Scanning the start of the 2013 state legislative session, Buncombe County Rep. Susan Fisher ticks off fast-moving bills affecting education, voter registration, Medicaid, boards and commissions. Elected in January as one of three Democratic whips, she must know each bill’s contents and be able to explain them to her party’s caucus.
“We make sure the caucus is informed on bills and issues that are coming forward,” Fisher explains, “and [we] keep them informed about how we are [going] to vote — if we are voting as a block.” And for new legislators, she says, “It’s important to have regular caucus meetings where we can talk about where we’re going.”
So far, the going has been rough for the minority party in the Statehouse.
“We lost a lot of institutional memory with the redistricting process and the arrival of a large class of freshmen, many of whom have never served in public office at the local or state level,” Fisher says. “In this term, I believe the whips are being relied upon even more because of [that] and because we are in the midst of caucus-rebuilding work that adds to our responsibilities.”
Americans inherited the term “whip” from the British Parliament, where party whips also are responsible for herding their political flock. Going further back, the term arose from the sporting world of fox-hunting, where the whip kept straying dogs on task.
Fisher says, “I actively pursued the post, because I felt it was important to have Western North Carolina represented in a leadership role in the House. I have seniority and believe I am qualified.” She follows in the WNC footsteps of former Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill, one of last session’s whips. But Rapp, a 10-year veteran, lost his seat last fall in a reconfigured House district that helped elect Republican Michele Presnell.
Fisher, the senior House member from Buncombe County, was first elected to the Legislature from District 114 in 2004 — when there were Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Those majorities were reversed in the past two elections, and statewide redistricting shifted the playing field. A number of veteran Democrats wound up facing each other in newly minted districts, and some were, basically, written out of their districts (the changes stacked Rep. Patsy Keever into Fisher’s home territory; Keever bowed out, opting to run for Congress). All told, the changes produced a large number of newcomers.
Fisher ran unopposed in her home territory, winning her fifth term last fall.
“Because we have so many freshmen this time, we are orienting them to what’s happening. We are sort of the go-to people,” Fisher explains. “It’s fun to be sort of knowledgeable about what’s coming.” Eight years ago, she was on the receiving end. “Now I get to know and dispense that information. But I’ll tell you, there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that.”
How it works
The legislative hierarchy gives the majority Republicans top leadership positions — Speaker of the House Thom Tillis of Charlotte and Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Stam of Apex. In the next power tier, each party elects leaders and whips who corral their members on issues and actions. Fisher and fellow whips Michael Wray of Gaston and Winkie Wilkins of Roxboro have split the 43 Democratic caucus members into assigned groups.
“It’s pretty easy to whip the members of the caucus who have been at it for a while,” Fisher says, but the freshmen require more attention. Wray, Wilkins and Fisher meet once a week before the party caucus, but they’re on call all the time to assist Democratic Leader Larry Hall of Durham. “He’s doing a good job, [but] it’s difficult because the demographics of the caucus have really changed,” she observes.
“So far we have had to be right on top of those issues right away in order to bring the freshmen along,“ says Fisher. “Part of the [Republican leadership] idea, I think, is to move fast. Already the speaker has said he wants us to have a budget and be back in our districts by June.”
As a freshman lawmaker, Fisher was awarded a bipartisan fellowship to the Center for Policy Alternatives Arthur Flemming Leadership Institute. New legislators from all over the United States came together to learn what it means to work across the aisle. “If you have this ability to work [and] come to some shared understanding of what the problems are, then you can come up with laws that are more balanced and speak to a wider cross-section of the public,” she says.
“Over the last two years, there has been very little, if any, across-the-aisle work,” Fisher continues. But she still thinks that good-faith efforts to solve the state’s problems produce “better solutions.”
So in addition to belonging to the Democratic Women’s Caucus — made up of Democratic women from the House and Senate — Fisher also belongs to the joint House and Senate, bipartisan Women’s Caucus. “We have shared leadership roles within this group,” she says of the latter, which often meets at lunch or breakfast and hosts speakers on topics of interest to the group, particularly to provide background information for legislation they may want to support or introduce. “For example, we have looked at heart-health legislation, as well as other legislation of significance to women,” Fisher says.
“We know that we will all have different opinions depending on which side of the aisle we are on, but we also know that coming together is a good exercise in supporting each other as women in an arena where men have historically been greater in number,” says Fisher.
Back in the halls of legislation, bipartisan cooperation seems lacking, Fisher observes. One still-smarting example is the recent slate of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. Sixteen candidates were presented —14 of them Republican and two unaffiliated. When the Democrats have held the majority, says Fisher, “we [went] to the Republicans to seek their [opinion] about qualified candidates. We have lost that ability to consult each other.”
Committee assignments have been a similar disappointment. Before the beginning of each biennium, legislators complete a form that asks them to rank their committee preferences on a scale of 1-10. “Many of the folks I have heard talk about their committees say that they were given their last-place choice. I did receive some of the committee assignments that I requested, but certainly not my first choices.”
She was also disappointed that interim committees had few if any Democratic members helping prepare for the 2013 session now under way. “In the past,” she said, “the Democratic leadership also made it a priority to populate interim committees with a mix of Republicans and Democrats.”
Bipartisan bills can be found on the docket, Fisher continues, but they normally affect very singular issues. “The strategy is to find a Republican legislator who will work with you [as] primary sponsor,” she adds, saying larger issues such as education or health are treated in a partisan manner. Nevertheless, she states, “I continue to try to work across the aisle.”
As for her own partisan work as whip, Fisher says those duties will extend beyond the Legislature. She will be expected to raise money back home, as well as scout for Democratic candidates. “It’s a long-term responsibility for the biennium. It’s good and bad. I believe you can put into it as much or as little as you like, but I have tried to make myself available … to listen to [members’] concerns as well as give advice when needed or requested.”
To contact Rep. Fisher, call 919-715-2013 or email Susan.Fisher@ncleg.net.
— Contributing editor Nelda Holder can be reached at email@example.com.