Most of us vote for candidates based on their ideology (socially progressive? fiscally conservative?), or where they stand on particular issues near and dear to us (teacher pay, for example, if we’re teachers).
But how can the average taxpayer gauge how effectively he or she is being represented, day-to-day, in a state capital that’s hundreds of miles away?
Each election year, the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a Raleigh-based think tank, ranks state senators and representatives, based on a survey of the folks who should know: journalists, lobbyists and fellow legislators.
The nonpartisan survey is designed to rate legislators based on how effectively they work within the system, including:
• their participation in committee work;
• their skill at guiding bills through floor debate;
• their general knowledge and expertise in specific fields;
• the respect they command from peers;
• the enthusiasm they bring to their work;
• the political power they hold (whether due to their position, longevity or personality);
• their ability to sway the opinions of their peers; and
• their general aptitude for the job.
This year’s results show all of Buncombe’s representatives in the N.C. House — Republican Lanier Cansler, Democrat Martin Nesbitt Jr. and Republican Wilma Sherrill — ranked well above average by their peers.
But the poll results place state Sens. Jesse Ledbetter and R.L. Clark (both Republicans) dead last.
How much do those rankings really mean?
If you ask the folks at the low end, they’ll tell you a low ranking is practically a badge of honor, earned by refusing to buy into a system of wheeler-dealers.
“I’m not at the bottom: I’m at the top,” insists Clark, who was rated 50th among North Carolina’s 50 state senators. “That’s a popularity poll, and I serve my constituents — not the special interests, and not the high-priced lobbyists.”
Ledbetter also downplays the poll’s significance. “Quite frankly, I’m not really concerned about what the lobbyists think of me,” he observes, adding that the constituents in the 28th District are “my primary concern.”
Cansler, who was ranked a lucky 13 among the state’s 120 representatives, views the survey results in a kinder light. “I know some folks refer to it as a popularity contest,” he concedes. But “I work hard. … I’m proud to have that kind of ranking.”
And Center Director Ran Coble maintains that the study reflects how well your elected officials can look out for local interests.
“Generally speaking, the people who are effective are going to get more of their bills passed,” he asserts.
How to get ahead
Over the past 20 years, the center’s polls have highlighted certain institutional factors that tend to influence how effective legislators are deemed to be.
Being lucky enough to belong to the majority party doesn’t hurt. Besides playing for the winning team, majority-party legislators may gain access to leadership positions.
“You’re not going to get a committee chairmanship if you’re not in the majority party,” Coble explains.
Consistent popularity with voters is another way to gain influence.
“Over the years, what we’ve noticed is that longevity does matter,” says Coble. “You tend to move up 10 to 15 spots” in the rankings with every term in office.
But there are certain legislators who don’t follow the formula. And, in some cases, they’re the ones to watch.
A good example is Cansler, whose high ranking belies the fact that this is only his second term. It didn’t hurt that the Republicans took control of the House two years ago — but that’s only part of the story.
“Cansler is very high for a second-termer: He’s gained a lot of respect fast. The speaker has given him a lot of responsibility fast,” Coble notes. “Those are the people, historically, that tend to run for Congress, or run for statewide office.”
For his part, Cansler says Republican representatives “had to be fast learners — even the folks who had been here for a while had not been in leadership roles.” Cansler speculates that his training as a certified public accountant has helped him, as well as his experience in negotiations.
Sherrill, another second-term Republican, ranked a respectable 39th in the ratings. But Nesbitt finished even higher: 20th.
“Out of 120, 20’s darn good — and he’s in the minority party,” Coble says. Nesbitt’s strong showing can be attributed partly to the fact that he’s been in office for all terms but one since 1981, Coble notes, and partly to the fact that “he knows the budget inside out.”
In 1993, the last time Nesbitt was in the Statehouse, he ranked an impressive second out of 120.
“Martin, he’s been here for a long time,” says Cansler. “Lobbyists remember him. Obviously, the press remembers him.”
Bringing up the rear
So much for Buncombe’s representatives; then there are the senators.
When Republicans Ledbetter (ranked 49th out of 50) and Clark (ranked 50th) cast their votes, they are representing more than 260,000 constituents in the 28th District, which includes five counties of western North Carolina: Madison, Yancey, McDowell, 90 percent of Buncombe and part of Burke.
According to Ledbetter and Clark, there are reasons they came in last — and they say it’s not such a big deal, anyway.
“In the first place, you have to understand that the Republicans are a minority in the Senate,” Ledbetter explains. “[That] fact … makes a difference.”
Naturally, he argues, the Republicans are locked out of leadership roles, and naturally, the majority of the senators would not vote for them. Of the 20 seated Republicans, only nine even bothered to respond to the poll, Ledbetter says.
Ledbetter also mentions that only eight of the 28 journalists polled bothered to respond, and fewer than half of the lobbyists returned their surveys.
Besides, the survey ranks legislators based on certain activities that Ledbetter and Clark say they have little use for, such as speaking on the Senate floor.
“It’s ‘communication,’ of course: They see you up on the floor, and that means you’re an activist — to some people,” Ledbetter says. But most decisions are made in committee, when the bills are being written, he argues. “I’ve never seen any decisions really changed on the Senate floor. … I don’t speak on the Senate floor unless it’s something that’s important to me or my district.”
Besides responding to constituents’ calls and letters, Ledbetter says he introduced 15 bills in the last session, and more than half became law. As examples, he cites a bill that makes it legal for farmers to raise red deer domestically, and another one that makes it a felony (up from a misdemeanor) to issue bomb threats concerning public buildings.
Ledbetter also unsuccessfully pushed for district elections for the Buncombe County Commissioners. Such a move, the former county commissioner believes, would provide better representation for the more rural parts of Buncombe. Many of his constituents, says Ledbetter, feel that Asheville-oriented interests have had too much control over county government.
But Nesbitt and County Commissioner David Gantt lobbied against the bill in Raleigh, says Ledbetter, and they helped defeat his proposal. “I had the support of all the Republicans down here [in Raleigh], but Mr. Nesbitt and Mr. Gantt are part of the power group in Asheville, and they opposed it.”
For his part, Clark says he prefers to focus directly on helping individual constituents. After working in the North Carolina Department of Human Resources for more than 20 years, he entered politics in 1994. As a former state employee, Clark says he’s better able to get people what they need, because he knows the system.
For instance, a school-bus driver from the 28th District wasn’t able to get his license reinstated after a heart attack. “I was able to get that done in a matter of days for him,” Clark reports. He also says he’s been able to help voters whose Medicaid applications were denied.
“I’m able to do things like that,” maintains Clark. “When a constituent has a problem with state government, I know where to go in state government to get a problem solved.”
Clark is also known for sticking to his guns, having been the lone dissenter in some lopsided Senate votes.
“I don’t try to make a statement,” Clark says. “I have my core principles, and I don’t deviate from them. … I vote to restrict increased government rules and regulations. I vote to prevent government expansion.”
Those lone-wolf votes may have helped land Clark at the bottom of the effectiveness rankings, but he doesn’t seem to care.
“They don’t agree with my votes,” he says simply, adding, “I don’t pay very much attention” to the effectiveness rankings. “I haven’t changed from the first day that I came here. The average, everyday working citizen really doesn’t have very much of a voice here [in Raleigh]. They don’t have political action committees. They don’t have coalitions. I try to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice.”
Will the effectiveness rankings have any impact on this fall’s elections?
“I think it’s an additional piece of information that the voters do consider,” says Coble. Voters draw on a variety of facts to make their decisions, he believes — including how well a candidate is likely to play the political game on their behalf. “The voters are smarter, I think, than most people think.”
One person trying to play those results to his advantage is Charles Carter of Asheville, a Democrat who hopes to capture one of the 28th District Senate seats this time around.
When he gets the chance, Carter points to Ledbetter and Clark’s effectiveness rankings, noting that they dropped from their 1995 levels (when Ledbetter came in at 47 and Clark ranked 49th).
“It’s probably good to be popular down there” in Raleigh, argues Carter. When Ledbetter and Clark don’t play the game, “it takes us out of the loop, is what it does.”
For instance, Carter suggests that if Ledbetter and Clark did more schmoozing, UNC-Asheville might get more money, as he says UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Wilmington do. Carter also maintains that Ledbetter and Clark’s anti-tax, anti-government stands aren’t leveraging Raleigh to western North Carolina’s advantage.
With Clark’s solo opposition votes, the senator positions himself on the outside, Carter charges. “We’re not talking about just ‘get government off our backs.’ We’re talking about an extreme statement.”
Carter, a Spanish teacher at Asheville High School, is hoping the rankings will be one more factor that gives him an edge. In 1996, Ledbetter beat Carter by more than 6,000 votes, but Clark beat the newcomer by just 350 votes.
“Three hundred fifty votes out of 100,000 is nothing,” says Carter. “It’s less than half of a percentage point difference.”
“I had a lot of people who came up to me [after the last election] and said, ‘If I’d known you were going to be that close, I would have helped you,'” Carter reveals. This time around, he says he’s raising more money and getting an earlier jump on things: “I’ve got organizations up and running in all five counties.”
But Republicans, says Cansler, generally fare better in off-year elections when a Democrat lives in the White House.
And the effectiveness ranking is just one of many gauges designed to help voters choose: Some polls rate progressives high; others value conservative politics.