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The North Carolina General Assembly’s Republican revolution has been good for Western North Carolina’s political position in Raleigh, by many accounts.
The head of the Senate’s prestigious and powerful Rules Committee is from Hendersonville. The new speaker of the N.C. House of Representative’s chief of staff went to high school in Asheville. Western North Carolina legislators chair a number of budget-writing subcommittees.
There’s even a western flair in the new minority at the capital, with Democrat Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr., of Buncombe County, becoming the minority leader in the Senate.
Put together, this set of legislators may hold the most political influence from Western North Carolina at the capital since the 1980s, when Madison County’s Liston Ramsey was speaker of the House.
But it’s difficult to tell what all this means so soon after Republicans flipped Democratic majorities in the N.C. House and Senate, political experts said this week. Job one for the new majority is cutting the budget, leaving less money for public projects in Western North Carolina — or anywhere else around the state.
With much of the state’s population living around Raleigh and Charlotte, they remain seats of legislative power while rural areas wane in influence. That’s likely to continue as legislators tackle redistricting this year and metropolitan areas gain new General Assembly seats based on the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Western North Carolina’s rising power brokers are largely new to legislative power, so it remains to be seen how skillfully they wield it during that and other efforts during the legislative session.
“(It’s) not just power but knowledge and skill at making the system work,” said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and founder of the Program on Public Life. “It’s hard to say if it’s a high-water mark or not because, to carry the water analogy further, the tide comes in and the tide goes back out.”
For most of the area, it’s a quicker drive to state capitols in Georgia and South Carolina than it is to Raleigh.
And there’s a “fiercely independent” spirit that comes with living in the mountains, Democrat Rep. Susan Fisher of Buncombe County said. “And yet we know that the things that come out of Raleigh can affect us,” she said.
Across the country, studies show that, the farther people live from a state capitol, the less connected they feel to state government, according to Chris Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. And there’s a perception in the region that Raleigh just doesn’t care about the area, Cooper said.
Cooper said the mountains are “positioned well” now with up-and-coming legislators gaining influence at the capital. But the west’s power won’t be obvious, he said. There’s no Liston Ramsey, whose authority was clear from the road projects he steered to the area and the Western Carolina University college activity center that bears his name.
Instead there is “this kind of lingering perception … of the west sort of being ignored by Raleigh,” Cooper said.
Republican N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca of Henderson County said he sees that changing. He chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which basically decides which bills hit the Senate floor for a chamber vote. He’s also chairman, co-chairman or vice-chairman of nine other Senate committees, making him a key member of the Republican majority’s leadership team and Western North Carolina’s highest-ranking legislator.
“We always feel like we’re kind of forgotten in the West, but I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Apodaca said recently. With the state’s budget facing a deficit, that’s unlikely to translate to much new funding. But, Apodaca said, “we’re not going to get hurt any more than the others” as legislators cut the budget.
If there’s a chance, though, Apodaca said he’d like to see funding to upgrade Interstate 240 around Asheville increase by a few years. Other area legislators seconded that, saying it’s a project that’s languished for years on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s books.
In the House, Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie, who represents Burke and McDowell counties, will play a big part in writing the state budget as one of three co-chairmen of the Appropriations Committee, the House’s main budget committee. Republican Rep. Roger West, from Cherokee County, and Republican Rep. David Guice, from Transylvania County, chair key budget subcommittees where a lot of the budget writing is done.
Cuts are promised across the state, and they’re expected to be deep as the Republican majority that came to power after last year’s elections works to balance the budget without a tax increase.
But the local influence could make a difference. For example, the Regional High Technology Center at Haywood Community College is slated to close under Gov. Bev Perdue’s budget recommendations. Haywood Correctional Center, in Waynesville, has a target on its back, too. It would stay open under Perdue’s proposal but was offered for closure late last year when the N.C. Department of Corrections identified potential cuts. Republican legislators could come back to that as they look for more cuts than the governor suggested.
Guice, whose committee will deal with the Department of Corrections’ budget, said he couldn’t make any promises about these facilities.
“Everything’s on the table,” he said, repeating a GOP mantra about the budget this year.
But local connections don’t hurt, and Guice said there’s “no question” that having area legislators in positions of power makes a difference in the Legislature.
Nesbitt, whose party fell into a minority in the Senate this year for the first time since the 1870s, isn’t celebrating the shift. He noted that Western North Carolina’s new Republican leaders are young, as opposed to the seasoned members it had in the early 1990s, when he was the House appropriations chairman.
Power is cyclical in the legislature, he said, and “we’ll all have to wait and see” how the Republicans do.
Some Western North Carolinians in notable positions in the N.C. General Assembly:
- Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, from Henderson County, chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which essentially decides what bills advance to the Senate floor. Apodoca is also a chairman, co-chairman or vice-chairman of nine other Senate committees.
- Republican Rep. Mitch Gillespie, from Burke County, is one of three co-chairman of the House’s main budget writing committee, appropriations.
- Republican Rep. Roger West, from Cherokee County, chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources and the House Committee on the Environment.
- Republican Rep. David Guice, from Transylvania County, chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety.
- Democrat Sen. Martin Nesbitt, from Buncombe County, is the Senate Minority Leader, meaning he speaks for the Democratic caucus in the chamber.
The Speaker of the House’s chief of staff, former state Rep. Charles Thomas, went to high school in Asheville and still considers Western North Carolina home.