Raleigh, N.C. — Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest got a promotion of sorts last weekend.
With Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper traveling out of the state, Forest assumed the role of North Carolina's acting governor, complete with all the powers of the state's top executive.
But that was news Monday to Forest's office, which was never notified of Cooper's absence.
"We never get told when he's out of state," Jamey Falkenbury, a spokesman for the Lieutenant Governor's Office, said. "We just find out afterwards once it's on the news or something."
A provision of North Carolina's constitution automatically elevates the lieutenant to acting governor when the full-time chief executive is absent from the state. There's no constitutional requirement to notify the lieutenant governor, but Forest's staff says Cooper's failure to do so marks a significant departure from the practices of his Republican predecessor, former Gov. Pat McCrory.
"Fortunately for North Carolina, when Gov. Cooper has been out of the state, there has not been a significant natural disaster or manmade crisis that would require the authorization of the acting governor to take place," Falkenbury said. "If there was such a situation, North Carolinians could suffer from a lack of a timely response by their government."
In an email Monday afternoon, a spokesman from Cooper's office said his staff notifies the lieutenant governor "as needed" about the governor's schedule and that he "remains in communication with staff, cabinet and emergency response officials" while on the road. Since he took office in January, Cooper has left the state about a dozen times.
"He will delegate authority if ever needed," Cooper spokesman Jamal Little said in a statement.
Although Cooper's office routinely releases his schedule to the media for planning purposes, none of the recent releases mentioned the governor's trip out of state over the weekend. Little confirmed the governor's trip to visit family only after WRAL News asked about a Twitter photo showing the governor traveling economy class on a flight from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Monday.
Past governors have drawn criticism for failing to alert the public about out-of-state trips. On a Saturday afternoon in April 2011, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue was visiting family and friends in Kentucky when a rash of tornadoes swept through central North Carolina, flattening buildings and killing several people. There was no response from the governor for several hours, prompting outcry from Republicans.
Acting governors don't often have much on their plates aside from issuing the occasional state of emergency. But in California, which has a similar constitutional provision, the state Supreme Court in the 1980s upheld one Republican lieutenant governor's use of his newfound power to make appointments and sign bills – over the objections of the Democratic governor.
Gerry Cohen, a lawyer who spent decades crafting laws and constitutional provisions at the General Assembly, said he knows of no law requiring the governor to inform the lieutenant governor of his absence, but the constitution is clear: When the governor is out of state, the lieutenant governor becomes the state's acting governor.
"Whether he tells anyone or not, the lieutenant governor is governor," Cohen said.
North Carolina's governor and lieutenant governor have only been from opposing parties a couple of other times going back to the 1970s, when James Holshouser became the state's first Republican governor since the turn of the century. Holshouser's chief of staff, Phil Kirk, said Tuesday that the administration "always" notified Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt when the governor headed out of state.
Then again, Kirk said, Holshouser and Hunt weren't about to run against each other.
Forest is expected to run for governor in three years.
Partisan politics were also less bitter then. Kirk said Hunt never tried to take advantage of his powers as acting governor.
"They got along very well, and things were very bipartisan in those days," he said.