Despite holding the relatively obscure office of the Commissioner of Labor, Cherie Berry has become one of the most well-known and beloved politicians in North Carolina history. With a funny name and omnipresence in state elevators, no politician in modern North Carolina history has seen such an unusual cult following. To the disappointment of many, Berry announced she would not run for re-election in 2020, ending a 20-year run as Commissioner of Labor on a high note. But how did Cherie Berry win and become the mainstay she is today? The story can be found in the massive shifts in North Carolina’s political landscape.
Before statewide office
Cherie Berry was born in 1946 in Newton, North Carolina. Located in Catawba County, a Republican stronghold in the foothills of North Carolina that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1948, Berry spent much of her early life receiving an education. By 1993, Berry had established herself as a businesswoman; she was first elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1993 and served until 2000. Over time, she came to chair the welfare reform committee. However, her ambition did not end at the legislative level, and she decided to run for state office.
2000 – The nailbiter
In the 2000 election, Berry was able to eke out a 7,000 vote win over Berger, becoming the first Republican and first woman elected to be Commissioner of Labor since the office was created in 1887. Among the 10 Council of State races, Berry was the only Republican to win despite a decisive victory by George W. Bush in the presidential race. This first run was an example of the east-west split that characterized North Carolina for decades at the state level. Although Berry was clobbered in the eastern portion of the state, the traditional stronghold of the Democratic Party, she performed respectably in urban Wake County (49%) while winning New Hanover, home of the major city of Wilmington. She performed the worst in the southeast and northeast, racially diverse rural areas that have the strongest Democratic roots outside of Durham and Chapel Hill. In the west, however, Berry performed strongly, pulling 49% in Mecklenburg County and winning urban Forsyth (52%) and Buncombe (51%) while losing only a handful of ancestrally Democratic counties in the Appalachian mountains as well as idiosyncratic Cleveland County, which in many ways voted similarly to the east; in 1968, it was the only county in western North Carolina to back George Wallace, who won most of the eastern counties in the state.
2004 – An ordinary win
Berry managed to hold her office comfortably in 2004, defeating future Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin by a nearly 140,000 vote margin (a 52.1%-47.9% win). In many ways, the map is remarkably similar to 2000, with the exceptions being minor – swapping Buncombe for Wake, winning some Republican-trending counties in the east like Beaufort, Brunswick, and Pender, and weakening the Democratic advantage in their rural strongholds. At this point, Berry was nothing more than an ordinary statewide officer; she had not yet been engrained in North Carolina culture, nor had she built her cult following. Instead, this was just a fairly average Republican win in an otherwise strong year for North Carolina Republicans.
2008 – The elevator factor
In 2008, Berry faced a major challenge in the blue wave that swept Auditor Les Merritt and Senator Elizabeth Dole out of office. Berry managed to hold off Democrat Mary Fant Donnan by 50,000 votes (a 50.6%-49.4% win) and was one of only two Republicans to win statewide that year (the other being Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, a fellow mainstay of North Carolina politics). Despite a slide in the state’s urban areas, Berry managed to flip a handful of rural counties in the east and west while holding the urban bleed enough to narrowly win.
How did she do it? One way was a stunt that has become infamous in North Carolina politics: Cherie Berry put a plaque featuring her picture and signature in every single elevator in the state. This gave Berry immediate recognition to most North Carolinians, many of whom regularly use elevators. According to political scientist Jacob Smith, Berry overperformed her typical margins in places with a higher concentration of evaluators. While it might not look like it on the map, Berry’s urban decline was probably lessened by this factor, which might well have enabled her to win in the worst year for North Carolina Republicans in decades.
2012 – The first landslide
The legend of Cherie Berry would only grow from 2008 on. Her photograph had become ubiquitous in the state, where she was affectionately called the “Elevator Lady” or “Elevator Queen”. She has also had multiple indie rock songs made in her honor (I’m not kidding, look it up). Unsurprisingly, Berry also began to play hard into the elevator image, running an ad in 2012 that seemed to exist only to remind people that her face is in all the elevators. It soon became clear that when Cherie Berry lifts you up, nobody can bring her down, and her first landslide (by North Carolina standards) would show why.
Berry routed former John Brooks, who sought to reclaim an office he had held from 1977 to 1993. Despite her opponent’s experience, Berry won a resounding victory 53.3%-46.7%, an impressive margin of over 280,000 votes. A look at the map still shows remnants of the east-west split; Brooks won a handful of rural eastern counties that voted for Romney (Chowan, Columbus, Greene, Hyde, Lenoir, and Tyrrell) while also running ahead of Obama in counties like Duplin, Jones, and Sampson. However, Berry maintained her strength in the state’s urban and suburban areas, winning the Obama counties of Chatham, Forsyth, and Wake. Most impressively, Berry only lost the urban Democratic bastions of Durham and Orange by 41 and 25 points, respectively. Those seem like awful margins, but Romney lost both of these densely-populated urban counties by 52 points each. Berry’s unique strength in ordinarily Democratic urban areas no doubt helped propelled her to a decisive win, but those few rural holdovers kept the margin from being too far out of hand. Among the 10-member Council of State’s four Republican winners, Berry finished behind only McCrory in the overall vote.
2016 – The last hurrah
2016 proved to be a significant election in North Carolina history; while Democrats narrowly won the Governor’s office back, they lost control of the Council of State for the first time since 1900 and lost the statewide races for President and Senator by relatively large margins. Democrats had a seemingly credible opponent for Berry in former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker. However, Meeker made the fatal mistake of promising to remove Berry’s picture from all elevators if he were to win. Voters were seemingly disgusted by this suggestion and handed Berry her biggest win yet, a 10-point rout that saw Berry maintain her strength in urban areas while finally breaking eastern North Carolina like the Kool-Aid man. Berry managed to flip Bladen, Caswell, Chowan, Gates, Granville, Greene, Hyde, Lenoir, Nash, Richmond, and Tyrell, and she very nearly carried Pasquotank and Pitt. This utter decimation in eastern North Carolina’s rural areas was buoyed by Berry holding respectable margins in the urban counties despite a national trend against Republicans. The only sliver of dignity Democrats could draw from this map was winning back liberal Chatham as well as Meeker’s home county of Wake.
Looking back and ahead
As can be seen above, Cherie Berry saw a massive swing across the state from her first statewide run in 2000 to her last in 2016. Only a handful of urban Democratic counties swung against her, and none by more than 8 percentage points. In contrast, rural Camden County in the Outer Banks region saw a whopping 27 percentage point swing to Berry, and even though she never managed to win it, Robeson wasn’t far behind at 24 percentage points. In the west, she saw gains, however narrow, in even the most Republican counties, and in the east her performance in 2016 was night-and-day compared to 2000.
Looking forward, the future of the Commissioner of Labor’s office is unclear. Berry’s unique folk status among Tar Heel voters gave her a nearly unbreakable hold on the office, but Democrats are going to push hard to reclaim an office they have long felt was mishandled. It remains to be seen if anyone would actually remove the familiar safety notices in every elevator. I’m not going to lie – it feels incredibly strange to take an elevator in any other state without seeing Berry’s familiar picture. Regardless of how the election goes, however, it’s certain that an era in North Carolina politics will come to an end in 2020.