GOP landslide could roll out the (pork) barrel from region
As the magnitude of the Republicans’ victory became apparent Nov. 2, Marc Basnight looked neither surprised nor angry. He had been watching the election-night returns in his Legislative Building office. For 18 years, the man with the Outer Banks brogue had reigned as president pro tempore of the state Senate, one of the most powerful politicians in North Carolina. Now, the reign was over, his Democratic majority gone. Republicans would control 31 of the 50 seats in the Senate. Basnight spoke calmly about going out of office as a rank-and-file legislator. “It’s the way I started. It’s not a bad way to end.”
If Democrats’ Election Night losses were bad for Basnight, they may have been worse for Eastern North Carolina. To understand his mark on the East, all you have to do is travel down that nice, wide stretch of U.S. 64, from Raleigh to his home county, Dare. Like legislative leaders before him, Basnight brought home the pork. Unlike the others, he had 18 years to do so in a sprawling Senate district that includes most of the northeastern part of the state and much of the coastal barrier islands.
Pork, as applied to politics, may be a dirty word in the minds of many, but it usually means infrastructure — including roads, school buildings, natural-gas lines and industrial parks. That infrastructure helps drive economic development. Other examples of Basnight bringing home the bacon include a $200 million natural-gas pipeline through 22 previously unserved eastern counties and a $25 million state-owned pier and aquarium set to open later this year in Nags Head. “Infrastructure, that’s the best example of what clout means,” says Ran Coble, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research. “I think the East loses a lot of people who have been in powerful positions and able to help it.”
Even before the Democrats lost control of the state House and Senate, the No. 2 power in the Senate, Fayetteville resident Tony Rand, had given up his seat. Most of the new powers in the legislature will come from the western half of the state. Republican lawyer Phil Berger of Rockingham County likely will be elected to Basnight’s old post, while sidekick Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville is the chairman-elect of the powerful Senate Rules Committee. Republicans are backing Thom Tillis, a former IBM executive from the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius, as the next House speaker.
Eastern North Carolinians aren’t totally bereft of friends in high places. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, still calls New Bern home. Republicans Harry Brown of Jacksonville and Jean Preston of Carteret County also are expected to emerge as powerful figures in the new Republican Senate. But it’s unlikely to get as much pork as in Basnight’s day. Then again, given North Carolina’s current financial state, there will be less to go around — for at least a few years.