Power close to home

Come election time, we all tend to focus on who’s running for president and Congress and pretty much forget about the rest. Yet in many ways, the folks who win the races for state House and Senate — the two chambers of the General Assembly — will have a far more direct and intimate influence on your life than Washington, D.C., ever will.

“The North Carolina General Assembly raises and appropriates some $15 billion a year that covers every aspect of our lives — from educating our children to dealing with our parents to environmental issues” and more, former state Sen. Steve Metcalf told this reporter recently. And it’s not just through the funds they allocate and the laws they pass.

“The members’ influence on boards and commissions, their influence with other elected officials (such as the governor), and the relationships they have with their congressional delegations, I think, are extremely important,” added Metcalf, making these state races some of the most important on the entire ballot.

But the General Assembly isn’t just about the particular people who win its seats — it’s also very much about which party they belong to.

Ever wonder why our state makes it so very difficult for any party other than the Democrats or Republicans to qualify for the ballot? Or why we’re one of the few remaining states in the nation to stubbornly cling to straight-ticket voting — the option of voting for all the Democrats or all the Republicans running for state and local office with a single pull of the lever or punch of a button?

In the North Carolina Legislature, party is power. In the Senate, the party that holds the most seats elects one of its own as president pro tem; in the House, the majority party elects a speaker. These legislative czars control the fate of almost all potential action by allowing or preventing any given bill from reaching the floor of their respective chambers. They appoint the committees that draft the laws we’ll have to live by and divvy up our tax dollars. And they and their relatively large staffs negotiate pending legislation with members of the opposite chamber and the governor — as well as with the powerful shadow government composed of industry and interest-group lobbyists.

As the traditional party in power, Democrats have run the General Assembly since the days of Reconstruction. But in recent years, North Carolina’s Republicans have been steadily on the rise.

And when House members took their seats at the beginning of the 2003-04 term, they were evenly divided between the two parties. For the first time in North Carolina history, the House elected two co-speakers: Rep. Jim Black (D-Mecklenburg) and Rep. Richard Morgan (R-Moore).

Insiders say an unusual state of harmony has prevailed under the co-speakership. That Pax Bipartisana will probably come to an end in 2005, however, if either party captures enough of the score or so of seats that lack a sure-to-win incumbent to be able to claim sole possession of the speakership.

In the Senate, by contrast, the Democrats have kept re-electing Sen. Marc Basnight (D-Dare) as president pro tem for a record number of terms — making him possibly the most powerful person in North Carolina politics today.

Known in the Senate as a strong environmentalist, Basnight has used his power to draft and push through measures such as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund (which finances watershed conservation easements) and the Clean Smokestacks Act (which reduces pollution from coal-fired power plants).

In a very real sense, then, when you vote for a state senator or representative, you’re not just voting for the man or woman — you’re voting for the party. And while North Carolina’s president pro tem and speaker may not generate as much passion and controversy as the president of the United States, they probably have more power to affect your daily life than George Bush or John Kerry ever will.

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