Eleven years after Republicans captured control of both state legislative chambers in the 2010 election, few Democrats remain who have ever served in a majority. Now their strategy is simple; oppose the majority.
Having so few Democrats with experience in governing is making cutting a budget deal particularly difficult this year.
“It is always easier to throw bombs in the minority, but having experience in a governing majority changes you,” said Democrat consultant Brad Crone. “It makes it more difficult to see the value of getting the best deal you can for those you represent, even if the choice is unattractive.”
In June, the N.C. Senate passed its version of the state budget by a vote of 32-18 with four Democrats joining all Republican members. Thirty votes are needed to override a veto.
The State House also passed their version of the budget with the help of nine Democrats, six more than needed to override a veto.
Democrats and their allies who oppose Republican spending plans have offered the same arguments they have many times over the last decade. Much of North Carolina’s political world has been asking whether legislative Democrats will work with Republicans to enact a state budget even if Gov. Roy Cooper objects.
So far, the answer is yes, but will the Democrats who crossed the aisle to vote for GOP spending plans stick with the budget plan if Cooper vetoes another budget?
After Democrats successfully broke GOP supermajorities in the 2018 election, Gov. Cooper, the teacher’s union, and legislative Democrats gambled during the 2019 budget negotiations.
Gov. Cooper vetoed the 2019 budget which would have provided teachers with a pay 3.9 percent over two years. NCAE rallied around the veto. Cooper also vetoed state budgets which included teacher raises in 2017 and 2018, as well as other mini budgets that would have provided teacher pay raises.
Because the GOP legislature had previously passed a measure that keeps government open and running at the same levels until a new budget passes, no full and complete budget ever passed. In the hopes of forcing Republicans to give even bigger pay raises, the teachers union ended up siding with Cooper and blocking any raises.
Republicans came out the winners after holding the line on spending, voters rewarded them in 2020 by electing more GOP legislators.
Now, of the 22 Democratic members of the State Senate, only two (9%) have ever served in a Democratic majority.
Senator Dan Blue (D-Wake) served in the North Carolina House of Representatives from 1981 through 2002 and from 2006 until 2009.
Blue was the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives from 1991 until 1994, when the Democrats lost control of the House to Republicans.
Blue also briefly served in the last Democratic state senate majority, after he was selected by local Democrats to take the place of Sen. Vernon Malone, who died in office in 2009. In 2010, Democrats lost the state senate majority.
Senator Blue is one of the most respected legislators on either side of the aisle. As Speaker of the House he was known for standing up to powerful 3rd term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. His passion, experience, knowledge and politeness makes him a popular.
But his role now is speaking for the Democratic Senate minority. In looking for Democrats to help the GOP pass their budget, it’s politically impractical for Blue to lead that charge. Unfortunately, his wealth of experience in making tough and undesirable choices is wasted here.
Sen. Toby Fitch, D-Wilson, knows how to drive a tough bargain. He is a retired North Carolina Superior Court judge, serving from 2002 to 2018. Before that, Fitch served in the North Carolina House of Representatives from 1985 to 2001. He was originally appointed to the bench by Gov. Mike Easley as part of a grand political bargain. Easley and legislative Democrats were determined to raise taxes early in Easley’s terms. Easley and business progressive in the N.C. Senate favored a large increase in the sales tax. Fitch was a key member of the N.C. House “Gang of 8″ that included Martin Nesbitt, Bob Hensley and others who wanted income tax increases with a smaller sales tax increase. The “Gang of 8” won out and that combination of higher sales and income taxes lasted a decade until the GOP legislature repealed them in 2011.
Fitch also initially opposed parts of the Democrats 2001 redistricting plans because of a reduction of minority influence. Speaker Jim Black worked with Gov. Easley to get Fitch out of the legislature by getting him appointed to the bench. Fitch won all the way around.
This year Fitch joined Blue and most senate Democrats in opposing the GOP budget in the senate.
“Democrats in the legislature also are having a difficult time getting a message to break through, because their message is the same as Governor Cooper, and the governor has already articulated that message,” said Crone.
Currently Republicans have a 69-51 majority in the State House. Of those, 51 Democrat members only 10 (19.61%) ever served in a Democrat Majority.
Two of those members; only served one term in a Democratic Majority, the last time in 2009-2010:
- Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg)
- Rosa Gill (D-Wake)
Five members served three terms in the Democratic Majority, taking office in 2005:
- Grier Martin (D-Wake)
- Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford)
- Michael Wray (D-Northampton)
- Garland Pierce (D-Scotland)
- Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe)
Three others had long stints in the Democratic Majority
- Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) elected 2002
- Verla Insko (D-Orange) elected 1996
- Marvin Lucas, (D-Cumberland) elected 2000
Nine of the 51 Democrat member of the State House (17.65%) crossed the aisle to vote for the GOP budget.
Three of those nine (33%) had previously served in a Democratic Majority. (Lucas, Pierce, Wray)
Former State Representative Leo Daughtry of Johnston County has unique experience in this area.
Daughtry served in the State Senate and State House in the Republican minority. He became House Majority leader in 1995. After Republicans lost control of the House in the 1998 elections, he became Minority Leader.
“I was a better legislator when I went into the minority for the second time after having served in the Majority, said Daughtry in an interview with CJ. “You learn the art of governing, the art of making deals, working through tough choices. It is different than just throwing hand grenades. I was also able to accomplish some important things working with Democrats, by opposing them, when necessary, but working with them when possible.”
Democrats should not worry about a losing a primary because they worked with Republicans to pass a budget, said Crone. “The result is overall higher spending plus securing funding for favored projects in their districts.”
Further, the bottom-line choice is the same for every legislative Democrat. Blocking a GOP budget from taking place will result in well over a billion dollars less in spending while blocking state employees of raises and considerable investments in infrastructure, education, and transportation.
Working with the GOP on the budget would also mean excepting large tax cuts, expansion of school choice and other GOP priorities most Democrats oppose.
It’s a tough choice, and the time for choosing is upon us.
Yet one can’t help but wonder if that choice would be easier for Democrats if more of them had experience in running government and making those tough choices, that legislators serving in the majority make on a routine basis.