At the end of an extended budget negotiation in 2003, Rep. Paul Luebke was the only House Democrat to vote against the plan, explaining that it included money for a prison he didn’t think the state needed.
He fought in the late 1990s to end the state sales tax on groceries.
For years, he blocked a local 1 percent sales tax on restaurant food in Durham that other Durham legislators and local Democrats wanted, but which Luebke argued would disproportionately hurt the poor.
Luebke died Saturday night at age 70. The self-described progressive Democrat spent his 25 years in the state legislature representing a Durham district and pushing for tax policies he thought fairer to the poor and middle-class, trying to protect gay state employees from discrimination, and fighting tax incentives meant to lure businesses to the state.
At the end of debates on complex bills, Luebke would often stand on the House floor, peer over glasses sliding down his nose, and express a contrarian view.
“He would always stand up and say what he wanted,” said Paula Wolf, a campaign consultant and former lobbyist. “It wouldn’t matter if it was against the grain or against the majority or against the caucus. He did what he thought was right. He was kind of a lone wolf for a very long time.”
He helped shape tax policy as both a rank-and-file member and as a co-chairman of the House Finance Committee.
During an economic slump in 2001, Luebke took the lead in the legislature on a campaign by the N.C. Justice Center and the Covenant for North Carolina’s Children to “save services, raise revenue.” A group of House members held out for a mix of sales tax and income tax increases on high earners that would help spare cuts in education and heath and human services, Wolf recalled.
In 2007, while co-chairman of the Finance Committee, Luebke helped establish North Carolina’s version of the earned income tax credit, said Sorien Schmidt, a former lobbyist. The policy allowed low and moderate-income residents to get a small break on state taxes. Republicans a few years later allowed the credit to end.
Former House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Chatham County Democrat, said Luebke did well as co-chairman.
“He always approached every question from the point of view of how the underprivileged would be affected,” Hackney said.
“I’m sure that he would want me to say if he were here that he could be a thorn in your side if you were negotiating with the Senate on something and he had a particular interest he didn’t want to be lost in the negotiations,” Hackney said.
Luekbe also had a sense of humor, said former Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Cary Democrat who served with him as co-chairwoman of House Finance.
There was a joke about Luebke - Weiss doesn’t remember if he told it about himself or if he just laughed at it - that “even if there was an incentive that would help his mother he’d vote against it.”
“That defined Paul,” she said.
Weiss called Luebke a mentor who taught her about incrementalism: that often a win meant making gradual progress, “stopping something bad, slowing something bad down or or making things a little less bad,” she said.
Luebke was a sociology teacher at UNC-Greensboro and author of two books, Tar Heel Politics and Tar Heel Politics 2000. Luebke gave Weiss a copy of his latest book and sometimes asked her if she’d read certain sections.
“I’d say, ‘Paul, I’m living Tar Heel politics sitting here next to you.’”