Lawyer in Raleigh
It was 1999, and Berger was home in Eden getting ready to celebrate Christmas when the phone rang. Sen. Virginia Foxx was calling with an early Christmas gift. Did Berger want to join her in running in the state’s 12th Senate district?
At the time, Berger’s home county of Rockingham was part of a district with two senate seats—an electoral setup that would end in 2001. Voters in the 2000 election would select two senators from the sprawling Senate district that stretched more than 120 miles along the Virginia border.
A political novice, Berger had run for the state’s House of Representatives in 1994 and lost in the Republican primary by seven votes. He’d carved out a small legal practice in Eden and wasn’t sure he wanted the stress of a campaign. But after talking with his wife Patricia, he decided to run.
Born in New Rochelle, New York, Berger grew up in a blue-collar household in Danville, Virginia. He wasn’t a good student and dropped out of community college. He married Pat young and started a family, and his father-in-law helped get him a job at a local factory stacking pressed-wood boards. It was hours of repetitive, monotonous, backbreaking work.
“You have a lot of time to think,” Berger said.
He thought about how to be a better father and husband, he said. But Berger also thought about how to improve his lot. He quit stacking wood and worked his way up to a management position at a grocery store. He rebuilt a friend’s wrecked Jeep and sold it to pay for his final semesters of community college, before transferring to Averett College.
Berger earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1980—it was the fastest path to graduation—and was accepted to law school at Wake Forest University. He then moved his wife and two sons to Winston-Salem, where Pat worked in the admissions department at Wake Forest, and Berger painted apartments at night while attending class during the day. It was a grind that culminated with a Juris Doctor in 1982.
“I look back on it, and sometimes I wonder if I could do it again,” Berger said. “Don’t ask me where the drive came from. For some folks, there is a spark that motivates. In many respects, it was trying to improve outcomes for me and for my family. It is amazing what folks can do when they are truly motivated.”
It’s an origin story of hard work and perseverance that has been at the foundation of his campaign pitch. A self-made man of the people. Blaine says the story isn’t mythology, and goes a long way to explaining Berger’s worldview and political philosophy—an approach defined by populist, libertarian ideals, particularly around the dangers of big government and entitlements.
“The experience I had, I’m not sure I would have the kind of drive it took, if I knew there was a check waiting for me if I did it or not,” Berger said.
Stories of bootstrap success meet a more skeptical audience today than in decades past. Recent research, driven by massive national data sets, shows that the odds of low-income families improving their standing are shockingly small. North Carolina’s cities—from major hubs like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem to smaller cities like Fayetteville and Hickory—rank among the worst for upward mobility in the nation.
But then and now, Berger’s story has resonated with voters. He finished second behind Foxx, qualifying for the general election. In October, confident but unwilling to take anything for granted, Berger was scheduled to speak at a fundraiser in Alleghany County. Days before the big speech, he went down with appendicitis. At home recovering from surgery, Berger had to decide if he’d stay at home or gut it out—literally—and give the speech.
“I was scared to death I was going to lose, even though I was confident I would win if I got through the primary,” Berger said.
He recruited his son, Phil Berger Jr. (now an associate justice of the state Supreme Court) to drive, and folded down the seats in his wife’s Chrysler van. Covered by blankets, he rode on the floorboards while his son drove the 90 miles from Eden to Alleghany County. Berger gave the speech, then slept all the way back to Eden.
“I tell myself that that’s an indication that I’m dedicated to doing something that I set my mind to do,” Berger says. “But there are differing opinions as to whether it was an act of wisdom or stupidity.”
The move paid off, and Berger was elected to the state Senate. He kept a low profile but made an impression in person.
Christensen remembers hearing Berger open for then-U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole in 2002. He was following the campaign and didn’t know a lot about Berger.
“It was like the reincarnation of Jesse Helms,” Christensen said.
Christensen said Berger arrived at the Senate more conservative than many of his fellow party members.
“He doesn’t have to take a poll where he stands on issues,” Christensen said. “In that sense, he is a very self-confident person, and knows what he believes and knows what is right for the state.”
But his arrival in 2001, alongside 14 other Republican senators, taught him early and often that it wasn’t ideas that won in the legislature—it was votes.
“If you were engaged in a battle with the Democrats on the floor on a matter that they had decided was going to pass, the chances of being successful were pretty slim,” Berger says. “A snowball in hot places had a better opportunity to make it through.”
Berger knew that if he were ever going to turn his ideas into law, the chamber had to change.
With its 1970s discussion pods and fountains, the North Carolina Legislative Building on Jones Street in Raleigh looks like a set from Boogie Nights. Tucked in the corner of the second floor is Berger’s office suite, resembling a very prolific hunter’s trophy room. If it crawls, runs, or swims in North Carolina, it’s likely hanging or sitting somewhere in the office.
Berger arrives after 9 a.m. in a gray suit, blue shirt, and blue and silver tie. His gray hair is short and combed back against his skull. A white mask covers up his thin gray beard. There is little fanfare as he sits down behind a black laptop propped up on two bound books. First meeting of the day: a Zoom session with executives from an electrical co-op.
Perched over his shoulder is a stuffed opossum. The office mascot is “on loan” from a western North Carolina senator—a kind of inside joke after the kerfuffle over the New Year’s “Possum Drop” controversy.
Clay’s Corner, a convenience store in Brasstown, North Carolina, used to lower a live opossum in a plexiglass box to commemorate the new year. A bizarre, years-long legal battle with PETA led lawmakers to pass the Opossum Right-to-Work Act to keep the celebration legal. The celebration has since been retired, but the stuffed opossum remains. It gets a Santa hat during the holidays and a Hawaiian lei in the summer. It masked up last year when COVID-19 hit.
Today, it provides fodder for the awkward small talk that powerful men make as they are forced to tell their normal dad jokes to a computer camera.
“I like that you got the mask on the little fella behind you,” one of the co-op executives says before introducing his colleagues.
Berger quietly makes notes as the conversation weaves through the state of North Carolina’s energy sector and upcoming legislation. Berger assures them he doesn’t know of any pending energy bills, before directing the conversation toward rural internet access.
The state’s experience in the 1920s and 1930s with expanding the electrical grid, he says, should be a template for expanding internet access into “every nook and cranny” of the state.
As the computer closes, speech editing begins. Berger takes out a blue pen to mark up his speech for tomorrow’s opening session. Thirty minutes later, his speech’s three white sheets are covered in blue ink, crossed-out sections, and passages with lines showing where they fit into the text. Berger hands the marked-up speech to Pat Ryan, his press officer, with simple directions.
“What she can’t read, or what you can’t read, just make something up.”
He then packs up his worn brown leather satchel and heads for a meeting at the party headquarters with Dylan Watts, political director of the North Carolina Republican Senate Caucus.
“I used to do it in red,” he says about his speech changes. But he stopped for the sake of his staff: “It damaged their psyche.”
Lauren Horsch, a communications advisor and former News & Observer reporter, walks with him as he heads for the parking garage underneath the building. Still on the agenda: two TV interviews and lunch with his wife—a daily ritual for them since she started work at the legislature as a paralegal.
Berger’s nucleus, from staff to colleagues, is small. When asked about his social schedule, Berger’s staff said that he is a private man and family-focused.
“I’ve known Phil Berger for as long as he has been in the General Assembly,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform. “Polite. Distant. He keeps his thoughts very close. He’s not chatty—even with his members.”
Christensen has a similar view. He had a professional relationship with Berger as a reporter, but it was nothing like his relationship with Berger’s predecessor, Marc Basnight.
“Basnight was a good source,” Christensen said. “You could get information out of him. I don’t think Berger is a good source. Basnight had a much more outgoing, charismatic personality. Basnight was particularly good with people. He never met a stranger. Berger is not quite that. He is a more contained person. He doesn’t have Basnight’s people skills.”
Spectrum News reporter Loretta Boniti, who is in her 12th year covering the statehouse, said he is private but accessible. He lingers on the Senate floor after the session so reporters can ask him questions. Even in our charged political atmosphere Berger sets an example of how to be fair and respectful, Boniti said, pointing to his relationship with Sen. Dan Blue, the Democratic Senate Minority Leader from Wake County.
“They dramatically disagree on so many issues, [but] if you see the two together, they get along,” Boniti said.
Statehouse observers say that one of Berger’s closest friends was former Sen. Tom Apodaca from Hendersonville. Apodaca retired in 2016, but the two friends still talk frequently.
In the parking garage, Berger takes a minute to share a video that Apodaca sent him. It’s of a legendary tirade by former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda after he was accused of ordering one of his pitchers to hit an opposing player. Apodaca sent it with a simple “RIP” after Lasorda—who started his baseball career as a pitcher for a Class D North Carolina State League team, the Concord Weavers—passed away in January.
The recording is laden with f-bombs and braggadocio. Berger plays the clip, careful to note that his wife wouldn’t approve of the language. An avid Yankees fan, Berger enjoys Lasorda’s rant for its tough talk, but also, it appears, for its depiction of a man passionate about his team and leading the way with panache. When the video ends, Berger chuckles and heads up the steps to meet his wife for lunch.
By 2003, during Berger’s second term, the Republicans still had just 22 seats.
“I found out pretty quick that 28 beats 22, as surely as 35 beats 15,” Berger said. “So nothing really changed in terms of policy.”
Berger was elected minority leader in 2004 and set his eyes on the Democratic majority, doubling down on fundraising and candidate recruitment. But the tipping point, according to Berger, was the hiring of Jim Blaine as director of the state Republican Senate Caucus. The first thing they did was steal the Democratic Party’s playbook on how to organize, fundraise, and recruit candidates.
“Nobody had bothered to copy their play and run it,” Berger said. “[Blaine] is good at seeing solutions that in retrospect appear obvious, and going [to] get them done.”
Democratic success nationally in 2006 and 2008 stemmed Republican efforts in North Carolina. But in 2010, the tide shifted.
“It was really clear to me that we were going to take the Senate in 2010,” Blaine said. “The surge in African American turnout is what sank us in 2008. It was pretty apparent that there was no way that turnout could be replicated for the Democrats in 2010. And without it, we would likely pick up a majority.”
Sen. Bill Rabon first met Berger before the 2010 election cycle. Rabon, a veterinarian from Brunswick County, was eyeing a run in the 8th Senate district. The two men talked about fundraising, and Berger warned him that the path to the office and job was difficult.
“He was very frank, and he was straightforward,” Rabon said. “He didn’t paint anything as being rosy. It’s going to be a hard job, and be willing to do it if you’re going to get in.”
Rabon went back to his district in southeastern North Carolina and won, joining the red tide that flipped the state Senate from 30-20 Democrat to 31-19 Republican. Republicans also flipped the House, regaining a majority they had briefly held in the 1990s.
Chad Adams, a conservative commentator and former Lee County commissioner, said Berger showed a remarkable degree of patience executing his plan, winning several seats that had been heavily gerrymandered by the Democratic majority.
“Berger is a believer that North Carolina is a center-right state, and his actions have been rewarded,” Adams said.
But for Berger, the long wait for power elicited a slightly different reaction.
“It’s sort of like the dog that caught the car,” Berger said.
After decades in the minority, the Republican party suddenly had the reins. The governing headlines arrived fast and heavy. They had little to no experience running committees, nor any members of former Republican majorities to ask for advice. Instead, Berger reached out to the National Conference of State Legislatures for help. The group sent legislators from other states to hold classes on governance and how to run a legislative committee.
With the help of Blaine, Berger started fitting “personalities and abilities” with committees and roles. One member was a former county manager; another was a lawyer with experience in the healthcare space.
“There was significant talent there, even though we didn’t have people that had experience in the Senate running the show,” Berger said.
The steep learning curve didn’t slow the pace of change.
Republicans went to work reshaping the state with some success and some missteps. National ridicule over House Bill 2. Court rulings on redistricting efforts. Massive teacher protests. Near-constant turmoil at the state’s university system, driven by new appointees from the state legislature. Knockdown, drag-out fights over Medicaid expansion that ultimately left the state without a formal 2019-2020 budget. A scathing ProPublica examination of the state’s unemployment system.
Many of the changes drew significant progressive backlash. But they fit into Berger’s view of government and were colored by his own experience.
“There are so many opportunities for folks in this state and this country,” Berger said. “For the most part, if folks have not improved their lot in life, part of the blame has to be on them.”
However, the Republican assault on the system shocked Christensen.
“To me, it is outrageous—a state filled with working people, lowest unemployment benefits in the country,” Christensen said.
“It shows a very large disdain for working people, or the belief that you can easily get another job. To me that is an example of really bad public policy, but they’re getting away with it, even though working people make up the GOP base.”
Not every headline was bad. North Carolina enters the spring with over $5 billion in funding reserves that may allow the state to navigate this fiscal year with limited cuts. A massive bipartisan Medicaid transformation led Politico to call North Carolina’s approach one of the most innovative in the country. Tax cuts have helped elevate the state to the top of national ratings for business climate.
Any attempt at a report card will be shaded by one’s ideological lean. Republican rule has either been a disaster for a once-progressive beacon of the South, or a renaissance and renewed model for free-market principles put into practice.
But amid the partisan fights, Berger has maintained an open-door policy and a willingness to work with senators across the aisle.
“He doesn’t do necessarily what I want him to do, and I don’t necessarily do what he might want me to do, but I think we execute our roles quite well, and nothing obstructs our ability to do that,” said Blue.
Blue noted that, legislator to legislator, he and Berger get along.
“He would call and get my take on things,” Blue said. “He’d always tell me why he was moving things one way or the other. Which is a very cooperative way to get things done in the legislature.”
Still, as the headlines show, Berger’s tenure has been far from free of partisanship. Berger maintains that at least some of the state’s high-profile fights are less about policy than political positioning. The state’s voter ID law, high on the wish list of most conservative lawmakers and subject to repeated litigation, is among those fights.
“I think the criticism is driven more by politics than by the policy itself,” Berger said. “The people in the State of North Carolina support the idea of people having to show their identification when they vote.”
More than 30 states require an ID of some sort to vote. Opponents of the measure argue that it creates needless obstacles to voting.
“They will say they oppose it because it suppresses the vote, but I daresay they’ve not been able to produce a single individual who was not able—would not be able to—cast a vote based on the fact that they didn’t have an identification card,” Berger said.
But when asked why the law was needed, Berger couldn’t name an inciting incident.
“One of the things that the Democrats are probably right about is, if you are basing your support, or your feeling that a photo voter ID is required, on the idea of fraud, I don’t know that there’s evidence of that happening in large enough numbers to change the outcome of elections,” he said. “But I do think that there are enough people who think that could happen, so that if you have a close election, people end up questioning the outcome. And I can’t think of anything that is as dangerous or as harmful to the functioning of a representative government than to have half the people think that the person who says he was elected, or she was elected, maybe wasn’t elected. And I think photo ID is something that mitigates against that.”
Critics counter that politics have affected Berger’s policy choices as well. Hall said Berger has changed from a lawmaker interested in improving government to an opportunist who is beholden to lobbyists and the endless hunt for PAC money.
When Berger was a first-term lawmaker and Republicans were the minority party in the state Senate, Hall said Berger was an important ally in campaign finance reform efforts. In 2001, Berger served on a subcommittee that unanimously endorsed a public financing program for legislative and statewide candidates. According to Hall, Berger joined Sen. Patrick Ballantine in convincing the Republican Senate caucus to back the plan, in part because GOP candidates were at a severe fundraising disadvantage. But, when Democrats narrowed the bill to only cover appellate judicial candidates, Berger joined other GOP lawmakers in voting against it.
In recent years, Hall filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections after learning Berger was using campaign money to pay for a house in Raleigh. The News & Observer reported that Berger and his wife had bought a townhouse in Raleigh and his campaign committee paid $1,500 a month in rent to a limited liability company managed by the lawmaker; the payments continued after Berger bought a condominium and sold the house to a lobbyist for an $80,000 profit.
Berger noted that state ethics and elections officials approved the payments, but after Hall petitioned the state Board of Elections, it reversed course and prohibited the practice.
“He was keen on lobbying and ethics reform,” Hall said. “Once he became the head of the Senate, all that changed. He wouldn’t talk to me about new ways to improve government.”
Watts, the Caucus political director, meets Berger at the back door of the GOP headquarters. Dressed in a button-down and khakis, Watts weaves through the hallway, which is jammed with the detritus of the 2020 election. Maps showing election results—colored more red than blue—are propped up on tables. Papers are stacked in the corner near old campaign signs. The whole bottom floor is dank and dark, more like a factory than the heart of the GOP political machine.
Berger makes a point of separating church and state, if you will.
“The effort is to try and keep the state business separate as much as possible,” Berger says.
He settles into Watts’ cramped office and opens a black binder with the names and numbers of the PACs he needs to call.
“This is the least fun, most necessary part of the gig,” Watts says.
Crossing a leg to hold the binder in his lap, Berger starts dialing. Though these are fundraising calls, they don’t sound that way when Berger makes them. The people on the other line sound happy to hear from him.
Berger asks about their families and gets updates on their health concerns, especially around the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re affable calls—but Berger is always closing. Everything leads to the ask.
“Just calling to touch base with you to see if y’all’s PAC might be in a position to contribute,” he says, over and over again.
It’s cordial efficiency. He needs money and he dutifully asks for it each time, explaining that if the person wants to contribute to the Republican Senate Caucus, they need to do so before the session starts.
“Once we get into session, we won’t be able to have these conversations,” he says.
As the calls wrap up, GOP Chairman Michael Whatley pokes his head in to chat. They talk about the insurrection on Jan. 6. Whatley boasts that he was one of the first state GOP heads to put out a statement condemning the mob.
“Last week was tough,” Whatley admits. “No two things about it.”
Whatley and Berger both look grave. Neither seems comfortable with their party being associated with the actions of violent protesters assaulting the “foundations of our democracy.” The mob tainted what, in reality, was a very good year for Republicans in North Carolina—North Carolina Republicans maintained their majorities in both legislative chambers, meaning they will control redistricting for the next 10 years, based on the U.S. census data slated for release this fall.
“What you did in the legislature was huge for us,” Whatley tells Berger.
Both men agree that what is happening in Washington only makes what they’re doing in state government more important. Berger walked a fine line between supporting ex-President Trump and not being labeled, as he puts it, “a full-throated Trump loyalist.”
In the chamber the following day, he warns his fellow lawmakers not to make the same mistakes those in Washington are making.
“We become an unhealthy body when we conclude a difference of opinion is born from a darkness in one’s heart, rather than an honest difference in one’s mind,” he says.
Blue, who applauds the speech, says Berger is sincere in his promise to work with Governor Roy Cooper to find common ground. But back in the Republican headquarters the day before session, Berger’s focus is less high-minded and more pragmatically centered on what the future holds for his majority and party.
“A lot [is] being written about what the near-term future holds,” he says to Whatley. “We have to hold it together.”