Jenkins: Political power gathers at high noon

January 9, 2013 

Jason Smith’s 18 Seaboard in Raleigh is known for imaginative dishes served in an open dining room by black-clad waiters and waitresses. This is a place where “food” becomes “cuisine.” Unusual combinations of fresh vegetables raise the eyebrows and moisten the palate.

And it has become an unparalleled political thermometer.

On the day before lawmakers elected leaders for the upcoming 2013 session of the General Assembly, the Legislative Building itself was relatively quiet, with only a few of the power players walking the halls with that determined look.

Well, Republicans, who are in charge, were determined. Some of the Democrats were wearing what we used to call a “hang dog look,” the one kids have when they’re boarding the school bus knowing the bigger kids are going to take their lunch money. Which is pretty much what Republicans are going to do.

But in Raleigh, at feeding time, it is 18 Seaboard where the movers and shakers do their moving and shaking.

So Tuesday, at lunch, a friend and I adjourned to the place near downtown. Indeed, the power was as palpable as the garlic chips or the black-eyed pea cakes or the salmon salad.

In one corner, lobbyists huddled (lobbyists always huddle, the better to demonstrate for surrounding diners the gravity of their discussions ... or perhaps so others won’t hear them cutting up the opposition).

In another, top-drawer consultants Gary Pearce and Joyce Fitzpatrick of Raleigh were chatting amiably with clients.

In came state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh, a Democrat. Ross is a proud, unabashed progressive, an attorney, and proof that though there have been reports the Democratic Party is extinct, it is not. Should the Republican majority anticipate steamrolling its agenda down Jones Street, Ross is among those likely to heave a wrench into the transmission.

State Treasurer Janet Cowell, also a Democrat (that makes two), came in a little before Ross, and she seemed upbeat. No hang dog there.

And speaking of Democrats, in a booth that looked out over the dining room, we found none other than immediate former Gov. Beverly Perdue. The other Democrats in the room paid appropriate respect to her, and she did look relaxed, having just handed over the reins of government to her successor, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, last weekend.

A missing “player” was Art Pope, budget czar and McCrory confidant. Too busy to eat perhaps, and grabbing some Nabs on the run.

And speaking of Gov. McCrory, he has during his campaign had his own power lunch place of sorts. We are told on good authority, and in fact have seen with our own eyes, that McCrory favors the Player’s Retreat on Oberlin Road.

In his tenure as mayor of Charlotte, the new governor doubtless dined with Chamber of Commerce types in some of the Queen City’s high-rises, but clearly he’s a man who knows where power goes. And in Raleigh, it is found at places like the PR and 18 Seaboard.

And speaking of the Player’s Retreat, as we departed 18 Seaboard, the PR’s very owner, Richard “Gus” Gusler, was waiting to be seated for lunch. Being a man of discerning choice in conversation, he left us quickly to go talk to the former governor.

Couldn’t blame him. On that power “make-the-bell-ring” meter, we wouldn’t have moved the arrow past “weakling” compared with the dining room crowd.

Naturally, with the changeover in the governor’s office and with Republicans running both houses of the General Assembly, it’s fair to wonder whether it will be a long time before the Democrats see another black-eyed pea cake. Will Republicans simply assume control of the power places? Will dining Democrats be answering to the question, “You want fries with that?”

It’s likely, unless they’re willing to eat lunch at 10 and dinner at 4.

On the way back to the office, we did see further evidence of the transition of power. There, ready to cross Edenton Street between the State Capitol and the Legislative Building, was none other than Mr. Pope himself, in a gray power suit, not that he needed it. He looked both ways before crossing, not that he needed to do that, either. He simply followed the palm fronds that had been laid out before him above the crosswalk and made it across without his feet touching the ground.

OK, we’re kind of exaggerating about that palm frond part. But not, any Democrat will tell you, by much.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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