Lawmaker leaves Democrats to work with legislative majority

Rep. Paul Tine, a sophomore lawmaker representing coastal North Carolina, will change his party from Democrat to unaffiliated and join the House Republican Caucus for the 2015 legislative session.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Sophomore Rep. Paul Tine will leave the Democratic Party next Monday and hopes to work as part of the Republican majority during the upcoming legislative session, potentially expanding the GOP's control in the chamber and dealing a blow to Democrats hoping to use the coming session as a springboard to electoral success in 2016. 

Tine, a moderate from Dare County who at times voted with Republicans during the past legislative session, plans to register as unaffiliated rather making the jump all the way to the GOP. But as a practical matter, he will likely function as a Republican, participating in the party's closed-door strategy and policy debates. 

"I've been hired to do the best I can for the district and the state," Tine said during an interview with WRAL News. "Can I do that best by working with the majority or working with the minority who doesn't always hold the same views as my district does? I feel that I can do a better job for the district by working with the Republicans."

Along with Dare, Tine represents three other coastal counties: Beaufort, Hyde, and Washington.

Lawmakers in the minority party can file bills and debate legislation but their prerogative can be limited. Priority is given to bills filed by those in the majority, and legislative leaders can be loath to cede a political victory to a member of the opposition.

Tine emphasized Wednesday that he is not officially part of the Republican caucus yet, but House Speaker-designee Tim Moore said earlier this week, "We certainly will welcome Paul to be part of our caucus."

Following November's election, Republicans held a 74-46 advantage over Democrats in the 120-seat House chamber. Tine's defection will effectively give the GOP a 75-45 advantage, although Tine stresses he has not changed all his viewpoints just because he is changing parties. 

"I've told them watch what they wish for in terms of working with me, because I'm still going to believe we need Medicaid expansion to help our rural hospitals. I still believe we need funding for transportation in eastern North Carolina. I still believe in public education very strongly," Tine said. 

Speculation about Tine, 43, who owns and insurance agency, began to circulate around the Legislative Building this week after he had conversations with several colleagues. He had planned to make his announcement Monday morning but moved up his schedule once word became widespread.  

His move is not completely unprecedented. In 2010, Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, ran for office as an unaffiliated candidate, ousting Democrat Nelson Cole. In January 2003, Republican Rep. Michael Decker of Forsyth County switched his party affiliation to Democrat, robbing Republicans of a one-seat legislative majority. But the Decker switch was a key episode in the series of scandals that toppled former House Speaker Jim Black, with prosecutors alleging Black funneled thousands of dollars to Decker to facilitate the switch.

Both Tine and presumptive Moore, R-Cleveland, say that Republicans did not explicitly offer anything to induce the switch.

"Him being a returning member, I would certainly look to put him in some committee chairmanship, but no, there's been no promises or anything like that," Moore said. 

Tine said, "There's no quid pro quo," adding that he had discussed issues but not potential committee assignments with GOP leaders.

Room for moderates

During the latter half of the 20th century, North Carolina's Democratic Party was a raucous big tent, incorporating a spectrum of players that ranged from veterans of the civil rights movement, social liberals and strident environmentalists all the way to business progressives and ideologically conservative "Jessecrats." That coalition faltered in 2010 when Republicans earned sweeping election victories that handed the GOP control of the North Carolina House and Senate for the first time since the Reconstruction era. 

That GOP win, followed by victories in 2012 and 2014, have seen many conservative Democrats defeated, giving the House Democratic caucus a much more liberal bent than its predecessors. 

Tine, who describes himself as "a fiscal conservative that says, 'Let us live our personal lives,'" says it was hard for him to find a niche among that group, and at the moment, he doesn't quite feel at home with either party.

"I've been a Democrat since I was 18 years old. I know I don't fit inside the Democrats right now," he said.

Pressed to what had prompted his move, Tine wasn't explicit but said he didn't feel like party leaders were listening to him.

"It's not take my football and going home, but if they're not willing to move some to allow those of us that are in the middle to play, then at some point, you've got to look around and see if there's another team to play (for)," he said.

During the 2013-14 legislative session, Tine broke with his party on several high-profile bills. He voted for a version of the 2014 Republican budget and an early version of the bill creating a voter identification requirement in the state. 

"When he didn't agree with his caucus' decision, he was made to feel like an outcast," said Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, a self-described moderate Republican and Tine's roommate in Raleigh during the legislative sessions.

Although Jeter has sometimes bucked his party on controversial issues – he opposed a controversial 2013 abortion bill that garnered national attention – House Republicans tapped him for a leadership post, naming him conference chairman, a position responsible for helping candidates win elections. 

"The difference between Paul and myself is I was able to have victories, I was able to sit down and have conversations behind closed doors," Jeter said.

Although formal legislative business takes place in open meetings, legislative majorities hash out major policy decisions and disagreements in closed-door caucus meetings. As a member of the House Republican caucus, Tine would be able to have his voice heard in those meetings. 

"Paul has been a pragmatic moderate his entire time in the House," Moore said. "I would say, in the conversations I've had with him, that we agree much more than we disagree." 

Democrats say they are disappointed with the move.

"Paul is in the best place to talk about what he needs to do to represent his district. He's been a good representative and deserves the benefit of the doubt," said Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, one of the House Democrat's conference chairmen, responsible for fundraising and other political activities.

Martin added that he expected to have Tine as an ally on key issues.

"We're going to continue to push hard for North Carolina's students and expect we'll have Rep. Tine as an ally in the push for education and growing jobs in North Carolina," he said.

Future consequences 

Tine is only one relatively junior member of the legislature, and his move does not appreciably shift the balance of power in the chamber. But his story speaks to the dramatic shift in fortunes for North Carolina Democrats who, until 2010, dominated North Carolina's state-level politics despite Republican successes in federal elections. 

"Democrats presumably need to win some districts with conservative Democrats, or at least moderates, in order to try and win back a majority. This shows that's a hard job. It speaks to the difficulty the Democratic Party finds itself in right now," said Steve Greene, a North Carolina State University political science professor.

Tine says that he plans to run for office in 2016, and right now, he says he would do so as an unaffiliated candidate, although becoming a Republican is not out of the question.

"If they make room for me as a moderate and they help eastern North Carolina the way that I think they can, then of course I'd have to consider moving to Republican because they would have earned that support back," Tine said. 

Greene said that Tine would likely have difficulty winning re-election as an unaffiliated candidate. While Tine's move might alienate Democrats, Greene said, he will pick up Republican support, noting that party identification drives far more votes that personal biography in legislative elections.

"He's going to lose a ton of Democratic votes and pick up a ton of Republicans," Greene said. 

Asked what he would tell those who voted for him due to his connections with the Democratic Party, Tine acknowledged he has probably frustrated a lot of people on all sides of the political spectrum.

"If they sent me up just because I'm a Democrat, they weren't listening to me during the election or during the last two years. I have worked across the aisle the whole time. Every piece of information I put out talks about the district first, the state second and party third," Tine said. "If I've disappointed somebody, I'm sorry. You know, people believe in you and put you up into office because they think whatever their perception of you is. All I can say is I'm going to continue to work as hard as I can for eastern North Carolina."

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