The big news in North Carolina insider politics these days is the resignation of state Sen. Tony Rand — and his replacement as majority leader by Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Asheville.
Political insiders in Raleigh are asking one another why Rand would trade one of the most powerful positions in state government to chair the Parole Commission. This might be a great place for a politician who needs a paying job. But it's not the ideal post for a top lawyer/legislator who's used to having continuing influence on everything state government does.
These insiders also wonder how Nesbitt — whose geographic and political homelands are about as far away as you can get from those of President Pro Tem Marc Basnight of Manteo — managed to win the endorsement of the Senate's top leader.
I am not an insider and probably never was, but I, too, am having the hardest time trying to sort out this chain of events.
Some observers say it's simple: Basnight is simply co-opting a potential rival by bringing Nesbitt into the leadership circle, where he'll be less likely to organize a coup that would replace Basnight.
Others say that Basnight had to choose among those senators who would be seeking the position, and that Nesbitt was the least objectionable possibility.
And a few assert with some confidence that Nesbitt had already organized a group of discontented senators who were ready to oust Rand from his Senate leadership positions — and that Rand's and Basnight's acts were simply a recognition of that reality.
But nobody who talks to me seems to know for sure.
Whatever the explanation, however, Nesbitt's ascension to an important leadership position is a landmark in North Carolina politics. To begin to appreciate the potential impacts, it might help to review Tar Heel Politics 2000, a classic work by state Rep. Paul Luebke (who teaches sociology at UNC-Greensboro).
According to the author, an unapologetic liberal, North Carolina politics are solidly conservative but divided between "traditionalists" and "modernizers." Traditionalists are obvious conservatives who are skeptical of most forms of government activism — particularly government spending to promote economic activity or improve the lot of the less fortunate.
Modernizers are also conservatives, though they often support "progressive" government programs to promote industrial development and education. But they're conservatives, Luebke maintains, because their "progressive" programs are almost always funded by regressive taxes (such as sales and gasoline taxes), and because they don't seriously address issues of "equity" and fair treatment of the poor and powerless — concerns that are consistent with a real liberal program.
Under Luebke's definitions, Basnight and Rand are modernizers or progressive conservatives, while Nesbitt (and Luebke) are genuine liberals. Modernizers and liberals have worked together in the Democratic legislative caucuses, but it hasn't been easy.
Put your ear to the ground and you'll hear the liberals condemning the modernizers as being so conservative that they're not real Democrats. You'll also hear the modernizers arguing that a liberal agenda and leadership would lead to electoral defeat and loss of power.
To make a partnership between a modernizer and a liberal work, some of those voices have to be quieted.
So, bottom line, will Marc Basnight and Martin Nesbitt form a lasting and workable leadership partnership?
Both are very, very smart and highly skilled at gaining and maintaining power alliances. If they find a way to work together, it could be a powerful partnership.
But right now, I wouldn't bet my fortune on it.
[D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch. For more information or to view prior programs, go to www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/.]