RALEIGH – No matter what happens on Election Day, change is coming to the North Carolina General Assembly. That’s an eventuality that all people of good faith should welcome with relish. Personally, I’d go one better – adding grilled onions and liberal doses of Texas Pete to the celebration.
Embattled House Speaker Jim Black was once surrounded by aides and allies who are now surrounded by defense attorneys and TV cameras. His turn is clearly coming. Meanwhile, the voters in his moderately Democratic district in Southern Mecklenburg County may well decide to turn him out of office, in this obviously Democratic year, in favor of Republican insurgent – and interstellar-constabulatory namesake – Hal Jordan.
But assuming that Black survives the challenge, and that Democrats maintain or somewhat increase their current 63-57 margin in the North Carolina House, it still seems unlikely that he’ll be speaker again. Although there has been a lot of bravado from Black confidantes and lobbyists about this issue, they must know and admit privately that re-nominating Black for speaker would spark a political and media firestorm that could not be contained or extinguished. In effect, there has already been a speaker’s race going on for months now in the House, mostly but not entirely among Democrats.
And now there is a new player in the game: former Speaker Dan Blue. Poised to re-enter public service as a replacement for the recently deceased Rep. Bernard Allen of Raleigh, Blue is already being discussed (and, by other candidates, discounted) as a potential speaker. Having known him as a political leader a long time, and more recently as a TV-show colleague, I think it would be exceedingly difficult to portray Blue as anything other than a change agent. He and I disagree on a number of basic policy questions – how large state government should be, what it should do, and how to pay for it – but I have nothing but the utmost respect for his integrity, commitment to open government, and willingness to take on difficult challenges.
It’s not just about ethics and House management that I’m talking about. For example, while Blue and I would disagree about how to close the long-term structural deficit in North Carolina’s state budget, we would agree that there is such a deficit, and that papering it over with fiscal gimmicks and trust-fund raids is not acceptable. He and I would disagree about the course of state education policy, but he is no less likely than I to call our current testing program a farce and the state’s graduation-rate deceptions a sham.
Presumably, any Blue speakership would be the result of a carefully negotiated power-sharing regime in the House in which the various Democratic factions would receive their due in committee chairmanships, the rights of individual members would be safeguarded, and the committee process and parliamentary procedure respected (the latter two being largely absent during the late unpleasantness). The House could do worse. The House has done far worse.
But there is nothing inevitable about this outcome. Other candidates are vying for the top job. My point is that any of them would likely represent a noticeable improvement. Majority Leader Joe Hackney, for example, is a Chapel Hill Democrat known as one of the most liberal in the House. But he is also known as one of the smartest and most engaged members of the House. Reps. Hugh Holliman of Lexington and Jim Crawford of Oxford are House moderates who have expressed concerns about Black’s conduct (more forcefully in Holliman’s case) and, while partisan, would probably treat all members and ideas fairly.
And should a last-minute recovery in voter enthusiasm among the Republican base (largely driven by national and international concerns at this point) reverse the GOP’s fortunes in North Carolina and propel its candidates to a surprising majority, candidates such as Rep. Skip Stam of Apex and Jerry Dockham of Denton might come to the fore. Both would be reformers.
I know my optimism about more ethical leadership in Raleigh will be dispelled soon enough, so don’t bother emailing to pop my bubble. Let me live in it for at least a couple of days, won’t you?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.