RALEIGH — Business leaders knew where to go in the North Carolina Senate to push legislation through or squelch a regulation they didn't like: Democratic Senators David Hoyle and Tony Rand.
Within the past few weeks, Rand, who was Senate majority leader, resigned effective at the end of the year, and Hoyle, finance committee chairman, announced he won't run again.
"The whole dynamic within the Senate structure for the business community is going to have to change strategy," said Gregg Thompson, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, "and look to other members to carry the ball. ... We're losing our best advocates."
Much of the Democratic Senate leadership's team roster is getting wiped clean. In addition to Rand and Hoyle, Sen. R.C. Soles, the Democrats' caucus chairman, likely faces indictment by a Columbus County grand jury on charges of assault with a deadly weapon. He is accused of shooting a former legal client during a confrontation at Soles' home in August.
President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, of Manteo, says he's running again, but his new lieutenants will bring a change in age, ideology and style.
Consider the ages of some senators who have announced they are leaving or might leave: Rand and Hoyle, both 70; Soles, 75; and David Weinstein of Lumberton, 73.
Rand's successor as majority leader, Sen. Martin Nesbitt of Asheville, is 63, and younger senators are likely to move up in a succeeding leadership shuffle. Basnight has asked Hoyle, in his remaining year in office, to mentor the rising generation.
"He's asked me to show them, flesh to flesh, eyeball to eyeball, how critical business-friendly government is for businesses to survive," Hoyle said.
Basnight said the angst over changing nameplates is overblown.
"I do not see any change in the philosophy of the Senate," Basnight said, emphasizing a push for jobs and education to train the workforce. "You'll see different faces. But the goals will be the same."
A body in transition
Other veterans inside and outside the Senate, however, said the shifts already are under way.
"The transition from a very pro-business senate to a moderate to progressive senate has been occurring for the last two to three terms or more," said former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, who presided over the Senate from 1993 to 2001. "I don't see it moving too far away from where it has been and where it is now. It's a matter of degrees and perspective."
Republicans complain that the Senate already has taken a more liberal turn that will only accelerate as younger, more liberal members get promoted.
Senators this year approved legislation that allows murderers to challenge the death penalty based on race, includes gay students among those protected by school anti-bullying policies, provides for optional school sex education classes that discuss homosexuality and alternatives to intercourse; and bans plastic shopping bags in some coastal counties.
Basnight acknowledged that the senate has passed socially liberal laws.
But he said that government has helped create a state in which education and business thrive, and which other states envy.
"How do you punish a man or a woman unfairly because of their color? That's the genius behind the racial justice act. That's the one people target more than anything else we have done," Basnight said. "But when you come down to business, look at our station in life and how we compare to everybody else."
Spreading the power
Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal-leaning N.C. Policy Watch, said the new wave of Senate leaders such as Nesbitt and Sens. Dan Blue and Josh Stein, both of Raleigh, will give the Senate a more progressive cast, reflecting the state's changing politics.
He said a new cast of leading players likely will take a different approach to decision-making, which historically has transpired among a few and with little scrutiny.
"We have had a Senate leadership that ran the Senate as if it was 30 years ago in terms of openness and access and the Senate budget," Fitzsimon said.
Basnight has already said power will be spread around. Nesbitt, the new majority leader, will not also hold the powerful post of Rules Committee chairman, who helps determine the survival of legislation, as Rand did.
For Republicans, change looks good.
They hope that the Democratic departures, including Hoyle from a Republican-leaning district and Sen. Julia Boseman from a competitive Wilmington district, will combine with a Republican-friendly national political environment to create a GOP tide.
John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, said the threat of a Republican surge may have helped some Democrats decide to leave.
Democrats now control both houses of the General Assembly and the governor's office. With a swing of six seats, the Republicans could take control of the Senate, significantly altering the balance of power in Raleigh and making them players, for example, in the redrawing of district lines following the 2010 census.
"My phone has started ringing a lot," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican.
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