Some constituents rethinking US Rep. Renee Ellmers

jfrank@newsobserver.comOctober 21, 2013 

  • 2nd Congressional District

    U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers represents the 2nd Congressional District, which touches nine counties in central North Carolina. Here’s how her district looks:

    Party affiliation: 36 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican, 28 percent unaffiliated

    Race: 74 percent white, 18 percent black, 8 percent other

    2008 Election: 56 percent John McCain, 43 percent Barack Obama

    Source: N.C. State Board of Elections, 2012 data

— Dot Greenwood can’t believe what's happening in Washington these days.

“Everybody is blaming everybody else,” the 85-year-old retiree said. “It’s getting worse and worse. Mediating used to be what people thought was a good thing to do, now it’s who can you blame first.”

Sitting across the table, a pizza between them, Jacque Weston is more acute. “We’d like to fire them all, of course,” she said. “It makes me angry they are all doing this.”

Days after the federal government shutdown and bitter partisan budget battle ended in the nation’s capital, the conversation about what it means continues on Pennsylvania Avenue in this small town in the North Carolina sandhills represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers.

Stan Herman served his first wood-fired pizza at his new restaurant Oct. 1. “Shutdown day,” he said.

The irony that he opened on the day the government shut down is not lost on him. For his first two weeks, he offered discounts to military families from nearby Fort Bragg who were affected by the political impasse on the other Pennsylvania Avenue.

The president “may have gotten some short-term political gain,” said Herman, who calls himself a “centrist.” “But overall these people don’t understand that everybody hates all of them. All of them.”

Packed with voters age 65 and older, Southern Pines and neighboring Pinehurst sit at the center of Moore County, one of the most Republican counties in the state. And much of the conversation here focuses on the Republican Party and Ellmers, who represents the sprawling 2nd Congressional District that stretches north to Wake County.

The second-term GOP lawmaker played a prominent role in the shutdown discussion, appearing often on cable television to tout the Republican leadership’s message against the White House. But explaining Ellmers’ own stance is complicated.

A vocal critic of the federal health care law, Ellmers initially condemned the effort to shut down the government as a strategy to stall the national health insurance program. But facing pressure from tea party advocates, she voted against the measure to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government.

Both stances are drawing critics and making Ellmers a target.

“Next election, I'm going to send money to her Democratic opponent,” Bill Rose, 88, said after he finished his pizza.

The outspoken Southern Pines resident and World War II veteran calls himself a diehard Republican. But he said he can’t identify with Ellmers and others who voted against the measure to end the stalemate. “I want her to be a statesman and negotiate. These people are so fixed in their attitudes,” he said. “The hardliners are killing the Republican Party.”

But Jim Nichols, an 82-year-old retired engineer from Pinehurst, criticized Ellmers’ opposition to the shutdown. “She’s confused sometimes,” he said. “Her opinions are not consistently conservative. … I would like her to stand firm.”

Jennifer Maples, who sat a cafe around the corner from Pennsylvania Avenue, said she wants to see the health care law blocked but questioned the GOP strategy. “It's almost pointless when they shut it down,” the 37-year-old Southern Pines business owner said. “Because when it's done, they go back and pay their employees, so what’s the point? Why even shut it down? What would happen if I did that in my business?”

‘No longer a darling’

The complicated Republican views speak to the fissures in the party exposed by the shutdown and debt ceiling debate, particularly for lawmakers like Ellmers, who won election with help from tea party advocates.

Ellmers won her 2012 re-election with 56 percent support against a little-known Democratic challenger. Her toughest contest in 2014 is likely to come from within her party. Cary investor and radio personality Frank Roche recently announced he would challenge Ellmers in the GOP primary, and more Republican opponents are expected to emerge.

The intraparty opposition is being driven by tea party activists who helped send Ellmers to Washington.

Bill Cochrane, who leads the 1,700-member local tea party and serves on the local GOP county executive committee, called Ellmers’ final vote a political calculation that won’t assuage his members’ concerns. “To go through this and pay the political price they knew they were going to pay, … and then caving in and giving the Democrats everything they wanted, is the most asinine, idiotic, stupid move I've ever seen,” he said. “She’s no longer a darling of the tea party.”

Cochrane’s view was shared by many at the Moore County Republican Men’s Club meeting last week, two days after the shutdown ended. Mike Adams, a conservative author and UNC Wilmington professor, told those gathered that “instead of compromising, (Republicans) need to be confrontational.”

Cruz envy

Echoing the sentiment, Nancy Roy Fiorillo, the Pinehurst mayor, said Republicans “only get hurt when they compromise.” Like other activists at the meeting, she disputed the forecast that the federal government would default on its loans if the debt ceiling didn't rise. She wants to see the federal health care law repealed because, she said, it represents more government control of Americans’ lives.

“I think (U.S. Sen.) Ted Cruz is right on the money,” she said. “There are many of us who wish we had a Ted Cruz to stand up for us.”

In an interview, Ellmers acknowledged that she angered Republicans on both sides of the debate. And she disputes the notion that her final vote was designed to assuage the concerns of tea party activists. “If anybody knows me, they know I don’t vote one way or another to appease any special interest, … whether that’s one faction of a party or another,” she said.

Ellmers said she “didn't go to Washington to shut down the government” and remains resolute in her opposition to the federal health care law. And she doubled down against the tactics pushed by the tea party, calling the shutdown a “failed strategy.”

“It should never have been put forward,” she said, adding, “I’m happy we are out of the government shutdown.”

She said she doesn't see a contradiction in her positions. “If you are flat out ‘no’ on something, you have to be a ‘no’ on the whole thing,” she said, referring to the debt-ceiling increase. “If I believe in 80 percent of something, I would vote for it. But there wasn’t 80 percent in that bill. I could not vote for it.”

David Byles, a 57-year-old IT specialist from Pinehurst, sent Ellmers emails encouraging her to stand firm against the final deal. He said he is satisfied with her vote. “Her actions speak louder than words,” he said.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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