N.C. senator to become longest-serving legislative leader

North Carolina Senate President Phil Berger (R) will become the longest-tenured legislative leader in America when Oregon’s Senate president leaves office later this year.
North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, right, speaking at a news conference in Raleigh, N.C. on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

North Carolina Senate Republicans on Monday re-elected Sen. Phil Berger (R) as president pro tempore for a 13th consecutive year, putting him in position to become the longest-tenured legislative leader in the nation.

Berger will take the crown from Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (D), who is stepping down from leadership this year after nearly 20 years. Another long-serving legislative leader, former Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R), died this month after a dozen years in leadership.

Berger, 70, has served in the state Senate since 2001. He served as minority leader from 2005 to 2011, and as Senate president after Republicans won the majority in the 2010 midterm elections for the first time since Reconstruction.

“I never expected to be the president pro tem of the Senate,” Berger said in a brief interview Tuesday. Berger said he had not realized he would take over the top spot until Pluribus News inquired.

An attorney by trade, he moved to North Carolina to attend Wake Forest University School of Law. He represents four counties in the Piedmont, along the state’s northern border with Virginia.

“I thought I had something to offer. I felt like the part of North Carolina where I live had some issues that the state legislature would have some impact on, and I felt like I could make a difference,” he said of his decision to run for office.

North Carolina’s system of government gives unusual authority to the legislature, a legacy of Democratic rules changes in the 1980s meant to curtail the power of a Republican governor. Berger has further consolidated power, using his position to vex governors of both parties.

In office, Berger and his allies have been at the core of a series of efforts to redraw political boundaries to benefit Republicans. The latest of those efforts will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court next month in Moore v. Harper — named for House Speaker Tim Moore (R) — that will test the so-called independent state legislatures theory.

Berger said he has maintained his position on the strength of a good staff, a responsive approach to his members, and “an understanding of a little bit about personalities.”

“As a body, the Senate over the past 12-plus years has changed the trajectory of North Carolina and the direction. I’m obviously very pleased to have been a part of that, and I think the state is demonstrably in a better position now than it was when we took over,” he said.

But the North Carolinian has a ways to go before he breaks into the ranks of the longest-serving legislative leaders of all time. 

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (R) stepped down from his post in January 2021 after serving atop the House for 38 years. Madigan held the gavel for all but two years of the preceding four decades, a brief stint in which Republicans held control after the 1994 elections. 

South Carolina House Speaker Solomon Blatt (D) led his state off and on for 32 years, ending in 1973. Georgia Speaker Tom Murphy (D) served in leadership for 30 years ending in 2003.

The longest-tenured Senate president was Maryland’s Mike Miller (D), who led his chamber for 33 years before stepping down in 2020. Miller died the following year. Courtney’s tenure stands as the second-longest Senate streak of all time.

Berger said he hasn’t considered an endpoint to his own career, though he has begun referring to his “sell-by date.”

“I’ve got no plans to stop. I enjoy what I get to do. I’m in good health, knock on wood,” he said. “As long as my members and colleagues see fit to let me do what they give me the authority to do, I’m happy to keep doing it.”