RALEIGH, N.C. — House Democrats plan to choose the next likely speaker of the state House on January 10, as several candidates said Wednesday they believe the party's nominee will win the job on the first day of the General Assembly's next session.
"I don't think we'll have any problems settling it in the caucus," Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, said before entering an hour-long closed door meeting with most of the 68 Democrats who will be in the 120-member House for the next two years. Michaux is one of the candidates for speaker.
The meeting was the first for the House Democratic Caucus since Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, announced he wouldn't seek a record fifth term.
Dogged by questions that have prompted federal and state investigations into his ethics and campaign fundraising, Black said he wanted to turn attention away from himself before the start of the 2007 session.
Black reiterated his decision to fellow Democrats and urged them to stick together, according to people who attended the meeting. The caucus gave him a standing ovation, said Rep. Jim Crawford, D-Granville, one of seven announced candidates to replace Black.
House speaker is one of the state's most powerful legislative positions. The speaker decides which bills are heard in the chamber, which lawmakers get powerful committee chairmanships and who gets appointed to influential state boards and commissions.
Crawford and others said the meeting focused largely on setting the date for the election of their nominee for speaker and giving members a chance to raise issues they want the party to focus on when the Legislature reconvenes January 24.
None of the announced candidates for speaker has a clear majority among the House members, so they'll spend the next three weeks building support among their colleagues.
Democrats gained five seats on Election Day, and many members are pushing for the entire caucus to line up behind one candidate.
But some worry that a narrow victory within the caucus could prompt a losing candidate to work out a deal with the chamber's 52 Republicans for a coalition leader. The speaker is elected on the General Assembly's first day, with a winner receiving a majority of votes cast on the floor.
At least two candidates - Crawford and Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake - have participated in similar GOP coalitions over the past decade, with mixed results. Blue was speaker from 1991 to 1994.
Other announced candidates for speaker include Reps. Joe Hackney and Bill Faison of Orange County, Hugh Holliman of Davidson County and Drew Saunders of Mecklenburg County, who sent out a letter Tuesday to Democrats seeking their support.
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the incoming House minority leader, said the Republican caucus hasn't decided yet whether to try to build a coalition with a Democrat. The caucus was split over the past four years because of a power-sharing agreement Black had with Rep. Richard Morgan, R-Moore.
Stam said that agreement "was not designed to be for the benefit of the caucus as a whole."
Based on recent history, Rep. Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, said she doubts that the speaker's race will be settled January 10.
"I still feel like the decision is going to be made on the floor," said Earle, a longtime ally of Black. She intends to run for speaker pro tempore, the chamber's No. 2 position.