Capital Goods - April 2010

Executives’ power won’t wane
By Scott Mooneyham

For several years, John Davis has been saying that the General Assembly is becoming less friendly to business. It’s easy to dismiss such talk from the man who once headed NCFREE, at one time big business’s go-to organization for political analysis and advocacy in Raleigh. Centrist Democrats still dominate the legislature, particularly the Senate. President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, arguably the state’s most powerful politician the last two decades, has been a champion of business interests, as have his key lieutenants in the chamber.

Now, those lieutenants have departed or are leaving, and Basnight, who will turn 63 next month, has health problems, a nerve disorder that affects his balance and has slowed his speech. Even as he continues to plot Democratic strategy and immerse himself in his favorite pastime, reading early-American history, the Basnight era may be drawing to a close. Could Davis’ view of the place finally havesome validity? Could those moderate, business-friendly Democrats walking into the marble maze that is the Legislative Building find that they no longer hold sway over what happens within its walls?

Davis argues that the shift has been under way for some time, that the Senate’s leadership has been the only thing ensuring that legislation takes place with the larger interests of the state’s business community in mind. “That leadership is what has kept things in balance,” he says. In his view, the rank and file are no longer predictable allies for a simple reason: Since the 1980s, fewer of them have run a business. “We determined in the 1980s that the No. 1 predictor of an ally is occupation,” Davis says. “It didn’t matter about race. It didn’t matter about gender. If you ran a business, you were going to be a predictable ally.” He’s not saying that the legislature has suddenly become populated by tree-hugging lefties out to do in the business world. Anyone taking in a typical House or Senate floor session, with its staid debate and even more staid dress, would laugh at the notion.

But he is saying that many of the Democrats in positions of power — outside of Basnight and his inner circle — aren’t thinking about business first. Other than Basnight, Gastonia businessman David Hoyle and Fayetteville lawyer Tony Rand have been the Senate’s key power brokers over the last decade. Hoyle, co-chair of its powerful Finance Committee, is a developer with global business interests. Rand, who has been the chamber’s majority leader and architect of the state budget, made a fortune as partner in a company that goes around the state zapping people’s kidney stones.

Rand is gone, vacating his Senate seat to head the state parole commission. Hoyle says he has had enough and won’t run for another term. Basnight will. With 13 terms under his belt, the Manteo restaurateur says he’s good for another five. But he isn’t just losing a lieutenant in Hoyle. They’re close friends. Rand’s replacement as majority leader is Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville lawyer who approaches politics with a streak of mountain populism. Last year, he was joined in the Senate by an old friend of his own, former House Speaker Dan Blue. The Raleigh lawyer is the only African-American to hold the office. It didn’t take long for the chatter to begin about whether they might be on their way to becoming the new power team in the Senate.

But even if that scenario plays out — if Basnight steps aside in the near future and Democrats hang on to their majorities in both chambers despite an uneasy electorate and an invigorated Republican Party — would some seismic shift take place? Would bankers and utility execs suddenly find doors shut in their face? Hardly. Just look at what happened in the House when a liberal lawyer from Orange County named Joe Hackney took up residence in the speaker’s office. During the session, lobbyists representing businesses of all shapes and forms still wait patiently outside that door. Hackney still allows them inside to make their case about this bill or that. Quite often, their arguments hold sway. The reason that they’ll continue to succeed has nothing to do with liberal or conservative. It’s because often what’s good for business is good for labor. Politicians of all stripes understand jobs.

Davis is correct that the legislature is changing. But the most significant shift is that it’s getting older, filled with retirees who have the time and means to actually do the job for the pittance legislators are paid. As the Basnight reign inevitably winds down, other changes will come, too. But predicting what that world will look like, how the new leadership will behave, is a tricky game, with the rules more complicated than someone’s bio or whether there’s a D or R beside the name.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com.