Ambitious Republican legislators are clamoring to fill the top job in the state House left vacant by U.S. Sen.-elect Thom Tillis.
The House speaker is one of the most powerful people in state government, making the call on when, how and whether bills come to votes. It’s a pivotal job that propelled Tillis to Washington.
Major legislation is often a compromise between the House, the Senate and the governor. But in some areas, Tillis was clearly the driver of state policy. His support for eugenics compensation and public school vouchers were key to those ideas becoming law.
The race for speaker is internal. House Republicans are scheduled to select a nominee at a Nov. 22 caucus meeting, and the full chamber will vote when the legislature begins its new session in January.
Rep. Justin Burr, a House budget writer from Albemarle, and Rep. Mitchell Setzer, a Finance Committee chairman from Catawba, recently announced they are running.
They join Rep. Tim Moore, chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and over the years has been a House minority leader, majority leader, and a candidate for governor. Rep. Bryan Holloway, a budget writer from King, and Rep. John Blust, a Judiciary Committee vice chairman from Greensboro, are also running.
It’s hard to know who’s in the lead; no one is saying how many votes they have.
“I’ve been involved in caucus politics a long time,” said Daughtry. “I don’t think anyone knows how many votes they’ve got. If they say, they’re probably just talking.”
House Republicans also could see more turnover in leadership jobs. Candidates have emerged for House majority leader, a job Rep. Edgar Starnes of Hickory holds.
In the past two years, Tillis and the House had the role of intermediary between Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican Senate led by Phil Berger of Eden. Berger and McCrory have a rocky relationship, and McCrory worked through the House to advance his positions on tax cuts and changes in the Medicaid program. In his first two years as speaker, Tillis had to oversee negotiations with a handful of House Democrats who voted with Republicans on the budget and on crucial overrides of vetoes by the then-Democratic governor.
With 74 seats in the 120-member House, Republicans will hold a solid majority that reduces the need to negotiate with Democrats.
The House speaker also takes a lead in recruiting candidates to run for the House and helps candidates raise campaign cash.
Moore, a lawyer from Kings Mountain, contributed more than $250,000 to candidates and political committees in the election, including at least $140,000 to the House Republican caucus committee.
Moore said Republican caucus members know he deals with them “honestly and directly.” He said he believes in hearing both sides of issues but that he stands by his principles. “I’m a conservative,” Moore said. “I believe the voters sent us here to do a lot of things – to reduce taxes, to make the state more business friendly, to do a lot of the things that we’ve done.”
The next speaker, he said, must be accessible to members and work to ensure they can be successful representing their districts. The House leader also must work closely with the caucus to craft a clear vision, then be able to work effectively with that Senate. And when the Senate and House differ on major issues, the speaker must “zealously fight” for the House position, he said.
Daughtry will start his 12th House term next year. He has also served two terms in the Senate. Daughtry said the House and Senate should be allies. “We are the legislative branch,” he said. At the same time, the legislature should have as good a relationship as possible with the Republican governor, Daughtry said.
“He had coattails two years ago, and we want him to have coattails again,” Daughtry said of McCrory. “I’m hoping that we can all get along with the issues,” so Republicans can keep their legislative majority and the governorship in 2016.
Daughtry, a lawyer and owner of the beer and wine distributor Mutual Distributing Co., sent an email to Republican House members last week listing his reasons for running. Among them were his commitment to keeping state spending in check and his promise to raise money for House Republicans in 2016, when legislative candidates will be competing for donations with contenders for governor and president.
“It is the responsibility of the Speaker to raise those funds and I am committed to raising the money necessary (to) preserve and expand our majority,” Daughtry wrote.
A common refrain from the candidates is their interest in keeping Republican House members united.
“You have to have someone to bring us together within the caucus and within the House,” said Setzer, an executive in his family’s pipe manufacturing company. “I think we can work out a consensus and bring everybody to the table.”
Setzer, who was elected to a ninth term, said he’d keep communications open with Democrats, too.
“You’re always going to have philosophical differences,” he said. “At least you have the dialogue. The lack of dialogue – when people feel shut out of the process – that’s never good. You don’t want anyone to get shut out.”
Burr, at 29, is the youngest of the candidates. He said his selection would send a message that the party is open to young leaders.
A bail bondsman and real estate broker, Burr, who was elected to his fourth term, said he has gained valuable experience in his six years in the legislature, which included a key role in writing the state budget.
“I have a full understanding of the needs of the state and the General Assembly and can help lead us in the right direction,” he said.