RALEIGH — It was unclear if the dismissive remark was aimed at me or at my column of the day before.
“Naïve,” the new Senate president pro tem, the late Sen. Henson Barnes, D-Wayne, said at the Senate chamber’s press table in January 1989.
I didn’t take it personally but I do relish, years later, that the column correctly warned, “What goes around comes around.”
Back in 1989, the Senate was launching its new power structure, stripping the lieutenant governor of all but his constitutional powers and giving them to the president pro tem.
Traditionally, the lieutenant governor, who by the constitution presides over the Senate, had also enjoyed enormous power through Senate rules. He appointed committee chairmen and members, and he assigned bills to committees. An adept lieutenant governor using the authority in those rules, such the late Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green (1981-89), could build a Raleigh power base that rivaled that of the sitting governor.
But in 1988, Jim Gardner, a Republican, the former congressman and future ABC chairman, was elected lieutenant governor. Democrats, who had maintained control of the Senate, were not about to give all that extra-constitutional power to a member of the other party.
Parties in the majority do not hand control of a legislative body to the minority party.
But in 1989, Democrats lost an opportunity to adjust to what was a clear shift in North Carolina’s partisan makeup. Republican Gov. Jim Martin had just won re-election. Gardner had won. Republicans had made gains in both the House and the Senate. And, in the House, rebellious Democratic members were forming a coalition with the Republican minority that would topple the four-term speaker, Liston Ramsey.
Senate Democrats could have ended the long-held tradition of ignoring Republican legislators, and in the process ignoring the wishes of their constituencies, and begun to establish rules and procedures that guaranteed fair treatment for the minority party. But they didn’t. They simply stripped the office of its powers and gave them to Barnes.
On the other side of the building, the House was trying something new, something that reflected that North Carolina was no longer a solidly Democratic, one-party state. But it was a tail-wagging-the-dog coalition that was doomed from its second day when the real world began to intercede.
To be a Republican in those days was to be treated as a second-class legislator, and one has to believe that memories of that treatment ingrained themselves in the party’s political DNA going forward.
To which I point to today, six years into complete Republican control of the legislature where Democrats have as little power in their minority status as Republicans did in 1989. That’s because Republicans learned well how to dismiss a minority party during the years when they were that party.
This Republican-led General Assembly has concerned itself with one initiative after another aimed at solidifying its own power and attempting to write Republican advantages into the state’s election laws. Their partisanship is breathtaking, and reminiscent of earlier days.
And that just raises the old saw about what is going around and coming around.
Take the return to partisan election of judges that so excites Republicans. They think the public wants tougher Republican judges and will vote for them even if they don’t know the candidates. But what happens if 2018 turns out to be the decisive swing election toward Democrats that many pundits are predicting? A lot of solid Republican judicial candidates might just wish they weren’t carrying a party label.
Carter Wrenn, the veteran Republican operative, raised an interesting question in his recent blog. Could Republicans face a three-way primary for governor in 2020? Might former Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Sen. Phil Berger all run?
Now wouldn’t that be something if a Gov. Phil Berger went into office only to find that he’d done a fine job of stripping the office of so many of its powers?
It’s not naïve to predict that what has gone around will, one day, come around again.
Paul T. O’Connor has covered state government for 39 years.