U.S. House speaker contest reminds long-time N.C. politicos of 2003
As the U.S. House prepared Tuesday afternoon for a second vote on selecting a speaker, some veteran N.C. political observers recalled similar events at the state Legislative Building 20 years ago.
One hundred years have passed since members of Congress’ lower chamber failed to select a leader on the first ballot. As this article heads toward publication, the U.S. House has wrapped up its third vote with no clear winner.
People involved in Tar Heel State politics for at least two decades remember when the 120-member N.C. House of Representatives faced the same predicament.
Lobbyist Julie Robinson worked in Washington, D.C., in 2003 but later worked as a top assistant to Democratic House Speaker Jim Black.
Associated Press reporter Gary Robertson remembers the N.C. House speaker battle.
So does News and Observer reporter Lynn Bonner.
Each of these players remembers the circumstances of the 2002 election. After a Republican-led N.C. Supreme Court rejected election maps drawn by a Democrat-led General Assembly, Johnston County Superior Court Judge Knox Jenkins drew state House and Senate maps for that election cycle.
Democrats entered the election with a 62-58 majority in the House. On election night, it appeared Republicans had made a net gain of two seats — leaving the two parties with a 60-60 split.
Later, once all votes were counted, it turned out that Democratic House Majority Leader Phil Baddour of Wayne County had lost his re-election bid. Republicans thus expected to enter the 2003 session with a 61-59 majority.
But the story took another twist. Rep. Michael Decker of Forsyth County, considered one of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus, flipped his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. Once again, the two parties each controlled 60 votes.
A candidate would need to secure 61 votes to become House speaker. Black, seeking his third consecutive term in the top job, worked to pick off additional Republican votes. Meanwhile, Republicans struggled to rally around a single candidate.
Shortly before lawmakers were scheduled to reconvene, Republican leader Leo Daughtry bowed out of the speaker’s race, deferring to the GOP’s longest-serving member, George Holmes of Yadkin County. But Daughtry’s decision did not unite the GOP caucus. A handful of Republicans instead backed Rep. Richard Morgan of Moore County.
When lawmakers met at the Legislative Building on Jan. 29, they cast 60 votes for Black as speaker, 55 votes for Holmes, and five votes for Morgan. A second vote followed with the same result. And a third.
The House faced an impasse for a week, at times convening just long enough to vote for another stalemate.
A week after the proceedings started, Democrats and a subset of Republicans reached a power-sharing agreement. With an 89-31 vote, the N.C. House elected co-speakers for the first and only time in the state’s history. Black and Morgan shared the speaker’s role. Each had his own gavel, his own staff, and his own set of offices. They presided over the House on alternating days.
The arrangement lasted throughout the 2003-04 legislative session. When Democrats regained a majority in the 2004 election, they selected Black as speaker for a fourth term and named Morgan speaker pro tem. Morgan lost his seat in a 2006 primary election.
Black later served time in federal prison on charges related to his efforts to maintain power. Among the issues that came to light was the arrangement that helped Black secure a 60th vote in 2003.
Decker admitted in court that he switched his party affiliation and threw his support behind Black in return for a payoff. Decker accepted an envelope provided by Black containing $38,000 in checks and $12,000 in cash. Decker also served time in federal prison.
U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-10th District, has an interesting perspective on the House speaker battle. He served in the N.C. House in 2003 and serves in the U.S. House today, a fact John Locke Foundation President Donald Bryson noted.
McHenry has one good reason to remember the outcome of the 2003 N.C. speaker fight. His opposition to the power-sharing agreement cost him his legislative assistant, making it harder for him to do his job in Raleigh. McHenry was one of eight Republicans to suffer that fate, according to a 2018 Fayetteville Observer article.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He was the state government reporter for News 14 Carolina, now Spectrum Local News, in 2003. Kokai watched each vote in the extended N.C. House speaker battle from a front corner of the House chamber.
Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to reflect Julie Robinson’s employment with House Speaker Jim Black after the 2003 speaker impasse, as well as the identity of the third candidate in the speaker’s race.