RALEIGH, NC — Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper finally Tuesday got to bask in his victory in the close race for North Carolina governor, telling supporters his narrow triumph over Republican incumbent Pat McCrory is a victory for the middle class and for the state's diverse population.
"Hello friends and hello North Carolina — finally," Governor Cooper said just after taking the dais in front of several hundred people cheering for him in Raleigh. "It is also humbling and it has been a long journey for all of us, but we are finally here."
Holding an evening victory rally four weeks after Election Day wasn't something Cooper, the outgoing attorney general, had anticipated. But McCrory didn't concede until Monday after most formal election protests were set aside and a partial county recount showed Cooper still ahead by a little more than 10,000 votes from 4.7 million cast.
Cooper's campaign essentially was a referendum on North Carolina's recent conservative political shift thanks to McCrory and the GOP-controlled legislature. The prime example Cooper had for the rightward slant came when McCrory signed a bill last March that limited LGBT rights and directed transgender people to use the restrooms in schools and government buildings corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate.
Cooper said during the campaign the law known as House Bill 2 is discriminatory and vowed to repeal it, although that will remain difficult even when he takes office next month given the General Assembly is still controlled by Republicans.
Still with the gubernatorial results, "we have decided that North Carolina is welcoming," Cooper told the crowd, and "we have decided that North Carolina is a place where people of all kinds can come together to work, to study and to worship, and to live without fear or understanding."
Cooper told the crowd as governor he would press for higher salaries for teachers and state employees, work to make law enforcement "strong and fair" and fight to ensure that "women and their rights are respected." He got even louder applause when he said he would work to make voting easier. Democrats so far have successfully fought in the courts to throw out a 2013 law signed by McCrory that required photo identification to vote and reduce the number of early voting days.
Referring to the audience outside of the rally — more people than not voted for someone other than Cooper when the Libertarian candidate is included — Cooper also tried to speak a bipartisan tone.
"Regardless of whether you voted for me, I will be a governor who works for everyone," he said.
Cooper had proclaimed himself the winner on election night, but the celebration was muted because he spoke to supporters after midnight and Cooper's lead over McCrory was only 5,000 votes. The margin doubled in recent days as provisional ballots were scrutinized and counted by county election boards, but many supporters had been anxious during the wait.
"I had no idea whether it was going to happen," said Rob Gelblum, an environmental attorney from Raleigh and Cooper supporter attending the event. "We've all been holding our breath, with our fingers crossed, and it's time to celebrate the victory."
The belated rally was a broader party for North Carolina Democrats, who have been completely out of power in state government for the past four years. A victory in a state Supreme Court race on Election Day also means registered Democrats will comprise a majority of the justices for the first time since 1998. Speaking before Cooper on Tuesday was Democrat Josh Stein, who was elected to succeed him as attorney general.