Chatham’s legislative officials face uphill climb

Posted 11/19/20

RALEIGH — Rep. Robert Reives II and Sen. Valerie Foushee, both Democrats, have retained their seats as Chatham County’s elected officials in the North Carolina state legislature. But as members …

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Chatham’s legislative officials face uphill climb

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RALEIGH — Rep. Robert Reives II and Sen. Valerie Foushee, both Democrats, have retained their seats as Chatham County’s elected officials in the North Carolina state legislature. But as members of the General Assembly’s minority party, they will face an uphill battle to enact the policy changes their constituency expects.

As the election season neared its end in recent weeks, all eyes turned toward the U.S. Senate where Democrats in pivotal states across the country hoped to take key victories in the party’s bid to reclaim a slim majority. But a similar struggle was at play among N.C.’s state legislators.

“The goal was to get majorities in both houses, obviously,” said Reives, who represents House Dist. 54. “But at a minimum, I think the realistic expectation was to be able to get majority in one of the houses.”

Instead, the November election netted two seats for Republicans after three Democratic incumbents lost in the House and only one Republican incumbent lost in the Senate.

“In the House, you’ve got 120 people,” Reives said. “A majority, obviously, will be 61. And in this particular year, we’re going to have 69 Republicans, 51 Democrats. And in the Senate, which is 50 people, they’re going to be at 28 (Republicans) to 22 (Democrats) this year.”

The Democratic minority is nothing new for N.C. Until 2018, Republicans held a super-majority in the General Assembly, commanding more than the two-thirds voting margin required to overturn a governor’s veto. Democrats claimed enough seats in the last midterms to chip away at the Republican stronghold, but the balance is tilting right again.

“We had the goal of being able to be more relevant,” Foushee said. “That’s the term I like to use in the General Assembly. And the only way that we were going to be more relevant was to achieve more parity, or to flip either chamber or both, because what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is that there is no compromise, there is no negotiation, there are only the bills that are put forward by Republicans.”

The difficulty in securing a more balanced representation stems from lingering effects of gerrymandered district territories, according to Reives.

“If you objectively look at the maps, our maps are not fairly arranged,” Reives said. “The districts we lost this year were simply majority Republican districts.”

Strong Republican support in this year’s presidential race also influenced down-ballot contests.

“Whatever somebody’s personal feelings about President Trump, he is an amazingly popular figure with his voters,” Reives said. “He turned out more voters than any Republican president in the history of this country. And so that, of course, has a trickle-down effect, because if voters turn out and vote straight ticket, then a lot of races are decided before they even start. And that’s really what you had happen this year.”

While the statewide power play was less publicized than its congressional counterpart, the battle for General Assembly dominance was arguably more important in the day-to-day lives of N.C. residents.

“The General Assembly is not a sexy position,” Reives said, “and you know, it’s not something that’s going to be. It’s never high enough to get on the news or to get into a bunch of TV commercials, and it’s not local enough to always be in the newspapers.”

But state legislators are responsible for dictating local taxes and the state’s money-spending philosophy.

“The state legislature determines a budget, which is a spending plan for the state,” Foushee said. “So, to the extent that the state provides funds for education, for Health and Human Services, for a whole host of things that affect our everyday lives, I think that people sometimes take it for granted.”

Chatham County, which has historically toed the line between Republican and Democratic leanings, swung strongly to the left in this year’s election. Reives and Foushee each received more than 55% of the vote.

Many voters identified with their calls for expanded broadband and healthcare. But without Democrats having won the majority, Reives and Foushee are dismayed by their chances to enact meaningful change.

“Broadband has become a partisan issue,” Reives said. “And I just really would like to see us meet halfway on broadband, because I just don’t think it’s sustainable as a state for us to continue not to invest in broadband. I mean, I think about what we could do with these rural counties, who feel like they’re falling farther and farther behind, if we could just give them something as simple as broadband ... At this point in time, it’s got to be a utility, just like when we brought electricity to everybody. It can’t continue to be an issue.”

Opinions on healthcare, too, have become subject to political allegiance.

“It’s strictly about party lines,” Foushee said.

Unlike some policy conflicts which pit the parties’ disparate views on budgetary spending against each other, Medicaid, according to Reives, would not cost North Carolinians any more money in taxes.

“It costs us nothing,” he said. “That is the freest, easiest way to address half a million people out the gate. And so that’s really what I’d like to see us focus on, is to go ahead and do Medicaid expansion. Let’s go ahead and take this money that we’ve already invested in the federal government — let it come back to us and let it stop going to New Jersey and Indiana and all these other places that have already expanded Medicaid.”

It would also help with job creation, Reives added, a subject important to both parties’ political agendas.

But the likelihood of Republicans and Democrats coming together to work for N.C. residents seems bleak as the political divide widens.

“I mean, it’s really disappointing ...” Reives said. “At some point in time, we’ve got to decide that we’re sick of this. We’ve got to decide that whatever party we’re in, whatever group we follow, whatever beliefs we have, that at a minimum, we believe in having representatives of our parties who believe that compromise is not a bad word, and believe that civil discourse is the only way you’re going to solve problems.”

Before the General Assembly can address any legislative needs, then, its constituent halves must learn how to work in harmony.

“I see what Republicans see,” Foushee said. “They see what I see ... And so, you know, I would just hope, as I have since I’ve been in the legislature, for the ability to meet with and have real conversations with my colleagues across the aisle about how we address the needs of North Carolinians across the board.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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