Tom Fetzer has had an interesting career and life. He moved from serving as Raleigh’s mayor for three terms in the ‘90s to becoming one of the state’s most prominent lobbyists. I’d never talked with him at length until he recently offered to share his thoughts on the 2020 elections.
Fetzer, 65, is a former chairman of the N.C. Republican Party and is often painted in the media as an intense partisan. But there’s a reason that folks on both sides of the aisle credit him as one of the shrewder experts on the state’s political system. His hefty roster of well-funded clients listed in state filings — Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, Pepsico, Martin Marietta, Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, WakeMed Health & Hospitals and New Hanover Regional Medical Center are examples — wouldn’t be investing in him if he didn’t have insight and significant clout among N.C. lawmakers.
He had a lot to say about those elections, which we’ll cover below. But perhaps his most important role is as a part-time teacher and traffic cop. He and his wife home school their five children who range in age from 4 to 10. Kate is the main teacher, while his main focus is often keeping his youngest child from disrupting his first, second and fourth-graders’ lessons.
The kids were at a private parochial school until March, but now the family is committed to home schooling at least through summer. The Fetzers live in Wilmington, though he and his sister, Susan Vick, run their lobbying business from the capital city. He says it’s been a great experience. “You have no idea of your children’s capacity until you are really involved in teaching them,” he says. “I think it’s a healthy thing for a lot of parents.”
As for this year’s politics, Fetzer may have some credibility to opine. He says that his predictions shared with his clients the day before the election turned out to be more accurate than “any other [lobbying] firm in the state.”
He called the victories in North Carolina for President Trump, Senator Tillis, Gov. Cooper and predicted that Republicans would hold their majorities in the House and Senate. He incorrectly suggested that Trump would win re-election.
He says the big story of the elections is how little changed despite massive efforts by Democrats. “The Blue Wave turned into the Blue Whiff,” he says. “Much ado about nothing.” He says polls and media reports overestimated both the public’s dissatisfaction with incumbents and the impact of massive out-of-state financial support for Democratic candidates.
Now Gov. Cooper and the state’s Republican leadership have a fresh opportunity to work out compromises, something that rarely occurred during the governor’s first term, Fetzer says. He’s optimistic that some negotiating will happen in 2021, including agreeing on a state budget after two years of stalemates. A likely deficit of $4 billion to $6 billion requires that the parties come to agreement while making tough fiscal decisions, he says.
“The House and Senate leaders are in a stronger position than before and the governor has to understand that he needs to be more of a Jim Hunt and get things worked out with the legislature.”
He thinks the two sides can compromise on Medicaid reform. Fetzer lobbies for hospitals, which favor Medicaid expansion, a position that formed the center of Gov. Cooper’s campaign. Fetzer’s Republican friends won’t budge on total expansion because they remember how out-of-control Medicaid spending derailed the state budget in the 1990s, he says. But many GOP members are serious about reaching common ground and providing more insurance to the indigent if Cooper comes to the bargaining table, he says.
Are N.C. hospitals serious about addressing health care cost inflation? Fetzer says “absolutely, as long as they have a seat at the table in creating solutions.”
Fetzer thinks the N.C. elections showed voters prefer expanded choice for public school students. Despite Gov. Cooper’s relentless push for higher teacher pay, voters understand that the last decade under Republican leadership in Raleigh reflects what Fetzer terms the “most generous era” for teacher compensation in N.C. history. Now parents expect better results from the schools, he says.
Cooper deserves credit for his COVID-19 efforts, and his election victory reflects the governor’s long standing popularity and political skills, Fetzer says. “He’s been in elected office since the 1980s and you don’t stay around that long unless you are good. I think the governor likes to be underestimated, though I don’t think he’s ever lost a political campaign. Beneath that cool calm demeanor is a fierce competitor.“
A few other Fetzer opinions:
— North Carolina may follow Georgia in turning “Blue” in presidential elections because most of the state’s population growth is occurring in Democratic strongholds of Charlotte and Raleigh. But there’s time for Republicans to adapt and maintain their strength in the suburban battlegrounds.
— North Carolina will rebound more quickly from the pandemic because of its relatively low cost of doing business and its highly sought-after quality of life.
— “Wilmington is blowing wide open.” A Realtor friend told him that 26 homes in New Hanover County sold for more than $1 million in October, including some full price, sight-unseen offers from out-of-state buyers.
— UNC Wilmington Chancellor Jose Sartarelli, who is facing criticism from faculty members over some stances related to social justice issues, is widely respected in the city. “Strong leaders like Jose are always going to get flack. I’m a big fan and I hope he stays there as long as he wants to.” Fetzer resigned earlier this year as a former member of the UNC Board of Governors.