As we begin 2013, we are in many respects returning to the political past in North Carolina. Not since Reconstruction has the Republican Party held control of our executive, legislative, top court and most of our counties. There are big changes and new faces ahead.
Since all politics is local let us begin there. As late as 2010, Democrats controlled a slight plurality of local boards but beginning next year 53 of the 100 county commissions will have a Republican majority.
The 2010 session of the General Assembly passed a bill soon to ripple throughout state government, greatly expanding the number of exempt state employees from 400 to 1,000. These persons are not covered under the state personnel act and serve at the pleasure of the governor or agency head, allowing our new leaders to reach deep into state agencies to make hires. As a result, we see a mass exodus of many long-term employees retiring rather than risking being fired. This is especially true in the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the state’s most troubled agencies. New cabinet secretaries and senior leaders not only need to learn about their agencies while there will be fewer left to instruct them.
Nowhere is change more evident than in our legislature, where 102 of the 170 members are first or second term lawmakers. The NC Center for Public Policy Research reported that more than 650 years of institutional memory has left the General Assembly, and while new people with new ideas can be a positive thing it is also good to have experienced hands who remember how and why past decisions were made, who understand how agencies work and what programs were designed to achieve. Our inexperienced legislators will cede more power than normal to the handful of leaders at the top but will also have the unintended consequence of making the legislative staff more powerful, since they will be the ones with the most institutional memory.
Other historic changes are less evident. For the first time in modern history we will not have a governor or senior legislative leaders who come from the east. At a time when rural counties, especially those east of I-95 and in the far west, are facing perhaps their most challenging economic, education and health issues they will have less clout in state government than anyone can remember.
And when Republicans redistricted our state they deliberately drew districts they knew they could win, while conceding those in which Democrats dominated. In many instances they drew up Democratic districts heavily populated by African Americans, resulting in the Legislative Black Caucus as the majority force in the minority party.
The bottom line is that we will have a multitude of new faces trying to learn the particulars of how government works, what the various agencies are intended to achieve and trying to determine changes. No doubt they come to office wanting to do good but there is a very steep learning curve in a time when we face very serious problems. It is too early to tell what all these dramatic changes mean to our state but it is certain we will not only be entering a new year but also a new day in our state’s politics.
— Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. He can be reached at www.ncspin.com.