Entering her fourth term in the N.C. General Assembly, Asheville’s Susan Fisher of District 114 is the senior representative from Buncombe County. And she’s a Democrat. That means the leadership positions she held last year disappeared as the Republican majority took over both houses of the Legislature in January.
“None of the Democrats are seeing office-holding or chairing,” said Fisher, the former vice-chair of the Appropriations and Education committees and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government. Now she is simply a member of all three committees, plus the Elections, Banking, and Government committees.
“The first two weeks have been challenging,” Fisher admitted. “[But] 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 next two years has little to do with balancing the budget and providing jobs.”
Seven working days into the session, Fisher already had a major criticism against the new majority at the Statehouse. “We have seen a limiting of public hearing,” she said, citing the process followed on HB 2, the “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 coverage mandate, illegal in this state and would instruct the attorney general to join a multiple-state lawsuit against the law. Fisher said the Republican-sponsored bill was read in the House and immediately referred to the Judiciary Committee. “A meeting of Judiciary was called in 15 minutes,” she described. “We asked would there be serial referrals [such as] to Health or Finance. Would they be calling people to testify?” The answers, she said, 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 on Feb. 3. It is now in the Senate’s Judiciary II Committee.)
“I was very proud of our caucus,” Fisher said of the initial floor debate on HB 2. “Three hours and 20 minutes,” she said, pleased with the depth of the Democratic arguments. “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.” She added that it has been good to have Hackney, the former House speaker, back on the floor in debates. “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. “We [Democrats] are very diverse,” she explained, and the committee wanted to reflect that by considering gender, race and regions in naming 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 noted. “I think that speaks volumes.” And the multiple whips are paying off for the Democrats in other ways, she noted. “They are doing a great job of taking on each issues as it comes out of the Republican bill-churning process,” Fisher said, explaining that one whip is assigned to each bill according to their interest, and that whip pulls together members of the Democratic Caucus to prepare for the bill’s debate.
Ultimately, Fisher sees her role in her fourth term to be playing a role in those debates and helping keep the Democrats together. “I will be really trying to keep communications open among the Democrats in our western delegation,” she said. She has also taken time for “a very nice lunch” with the county’s freshman Republican, Rep. Tim Moffitt of District 116 — a co-sponsor of HB 2. (Buncombe County’s third representative is another Democrat, Patsy Keever of District 115.) “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,” said the veteran Democrat. “We will do our best to try to keep the state from moving too far backward.”
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor