Commentary

Christensen: What happens when voters are no longer legislators' bosses

rchristensen@newsobserver.comFebruary 8, 2014 

It is always a good idea that our politicians are a little fearful of the voters who are supposed to be their bosses after all.

The most successful North Carolina politicians went to great lengths to make sure they did not come across as big shots.

Longtime Senate leader Marc Basnight, probably the most powerful state legislator the state has ever seen, had a standing rule. No staff member could walk the halls with him. He never wanted it to appear that he had an entourage.

The two most dominating Tar Heel politicians of recent decades – four-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt and five-term Republican Sen. Jesse Helms – continued to live in modest houses all their lives. Hunt always emphasized the manual labor he did on his Wilson County farm.

Helms would keep foreign potentates cooling their heels in his office, if he was with a constituent. And thousands of Tar Heels have tucked away in their scrapbook personal letters from Helms that he wrote on his manual typewriter late into the night.

Basnight, Hunt and Helms could be tough customers in politics. But when it came to voters, they acted as if they were one election away from being sent home.

So why do we have the tone and attitude of some of our political leaders today?

Consider the following:

• Sen. Bill Rabon of Southport describing House members by using a locker room word often used to describe female genitalia – while talking to constituents. (Can you imagine Helms doing that?)

• Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw last session telling a newspaper publisher who confronted him on a bill: “I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.” (Ever hear Basnight say that?)

• Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews calling a Raleigh resident “a moron,” and Sen. Thom Goolsby of Wilmington referring to “Moral Monday” mass protests as “Moron Monday.” (Can you imagine Hunt calling his opponents morons?)

The tone is set at the top.

House Speaker Thom Tillis talked about passing bills that would provide his adversaries with “a gut punch.”

Or consider the letter sent by Sen. Phil Berger in December 2011 to North Carolina municipal officials warning them about using the courts to challenge the constitutionality of the new restrictions on annexation passed by the legislature that year. Berger warned if local officials persisted in filing suits, the legislature would consider a number of bills, including those that would roll back previously passed annexations.

Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot, and President Barack Obama had threatened to bring the powers of the federal government down on North Carolina, if the Tar Heel legislature voted to join the lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. The outcry in conservative circles about big government arrogance would have been deafening.

The thread running through all of these episodes is unbridled political power. The men involved in these instances are no different from the men who occupied the seats before them. But what is different is that the normal checks and balances are not in place. When Democrats were in power, they were always nervously looking over their shoulder, afraid that the Republicans were gaining on them.

Because of redistricting, Republican legislators know there is no chance that they will lose control of the legislature in November no matter what they say. They are probably safe in 2016 and perhaps beyond as well. That is also true for most individual lawmakers.

One way to look at it is the Republican legislature has essentially awarded itself political tenure. They have a better deal than most union contracts. Most of them can’t be fired in the foreseeable future unless, in the immortal words of then Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, they are caught in bed with “a dead girl or a live boy.”

So they can freely tell the boss – in this case the voters – just about anything they want, without any negative repercussions.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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