RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Democrats Marc Basnight, Tony Rand and Joe Hackney were the veteran political powerhouses of the North Carolina General Assembly in 2009. Within four years, they were all out of power and out of office — largely the result of age, illness and the ascendancy of the Republican Party in state politics.
A similar departure of top Republicans will occur soon at the Legislative Building, but not because of the GOP’s electoral misfortunes.
Rather, several top legislative leaders announcing their retirement at the end of 2016 have completed most of their conservative agenda since taking charge in 2011 and are ready to go home. In relatively safe Republican districts, the departing incumbents apparently feel comfortable enough that replacements will keep carrying out those conservative policies on education, taxes, regulation and social issues.
“It’s been over 16 years that I’ve been involved,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who helped lead the charge toward overhauling North Carolina’s tax system. “I can walk away smiling.”
In addition to Rucho, Republicans not seeking re-election next year include Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, House Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Stam, R-Wake, and Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, who is currently in his 14th term. Both Stam and Daughtry have served as majority and minority leaders.
Also on the way out are Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, and Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson. People like Stam, Daughtry and West, who also say it’s time to pass the mantle to younger lawmakers, take with them expertise on how the General Assembly operates and its history.
“I am concerned about the institutional knowledge that we’re losing, and it’s not just within our own party,” said Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, a House GOP caucus leader seeking re-election. Jeter pointed to the August resignation of Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, to lead the liberal-leaning North Carolina Justice Center.
Twenty-one of the 170 lawmakers seated at the start of the two-year session last January already have resigned or announced they won’t seek re-election. Most retirement announcements came as the Dec. 1 candidate filing date approached. The period ends Dec. 21.
The number of departures doesn’t appear on track to eclipse turnover that occurred during the 2010 elections, when Republicans earned majorities in both the House and Senate, and in 2012, when redistricting favoring the GOP contributed to expanded majorities and many incumbent Democrats leaving. More than 100 of the 170 lawmakers serving in 2010 were no longer in the General Assembly three years later.
Barring court rulings that strike down the maps — two legislative restricting lawsuits are pending — Republicans will be heavy favorites in 2016 to retain their majorities.
“Politicians retire strategically and I think if you are a Republican, this is a good time to retire. Your party is firmly in power,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “You want to retire and have a transfer of power when the odds of your legacy (lasting) are higher.”
Democrats believe the GOP departures create an opening to pick up more seats, perhaps reducing majorities so that Republicans alone can no longer pass veto-proof legislation and give Democrats more influence.
North Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Kimberly Reynolds sent a fundraising email this month arguing top Republican departures occurred because they “obviously decided the voters in their districts were tired of the race to the bottom they’ve championed.”
State GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse dismissed her analysis and said Republicans have a “healthy stable of younger people” to carry on what veteran lawmakers accomplished.