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Pittman’s rebellion fizzled, but another brews

May 4, 2013 

State Rep. Larry Pittman has a divinity degree and a knack for sermonizing, but for all he understands about the power of the pulpit, he’s still learning about the power of the Internet.

Pittman, (R-Cabarrus), spoke to a “We The People” tea party gathering April 27 and he didn’t hold back. He praised Jesus and dissed House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Pittman said Tillis was wary of pushing bills relaxing gun laws and other measures favored by tea party supporters. He suggested that the speaker was putting his plans for a possible U.S. Senate run ahead of the true conservative agenda.

“Some of our leadership is squeamish about being bold and doing what the people want done,” he said.

When a video of the speech went online, Pittman’s audience grew, especially in Raleigh. Republican leaders did not greet his preaching with hosannas. The 58-year-old representative, a political newcomer appointed to 82nd District seat last term and elected in his own right in 2012, apologized and released a letter asking the speaker for forgiveness. (See the video on The N&O’s Under the Dome blog)

“Thinking out loud in such a setting is not the best thing to do, it seems,” Pittman wrote. He did not return calls for comment last week.

Tillis declined to comment beyond saying he disagreed. But Rep. Ruth Samuelson (R-Mecklenburg), a potential successor to Tillis, who is not seeking another term, said Pittman’s rebellion was his alone.

“Larry doesn’t speak for the caucus,” she said. “I wouldn’t take Larry’s comments as indicative of anybody but Larry.”

Samuelson may be right. Pittman is hardly conventional. (He drew attention last year with a private email he mistakenly sent to all legislators in which he said he favored public hangings for murderers.) But this time his outburst of candor may reveal a tension that goes beyond his own opinion.

In his speech, Pittman said conservatives who share his views feel ignored by their own party’s leadership.

“They tell us all the time about how bad it was when they were in the minority and the Democratic leadership wouldn’t let them get their bills moved or anything. Well now the constitutional conservatives in the Republican part of the House know what that’s like,” he said.

Republican leaders in Raleigh are facing the same conundrum as Republican leaders in Congress. They’re trying to win broad public support even as they’re trying to appease – and contain – some fringe thinkers who were swept into office by tea party fever and conservative Christian alarm.

That internal tension has made the first few months of Republican control rocky. Republicans say their takeover of both the state House and Senate and the governor’s office represents the ascendance of fiscal prudence and business savvy. But the tone of this session has been chaotic as Republicans have offered bills that range from amusing (a ban on women going topless in public), to foolish (cutting support for renewable energy), to mean-spirited (drug tests for welfare recipients) to dangerous (allowing concealed handguns in bars).

It was one of those odd measures that touched off Pittman’s complaint. He co-sponsored a resolution offered by Carl Ford (R-Rowan) asserting North Carolina’s right to declare a state religion. He said the bill’s intent was to make it possible for people to practice religion openly. Specifically, it would have let Rowan County commissioners continue to begin their meetings with Christian prayers, a practice that prompted the ACLU to sue to have it stopped.

The bill brought wide ridicule as unconstitutional and became fodder for comics until Tillis announced it wasn’t going anywhere. At the “We The People” meeting, Pittman said the speaker’s office told Ford that if he didn’t accept the bill’s demise, his other bills wouldn’t go anywhere.

“I’m potentially getting myself in real trouble telling you this stuff because the speaker’s office doesn’t want you to know this stuff,” he said.

The video reveals more about Pittman and those who share his views than it does about the speaker. From Pittman’s description, his work at the legislature sounds like half a legislative session, half a religious retreat. His speech opened with a declaration of his obedience to Jesus and he described how other legislators shared his Christian commitment. In Raleigh, they attend a Bible study meeting on Monday night, a Tuesday morning prayer group and a chapel service every Wednesday. And some 30 lawmakers recently formed a Prayer Caucus. “So there are some good Christian people trying to do the right thing up there,” he said.

Conservative Christians are hardly new to the General Assembly, but their numbers are higher since Republicans gained a majority in both chambers in 2010 and they’re getting restless. That schism may become apparent as this turbulent session gets down to the hard business of deciding whose ideas will become law.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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