House Republicans to make pick for speaker
Posted November 20, 2014
Updated November 21, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — The race to become one of the most influential players in North Carolina government comes down to the choice of 74 House Republicans in a closed-door meeting this Saturday in Randolph County.
Six lawmakers are vying to replace Thom Tillis as House speaker. The post controls the flow of legislation through the state House and, along with the president pro tem of the Senate, drives the agenda the General Assembly will pursue over the next two years. More broadly, the state constitution grants the General Assembly more raw power in terms of setting government policy than it parcels out to the governor.
"This is one of the three most powerful people in the state of North Carolina," said Thom Little, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro political science professor and a national expert in legislative bodies.
The speaker position is also one of the most poorly understood by voters, who opinion polls show frequently don't know who occupies top legislative jobs.
Lawmakers won't officially choose the next state House speaker until the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 14. But barring an unusual bit of palace intrigue, the GOP caucus' choice to run the chamber is all but assured of the top job.
Reps. John Blust, R-Guilford, Justin Burr, R-Stanly, Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Mitchell Setzer, R-Catawba, are the declared candidates for the job.
"The person watching this race the closest has to be Gov. Pat McCrory," said Chris Fitzsimon, a close legislative observer and head of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch.
Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, is likely to easily win reappointment as the Senate's leader. Berger and fellow senators have frequently butted heads with McCrory, often leaving Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, to tip the balance of power.
"Clearly, Gov. McCrory and Sen. Berger have some issues," Little said.
For example, this summer, Tillis and McCrory joined forces on Medicaid reform, derailing a Senate plan that would have relied heavily on out-of-state insurers to run North Carolina's health insurance safety net for the poor and disabled.
But Tillis has recently stood with Berger in brushing off McCrory's lawsuit against the legislature that complains lawmakers are meddling with his duties by assigning oversight of coal ash and energy production to independent commissions.
As the differences between McCrory and the legislature show, being from the same political party does not ensure leaders will get along. Tillis, for example, pushed a high-profile bill to require insurance companies to cover certain kinds of services for children with autism. While that bill, which Tillis had taken on as a personal priority, passed the House, it did not get past the Senate. The two chambers also sharply debated education and tax policy during the past two years.
Still, a speaker can guarantee an issue gets heard, "that it gets an audience," Little said, pointing out that, even if most voters don't pay attention to who the speaker is, reporters who cover state government do.
Among the Republicans who control 74 of 120 House seats, there are different strains of conservatism that lead to sometimes divergent viewpoints on economic development, taxes and constitutional issues. But observers say none of the candidates in the mix for speaker find themselves far outside the mainstream of their caucus.
"I do not detect a significant difference in political philosophy between the major candidates," said John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation.
Rather, personal relationships, management style and predictions about who might be the strongest negotiator one-on-one with Berger are more likely to be factors in lawmakers' choices. Geographical considerations, whether it be eastern-versus-western North Carolina or urban-versus-rural, can also factor into the decision making, personal animus, age and perceived ambition.
Tillis' run for the U.S. Senate, although ultimately successful, hung over the chamber this summer and colored negotiations over high-profile legislation between the House and Senate.
Burr, 29, and Daughtry, 73, are the youngest and one of the longest-serving members of the House caucus. Asked whether those with more life experience might chafe at being bossed around by a member of the millennial generation, Burr said, "During my entire time at the General Assembly, I've never had anyone treat me different because of my age." Daughtry said nobody had raised the issue with him and pointed out that former President Ronald Reagan was 77 when he left office.
As well, some caucus members may look to who they side with on the few issues that divide Republicans. For example, a last-minute economic development bill failed a House vote, with Republicans about evenly split on the issue. Blust, Daughtry and Setzer all voted against the bill, which would have created a new Job Catalyst Fund and expanded funding for other job lures, while Burr, Holloway and Moore all voted for it.
"At the end of the day, I believe we need to take a pragmatic approach," Moore said when asked what he might say to those wary of that vote.
And Setzer was among four Republicans to vote against last year's budget over concerns about potential revenue shortfalls. Although he said the budget issue isn't why he ran, Setzer says he is not in favor of trying another round of tax cuts until the finance changes made in 2013 and 2014 fully take hold, which could put him at odds with members who want to go further this session.
Long weekend in store
After an initial meeting last weekend, candidates for various positions have been busy all week lining up support on the edges of legislative committee meetings and by phone. On Saturday, they will meet and wrangle behind closed doors, casting secret ballots until they make a choice.
"It's more like an election for a student council president than a statewide political figure," Fitzsimon said.
The early betting among close observers of the legislature gives Daughtry, a former state senator and long-time House member, and Moore, a House member since 2003 who has been chairman of the powerful Rules Committee under Tillis, the best chance of winning.
But the candidates themselves, rank-and-file members and close observers say no one candidate is likely to win on the first ballot.
"My guess is it's going to be a mighty long Saturday," said Holloway, a budget chairman who has focused on education.
In addition to making their choice for speaker, House Republicans will also make picks for a range of posts, including majority leader and whips. While GOP lawmakers can decide those party positions on their own, the speaker is elected by the full House.
The choice would be in doubt only if Republicans ended the weekend with some significant faction unhappy enough with the results to make a deal with House Democrats. That sort of scenario hasn't played out since the 2003 session, when an evenly divided chamber ended up electing Republican and Democratic co-speakers.