BY ROB CHRISTENSEN – staff writer News & Observer
Tags: news | politics | state

Phil Berger is a pickup-truck Republican, and not just because he drives a 2001 Ford.

Berger, 59, of Eden, worked his way up from a blue-collar background to become an attorney and Senate Republican leader. With the Republican takeover of the legislature on Tuesday – a 31-19 majority in the Senate – in January he will replace Democrat Marc Basnight as president pro tem of the state Senate.

His background helped shape his politics, making him one of the more conservative voices in the legislature. If he can pull himself up by his bootstraps through hard work and discipline, why can’t others, he asks.

That small-government view is also likely to influence him as he leads the Senate Republicans next year in trying to patch a gaping $3.5 billion budget shortfall through painful cuts, while looking for ways to reduce taxes to stimulate North Carolina’s lagging economy.

“It would be my hope that we would be in a position to reduce the tax burden on the people and the businesses of North Carolina because that is the way we are going to unleash the creative and growth potential of the private sector,” Berger said in an interview Wednesday, one day after Republicans captured control of the legislature.

Like Basnight, Berger, has made a long journey to his position of power.

The son of a Danville, Va. factory worker, Berger in his early 20s seemed headed for a different sort of life. He married, dropped out of community college and worked for U.S. Gypsum unloading large sheets of cardboard at the end of a conveyer belt.

“It didn’t take me too long to realize that is not where I wanted to be in five years down the road,” Berger recalled.

He got a job at a Kroger grocery store and moved up to become manager of the produce department, which allowed him the flexibility to go to night school. He graduated from college at age 28.

With his wife working, Berger attended Wake Forest University law school and eventually joined a law practice in Rockingham County, near the Virginia border. One son is now a local district attorney and another is his law partner.

Believes in opportunity

His path is a life lesson he has taken to heart.

“I think if I was able to do something to help improve my education, to improve opportunity for our family, that is something that ought to be available to everybody,” Berger said. “That is something that is available to everybody who is willing to take a risk and work hard. The hard work and determination part of it, for me, is a key component.”

Berger has long had an interest in politics and history – he is currently reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge. He cites George Washington, Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley among the figures he admires.

He ran for the state House in 1994, losing a close GOP primary.

In 2000, he was elected to the state Senate and rose to Senate Republican leader in 2005. When the GOP caucus meets Nov. 18, he is expected to be unanimously chosen their leader.

Leading conservative

Berger has carved out a reputation as one of the more conservative members of the Senate. He notes that the Civitas Institute, a Raleigh-based think tank, ranked him as having the most conservative voting record in the Senate one year and the third most conservative record last year.

“I would say, from a fiscal standpoint, I would consider myself very conservative,” Berger said. “From an overall standpoint, I believe that individuals have a right and have a duty to lead their lives and make their own decisions. I chafe at the idea of their government telling them how to live their lives. Is that libertarian? I don’t know.”

Berger is a soft-spoken, genial, unflappable man who runs two miles every morning. He is comfortable handling questions from reporters.

“He is a very thoughtful man,” said Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican. “He is very deliberate. He is intelligent. He knows the issues.”

“He is a consensus builder,” Stevens added. “His style is not top-down. I see Phil reaching out to the new minority and working with the Democrats where possible and trying to find compromise. I think he will work well with the governor.”

Vows cooperation

Berger pledges to work with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, noting that she was elected the state’s chief executive.

“It is important that we do everything we can to move forward with an agreement on a broad range of things,” Berger said.

The Republicans have pushed for issues in recent years that have been blocked by the Democratic majority, including a constitutional amendment to restrict the growth of government, a constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriages, a ban on annexation by towns and cities and changes to laws regarding eminent domain.

Economy is tops

Berger said that while some of those issues may be debated – and perhaps even voted upon – the Republican Senate caucus would focus on economic issues.

“The message from voters,” Berger said, “is they want our budget in order, and they want our education system improved and they want opportunity for businesses and people to grow and prosper. And they want a good quality of life in North Carolina. That is job one for us.” or 919-829-4532