Entering her fourth term in the N.C. General Assembly, Rep. Susan Fisher of the 114th District is the senior representative from Buncombe County. As a Democrat, however, she lost the leadership positions she held last year as Republicans took control of both houses of the Legislature in January.
"None of the Democrats are seeing office-holding or chairing," says Fisher, the former vice chair of the Appropriations and Education committees and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government. She still serves on all three committees, along with Elections, Banking and Government.
"The first two weeks have been challenging," she admits. "If there's any positive that's come out of this change of landscape in Raleigh, it's that the Democrats are working very well together. We're all coalesced around the idea that what we're going to be hearing for the next two years has little to do with balancing the budget and providing jobs."
Seven working days into the session, Fisher already has one major criticism of the new majority in the Statehouse: "We have seen a limiting of public hearing," she said, citing the process followed on HB 2, "Protect Health Care Freedom." Introduced on the first day of the session, the bill would make portions of the new federal health-care law, particularly the part requiring people to buy health insurance, illegal and would instruct the attorney general to join a multistate lawsuit contesting the law.
The Republican-sponsored bill, she reports, was read in the House and immediately referred to the Judiciary Committee. "A meeting of Judiciary was called in 15 minutes. We asked would there be serial referrals [such as] to Health or Finance. Would they be calling people to testify?"
The answers, says Fisher, were negative. "So we essentially saw irresponsible management all the way through to passage." (The bill passed its required third reading in the House as well as a first reading in the Senate Feb. 3. It is now in the Senate's Judiciary II Committee.)
"I was very proud of our caucus" during the initial floor debate on the bill, Fisher reveals. "The main point we made — the Republicans were asking us [through this bill] to pay for those people who choose not to buy health insurance. Minority Speaker [Joe] Hackney made that point several times." It’s been good having Hackney, the former House speaker, back on the floor in debates, she says, adding, "Many of these young Republicans had not seen him, and I think it was stirring."
Tapped early by her party to serve on the nominating committee for Democratic whips in the House, Fisher found another strength in the new minority's restricted arsenal. Democrats, she notes, “are very diverse," and the committee tried to reflect that by considering gender, race and geographic region in selecting their whips. So they chose a woman, a minority member and representatives from the East, West (Ray Rapp of Mars Hill) and Piedmont.
"There's only one whip for all the Republicans," Fisher points out. "I think that speaks volumes." The Democrats, meanwhile, assign one whip to each piece of legislation, according to their interests; that person pulls together members of the Democratic caucus to prepare for the debate. "They are doing a great job of taking on each issue as it comes out of the Republican bill-churning process," says Fisher.
In her fourth term, Fisher aims to play a role in those debates while helping keep the Democrats together. "I will be really trying to keep communications open among the Democrats in our Western delegation," she reports. She also took time for "a very nice lunch" with Buncombe County's freshman Republican, Rep. Tim Moffitt — a co-sponsor of HB 2. (Buncombe County's third representative is another Democrat, Patsy Keever of the 115th District.)
"I'm always a proponent of communicating, no matter what the landscape might look like. Often people just want to be listened to; they want to be able to speak. If I can provide opportunity for that [with] people across the aisle, it can go a long way in getting us through these two years."
"It's going to be an interesting time," says the veteran Democrat. "We will do our best to try to keep the state from moving too far backward."
— Nelda Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.