Who Is Phil Berger, the Most Powerful NC Senator?

Who Is Phil Berger, the Most Powerful NC Senator?

North Carolina Republicans easily held onto their Senate majority in this year’s state General Assembly elections. This victory gave Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, NC, a small amount of relief. But then he began thinking of what comes next.

“Well, you know, the funny thing is, you think in the run-up, ‘Boy, I’ll be glad when I get to Tuesday, everything will be taken care of, I can relax a little bit,’” he said. “But then what happens is you get the result, and then there’s this whole other list of things that you need to do that you knew was there.”

“Things you need to do” means a laundry list of items for Berger, as the NC Senate prepares for the 2021 legislative calendar.

To give context: Phil Berger is among the most powerful politicians in NC. His name draws a variety of reactions from anyone who follows state politics. This story isn’t just about Phil Berger and his NC reputation, though. Sure, his political career will figure into it, but we’ve learned more about the man behind the title.

Phil Berger NC senator
Sen. Phil Berger.
Image courtesy of NC General Assembly.

Berger showed an early interest in politics.

Berger grew up in Danville, VA. In some regards, he hasn’t moved too far from home — he and his wife, Pat, met before they’d finished high school there.

Politics also drew Berger’s attention in high school. He said he became involved with a group of teenage Republicans in 1968. Most of that involvement meant passing out pamphlets and working on signs. He was just 16 years old.

However, 1968 proved a tumultuous year for the United States. Several events had taken center stage: the Vietnam War raged, African Americans fought against racism, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Robert Kennedy was also assassinated while running for president.

But despite that monumental year, no single event spurred Berger into politics. 

“I just had an interest,” Berger said. “… I consider myself very open-minded, very interested in folks being fairly treated, and I just felt like the Republican party, for me, where I lived, was a party that fit where I fit philosophically.”

Berger didn’t go straight to college after high school. He eventually got there though, graduating from Danville Community College and later Averett University. 

After his graduation, Berger went to law school at Wake Forest University in 1980. Life at that time included much more than passing classes: he and Pat had two young sons, Phil, Jr., and Kevin, and both parents worked jobs also. Berger painted apartments at night, and Pat worked in administration at the university. She gave birth to their daughter, Ashley, after Berger graduated law school.

How did the Berger family manage those taut years in Winston-Salem?

“You know, when you’re in your 20s, you can do things that just — you look back on it, and I ask myself the same question, frankly,” Berger said. “We just did what we needed to do.”

The Bergers briefly lived in both Charlotte and Raleigh, before they settled in August 1984 in Eden (less than 40 miles north of Greensboro).

Berger started serving on the Rockingham County Board of Elections in the mid-1980s. He also became involved in local civic organizations — the Jaycees, the Chamber of Commerce and the Boys and Girls Club.

Then Virginia Foxx, who served in the state Senate before being elected to Congress in 2004, called Berger before the 2000 election. She told him that a seat in the NC General Assembly would soon open.

Berger and His Life Away from NC Politics

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Phil Berger we met outside the NC legislature also holds a few nuggets that could pique your interest.

His and Pat’s three children and four grandchildren take up a lot of their time. Like most grandparents, Berger said he goes to his grandchildren’s sporting events when he can.

phil berger nc grandchildren
Phil Berger and his grandchildren.
Image courtesy of Phil Berger via Facebook.

The Bergers also love to travel, but their chances for that hobby grew limited because of the COVID-19. No matter who you are, the pandemic has likely limited your travel options by now.

Of all the places he has visited with his family, Berger says his favorite trip was three decades ago because it fulfilled one of his greatest passions — baseball.

The Berger family loaded up and drove to Cooperstown, NY, to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The crowning visit to the museum featured as part of a weeklong trip to upstate New York and the New York City area. Berger (surprisingly for a Southern boy) is a Yankees fan. His father, who is from New York, was a Yankees fan. And in turn, most of Berger’s children are Yankee fans also.

However, one son (and and each of his children) cheers for the Boston Red Sox. Berger declined to name which son roots for the Yankees’ bitter rival.

“But what’s even worse is he’s turned his children into Red Sox fans,” Berger joked. “It’s bad enough when you’ve got a child, but when you have grandchildren that rag you about baseball games, it’s a little difficult to come back at them the way you would other people.”

Berger Tries to Learn What He Can From NC History

What’s another passion Berger holds? History and biographies of American leaders. Recently, he has been revisiting the Reconstruction period and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration.

“I think there are some fascinating things that took place during that time, and a number of them are still with us,” Berger said.

Want a quick recap? Grant served as president during a major federal effort to stamp out the Ku Klux Klan in the South and ensure that recently freed slaves could participate in government — either through voting or holding elected positions.

Congress passed The Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871 and Grant later signed it. The law allowed the federal government to bypass habeas corpus in those areas, use federal marshals and troops to arrest KKK members and then bring them to trial in federal courts.

But national politics pulled this chance for harsher anti-KKK intervention off the board. In 1876, the electoral college failed to decide a winner in that year’s presidential election. Berger said that, in response to the national uncertainty, Grant brokered a deal after the election that essentially prevented a second Civil War.

However, part of that deal required that federal troops leave the South. This removal allowed for the rise of the Jim Crow South and the revival of the KKK, in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Berger said removing federal troops was a huge mistake. However, he also said that we could use a different lens when looking back to 1876 from 2020.

“I think it’s unfair to be overly critical of some of the decisions that were made,” Berger said. “You can say it was the wrong decision, but I think you’ve got to give him a little room for the environment they were in at the time.”

How Berger Entered the Fray of NC Politics

Image courtesy of Phil Berger via Facebook.

Berger was elected to the NC General Assembly in 2000 and was chosen as Senate minority leader in 2004. He became Senate President pro-tempore in 2010, when the Republicans took control of both houses of the General Assembly.

North Carolina politics started a hell of a ride after the 2010 election. The state received national attention for what the Reublican-controlled legislature did with gerrymandering, restrictive voter ID laws, attempted bans on same-sex marriage, and the now-infamous House Bill 2. 

Those legislative fights led to a familiar cycle in North Carolina: a governmental back and forth that reversed the General Assembly’s initiatives. Courts struck down or nullified the gerrymandered districts, the voter ID laws and the constitutional amendment defining marriage. State legislators and Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 repealed House Bill 2.

Through that time, Republican legislators in the Tar Heel State didn’t have a good run. But Berger’s ready for a political fight.

“I enjoy the battle of ideas, and I enjoy articulating a position on a policy matter,” he said. “I enjoy and feel very comfortable with providing support for those things that we have done and allowing the people of the state of North Carolina to decide whether those are things they support, because that’s how our system is supposed to work.”

What’s next in the NC General Assembly?

In the immediate future: Gov. Cooper won a second term, while Berger and Rep. Tim Moore will remain in their leadership positions in the state Senate and House. The governor and the legislature had already fought over Medicaid expansion, which held up the most-recent state budget.

So, could the dynamic change over the next two years? Maybe, maybe not. Berger stayed coy on that answer, given how fresh the election is.

“A lot of it will depend on how Governor Cooper responds to his re-election and the holding of the legislature by Republicans,” Berger said.

And could retirement finally come for Phil Berger, when he would step back from NC politics?

Berger joked that he and his family talk often — usually around election time — about how much longer he will continue working in the General Assembly. It’s not a complicated answer.

“As long as the voters are willing to vote for me and as long as the people in the General Assembly are willing to support me for a leadership position, I’m perfectly happy to continue,” Berger said. “Like I said, I enjoy what I get to do.”

Berger comprises one piece of the larger NC political landscape. Make sure you revisit the election results, political news coverage and the burgeoning cannabis legalization push. What more should you know about the NC election?