The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s fall legislative update on Nov. 30 was notably short on one key ingredient: legislators.
The local business group’s annual event usually features Western North Carolina’s General Assembly delegation and its reflections on happenings in Raleigh. This year, the entirety of Buncombe County’s incoming state House contingent was absent, albeit with a good excuse. As newly elected officials, Eric Ager, Lindsey Prather and Caleb Rudow were taking part in orientation at the Capitol. (Veteran lawmakers Mike Clampitt, Warren Daniel, Julie Mayfield and Brian Turner attended.)
Given that scheduling conflict, the chamber instead hosted a live taping of the “Do Politics Better” podcast. Hosts Brian Lewis and Skye David, who produce the show as part of their work for Raleigh-based lobbying firm New Frame LLC, interviewed Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper about the recent midterm elections and their implications for the region.
Much of Cooper’s remarks concerned Buncombe’s new batch of electeds, all Democrats, who are replacing multiterm Democratic representatives John Ager, Susan Fisher and Turner. Cooper said he couldn’t think of another part of North Carolina that had seen so much turnover in its legislative delegation this election cycle.
While the region retained some influential officials in the midterms — including Mayfield, who was elected secretary of the Senate’s Democratic caucus — Cooper suggested that the loss of legislative seniority could cause some issues for WNC. Democratic-dominated Buncombe County, he added, might have particular difficulties navigating a Republican-led legislature.
“I think it’s going to be more challenging than it needs to be,” Cooper said, regarding state-level work on WNC issues like economic development. “Losing somebody like Rep. Turner, who has developed a reputation as someone who can work across the aisle, I think is going to be a real change for the region.”
That legislative turnover, Cooper said, could give more importance to Daniel. Although the six-term Republican senator lives in Morganton, his district was redrawn this election cycle to include much of eastern Buncombe County.
“I have a feeling that a lot of eyes are on this senator to help maneuver what Buncombe County’s needs are,” said Lewis, drawing laughter as the crowd turned to look at Daniel.
But even Republican-led areas of WNC, Lewis continued, have generally lagged behind other parts of North Carolina in terms of securing resources from the state government. He noted how in the most recent budget cycle, Eastern North Carolina’s counties banded together and received substantial funding for shared priorities such as flood mitigation. “[WNC] doesn’t feel as coalesced” by comparison, he said.
Cooper agreed. He said the region has struggled to forge a unified front between left-leaning Buncombe and its surrounding, more conservative counties. Geography also plays a role: When one mountainous Senate district can take 2.5 hours to cross by car, he pointed out, officials can have a hard time meeting regularly to build trust.
During the presentation’s question-and-answer portion, chamber President and CEO Kit Cramer said her group was working to achieve an effective regional voice in Raleigh. “We have been talking about a WNC caucus,” she explained. “We’ve gotten together with the other chamber execs throughout the region, and there is very serious interest in pursuing that with our elected officials.”
In the next legislative session, Cooper suggested, western and eastern officials might cooperate to address problems that both regions share. “The issues we talk about here and the issues they talk about on the coast are very similar in a whole lot of ways,” he said. “That massive divide between wealth and poverty that we have in the west is also shared in the east.”
The full recording of the “Do Politics Better” interview with Cooper is available here.