It took a little longer than expected, but the Brian Berger era in New Hanover County ended this morning when Skip Watkins and Rob Zapple took their oaths to join the County Commission. The end was supposed to come three weeks ago, but a protest of November’s election and an appeal to the state dragged things on.
Not that it mattered, really. Berger had not attended a commission meeting since May, which was the first time he’d shown up since a December arrest. A month later, he was back in jail after being arrested in Beech Mountain surrounded by weapons in Justin LaNasa’s mountain house. And that led to the final bizarre, sad chapter of Berger’s life in public office.
I remember the first time I met Berger. It was the fall of 2008, and I was part of the panel for a New Hanover County Commission candidate forum in Carolina Beach. Berger was a Libertarian at the time, and by nature and somewhat by definition an outsider. It was pretty clear that as a third-party candidate he had little shot of winning, but he seemed more intent on making statements than needing to win, and he made some. That outsider label allowed him to fire off at the incumbents without much fear, and he began to dent some armor.
Two years later Berger was back, but this time as a Tea Party Republican in a year when that was almost all you needed to win election. 2010 was full of anti-incumbent sentiment and a vote-the-bums-out mentality for many voters. Berger seemed empowered. In a very crowded field for New Hanover County Commissioner, he came armed for the fight and set himself apart, for better or worse, from the other candidates.
When Berger finished a close third behind Rick Catlin and incumbent Bill Caster in the Republican primary, he had the audacity to ask Caster just to step aside and let new blood in. When Caster refused, Berger went on the attack and won the run-off in a landslide.
It was hard to really figure out Berger and find out who he was, mainly because he rarely gave full answers. He claimed he was a consultant, but he would never say for whom or for what. But when he joined Catlin in winning the two open commission seats that November, I think a lot of people were willing to give him a chance. I remember seeing him that election night. We had wrapped up our coverage for the evening, and a few of us from the news team went down the street to the old Fire Belly. As we were about to leave, Berger and a couple friends came in. He just smiled in clear happiness, and we congratulated him and wished him luck.
A month later, Berger was sworn into office. I remember a friend who was there telling me how excited Berger was and how proud his parents were.
The honeymoon would not last long.
We stared digging into issues in Berger’s home involving his girlfriend and her kids. Then there were the e-mail tirades Berger would direct at county staff and leaders among others, which began a very rapid decline in Berger’s relationship with fellow commissioners and increased scrutiny on how he was serving the public and using public resources. Then came the revelation that perhaps the reason Berger would not give details about what he did for a living was because he did not actually have a job.
And that right there may have been the beginning of the end for Berger barely seven months into his four-year term. The pressure, the public scrutiny certainly began to become unbearable for him. What followed was a downfall ripped from a Greek tragedy. There were several arrests, the protracted fight over amotion and whether fellow commissioners could remove him for office.
We noticed something throughout all of that. When we first started reporting on Berger’s issues, defenders were everywhere telling us to leave him alone. They echoed his argument that he was being attacked because of his politics, though I truly believe his political views were never part of his problems. But as time went on and the stories piled up and we all learned more and more about him, the defense quieted and left him, including many who had supported his stepping into the spotlight in the first place, and that may have been the saddest turn of all.
Among the strange twists and turns of the Brian Berger saga is that he actually reached a point where he went from pariah to sympathetic character. I guess it was in the midst of the amotion battle. While there had long been calls for him to step down from the public, fellow commissioners and the media, including me, the whole process just stank. The effort seemed a gross overreach against the will and power of the voter, and there came a point where it seemed like even those who wanted him out of office began rooting for Berger to win; for David to knock down Goliath just one more time, and he did.
Of course, it did not matter much. The year after his reinstatement was perhaps the most turbulent for Berger. He had lost most of the friends he’d had, was trusted by few and had become virtually homeless. The legal and personal struggles, tied to apparent drug and alcohol use, mounted. After his summer arrest, the court questioned his mental status, which prolonged the process to determine whether he’d violated his probation. He did.
In mid September Berger left jail after three months of incarceration. Where he’s been since is anyone’s guess. I’ve asked around and reached out, but no answer. Perhaps, though, that’s for the best.
I know as a journalist in this town I helped hasten Berger’s downfall, though only he is responsible for his actions. I know I applied some of the pressure that he struggled to handle. But along the way I got to know him a little. I can tell you that he is a good man with good intentions. I firmly believe he ran for office for all the right reasons, which is more than I can say about a lot of candidates and many office holders. I believe he is a very smart man. But life in the spotlight and under the microscope were certainly not for him. I believe he failed because he actually tried to do too much and could not figure out along the way how to be efficient, cooperative or at times even rational.
To say Berger is a complex figure is an understatement. As his time in office comes officially to a close, I still hope, as I told him a few times over the last couple of years, that he gets whatever help he may need and gets back on the right track.
Regardless of what you thought of Brian Berger the commissioner, Brian Berger the man was just that: A man like the rest of us; full of flaws and inadequacies, but one who tried his best to make a difference in his community.