As we enter yet another week of budget stalemate, the focus remains on a handful of Democratic lawmakers who could make or break the Governor’s veto strategy.
Part of the rub with the budget, as Thomas wrote last week, is that the power dynamics in Raleigh have shifted quite a bit since the last time a spending bill was written. Democrats have clawed back enough districts in both the House and Senate to have a seat at the table this time. When Cooper vetoed his first budget as governor, Republicans held supermajorities in both chambers, allowing them to override practically anything. The calculus has now changed.
There is recent historical context for division within the Democratic ranks, and we only need look back to 2011. Governor Bev Perdue vetoed the budget, and in that year five Democrats joined with Republicans to override her veto. The path those five took after the veto may portend a similar outcome for Democrats on the fence today.
In question are Dewey Hill, Tim Spear, Bill Owens, Jim Crawford and William Brisson. It is worth noting that only one of the five remains in the General Assembly today.
First, Dewey Hill. After voting to override the veto, he chose not to run for reelection in 2012, but remains a registered Democrat.
Tim Spear did not run in 2012, either. Although he voted with Republicans to override the veto, his district worsened because of redistricting and he chose not to run. Furthermore, he is now a registered Republican.
Bill Owens was the third to join the override and he also chose not to run in 2012. He is no longer a Democrat, either, and is registered as unaffiliated, having voted in primaries for both major parties in recent years.
Fourth: Jim Crawford. He did run for reelection in 2012, but lost in a three-person race, where he captured about 37% of the vote. He remains a registered Democrat.
And finally, William Brisson. He ran for reelection in 2012 and narrowly defeated Matt Dixon by about 300 votes in the primary. Then, in 2016, he ran against Ben Snyder in the primary and narrowly won again, this time by 600 votes. Early in 2017, Brisson switched parties to join the Republicans, and he remains in the North Carolina House today.
To recap, five Democrats voted with Republicans on the veto override in 2011, and only one returned to the General Assembly. And Brisson, the one who returned, ultimately switched parties and became a Republican in 2017.
While earmarks and pork barrel spending can be attractive to legislators, particularly in tightly contested districts, defecting on legislation as important as the budget does not pay dividends. The specter of primary challengers is more real today than it was in years past, particularly in the wake of decisions like Citizens United, which opened the floodgates for election spending by third party groups.
Additionally, the types of voters who show up in every primary election will be far more interested in ideological goals like Medicaid expansion than in local projects, however valuable they may be to specific communities.
And finally, the same voters who chose to elect Roy Cooper as Governor in 2016, in one of the closest gubernatorial elections in the nation, did so precisely to give Democrats in this state more leverage. It is for instances just like this, when a key plank of every Democrats’ platform is on the line, when they should stand with the Governor to expand Medicaid.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.