State Rep. Joe Hackney, a 32-year veteran lawmaker and former speaker, said Thursday he would not seek another term, becoming the latest in a string of top Democrats to announce retirements in the past week.
The Democratic departures are not coordinated. But lawmakers say the moves signal deep frustrations with the new GOP legislative leadership and a desire to avoid bruising re-election battles in unfavorable districts newly drawn by Republicans.
The lawmakers join a growing list of endangered Democrats in North Carolina who aren't seeking re-election, including Gov. Bev Perdue and U.S. Reps. Brad Miller and Heath Shuler.
"I think what it tells us is that we are experiencing a sea change within the party," said state Rep. Alice Bordsen, a Mebane Democrat who is retiring after 10 years. "Change is scary - you see people who are very talented leaving."
Like Bordsen, the majority of state lawmakers retiring served more than a decade and three are members of the House Democratic leadership team. One Democratic state senator and 10 state representatives are not seeking another term, with nine retiring and two pursuing higher office. The bulk of the departures are in competitive legislative districts, and more farewells are expected in the next two weeks before lawmakers file official candidacy papers starting Feb. 13.
Among them, the departure of Hackney, a consensus builder and procedural master from Chapel Hill who served four years at the helm of the House, is likely to hit the hardest.
"He was a tremendous leader," said Andrew Whalen, a former state Democratic Party executive director. "His knowledge, both policy-wise and on the political side, really was invaluable."
Hackney also excelled as a fundraiser for legislative races. But the stream of money is beginning to evaporate as Democrats hold less power, campaign finance reports show.
The N.C. Republican Party tied Hackney's retirement, and those of other prominent Democrats, to what they call the party's "radical shift to the liberal left" and President Barack Obama's diminished popularity. "It sounds like today the music may have died in the N.C. Democratic headquarters," said state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes, adding to the list former UNC president Erskine Bowles, who decided Thursday not to run for governor.
But the main factor precipitating the retirements in the state legislature and Congress is the Republican-led redistricting.
Under maps reconfigured last year, districts held by GOP lawmakers became more conservative and existing Democratic lawmakers were either put into Republican territory or in the same district as other Democrats. A coalition of Democratic voters and liberal advocacy groups is challenging the new maps in court. But a Wake County judge denied a request to delay candidate filing or the primary - meaning the GOP boundaries are likely to stand for this election.
The retirements are "a function of the realities of the maps holding for this cycle and the increasingly competitive nature of campaigns," said Chris Sinclair, a Republican political consultant. "It's a function of the 2010 election. Republicans won and got to oversee how the maps were drawn."
In redistricting years, turnover is often higher than normal and this year is no different. So far, 16 Republicans also are leaving the state House and Senate. Ten are retiring and six are seeking higher office. But unlike Democrats, only one is a member of the leadership.
Jonathan Kappler, who tracks elections at the nonpartisan N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, suggests this year's musical chairs will match or exceed 2010 when Republicans swept into power.
At the state level, some Democratic lawmakers believe the rigid control of the Republican leadership and the never-ending legislative session made it difficult to serve.
"I think it has been a really tough, unpleasant year for legislators who care about enlightened policy making," said state Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who is seeking re-election.
Diane Parfitt, a Fayetteville lawmaker and House Democratic freshman leader, said this past year didn't meet her vision for lawmaking.
"We can have differences of opinion on how we operate, but at the end of the day, we all work together," she said. "I had this dream that's the way we could operate."
As a business owner, she said the frequent legislative business in Raleigh made the part-time lawmaking job unworkable. It was a factor in her decision, she said. "The tone and everything in Raleigh is different" under the GOP, Parfitt added.
Democrats aren't giving up hope of retaking the majority in the legislature this year, saying they are cultivating a new generation of leaders and the party is encouraged by Obama's expected push in North Carolina.
"We are recruiting some really strong candidates to fill those vacancies," Harrison said. "People are encouraged by the president's campaign. There will be a lot of resources poured into this state to get out the vote and Democrats will be fired up."