Will Gov. Pat McCrory get some angry blowback from state employees he seemed to criticize?

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comFebruary 20, 2013 

It might not turn into the “shot heard ‘round the world,” but Gov. Pat McCrory’s brief critical reference to some state employees as “seat warmers,” though it was cheered lustily by his Republican audience for his State of the State address, is going to make trouble for the governor with a nice-guy reputation.

McCrory likes to think of himself as a Republican in the tradition of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with that smile and all, and not like the grim guys who are running the legislative show on Jones Street these days.

Appealing to the cynical view some GOP lawmakers have of state employees (a good many of whom probably lean Democratic in their views) and for that matter, the opinion that many anti-government tea partyers have, the governor took what some will view as a cheap shot that was, like most cheap shots, entirely unnecessary.

Oh, yes, the governor talked about rewarding “talented state employees” even as he said “seat warmers must be a thing of the past.” The problem is that Republican leaders in the General Assembly aren’t much interested in rewarding anybody these days given their budget ideas, so how exactly the governor plans to deliver on his unspecified rewards is hard to figure. And Republicans already paid their disrespect to another group of public employees, school teachers, when they voted last year to deny teachers the right to have their N.C. Association of Educators’ dues deducted from their paychecks. (It was a veto override.)

It was an intentional slap in the face for some teachers’ criticism of an anemic budget for education.

So those state employees who were on the receiving end of the contempt displayed by Republicans at the State of the State who cheered McCrory’s criticism are in good company at least.

But what about this seat-warmer image that the former mayor of Charlotte seems to hold of some public employees? Here in the Triangle, we have a good bit of knowledge about state employees. They are our neighbors and friends, fellow PTA members, sit in the next pew, bring their kids over for play dates and yes, talk about work over the backyard fence.

Consider some of my acquaintance in the state Department of Insurance, for one agency. I suppose some of their seats are warm because they’re on the phone answering consumer complaints, following up on trying to help people work out disputes, explaining the complex regulations as to individual and group policies and trying to get answers for citizens who are often calling them in frustration and sometimes, tears.

Doggone seat warmers!

Then there are the career employees in the Department of Transportation, from the road crews on up. Mostly I see them on their feet, working on paving projects, inspecting the progress on repairs, walking through planned road sites. And some work in highway beautification, wildflowers and the like, doing projects that make traveling more pleasant. But it’s a task that isn’t appreciated because we don’t notice it.

Frankly, I haven’t seen many of these people in seats, but I guess they have them somewhere.

No less than the governor said it: seat warmers!

Now the governor apparently had to wait to get his driver’s license renewed last time, so during the State of the State, with a smile on his face he directed DOT Secretary Tony Tata to “fix DMV.” That got applause.

But in the 44 years I’ve been driving, I’ve rarely run into anyone with DMV who was not courteous and helpful and even of good humor and trying to do a competent job. And these delays may not be the product of inefficiency, but a shortage of staff.

They do have to sit down to do license exams and the like.

Seat warmers!

I knew a couple of state employees very well. One was a homemaker went to work as an office assistant to relieve the empty nest syndrome when her son went off to college. She was 55 at time and finished out eight years or so with a state agency. Her co-workers at one point proclaimed her the most valuable member of the team, and a wise adviser to boot. And yes, she enjoyed the benefits of a state employee’s health insurance and a small pension after retirement.

Another had success in one career, and then went to work with William Friday at the University of North Carolina system for 15 years before retiring from the state. It was pretty interesting work, as there were 16 campuses in the system and lots of people to keep an eye on, including even legislators. He, too, got the health benefits and the pension.

Like the vast majority of state employees, neither my mother nor my father would have qualified as a seat warmer.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reacheda t 919-829-4513 or at

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