Politics & Government

'One of the most powerful people that no one's ever heard of' – Meet Jim Blaine

Jim Blaine, center, Senate leader Phil Berger's chief of staff, discusses budget priorities with House Speaker Tim Moore and staffers of the North Carolina General Assembly on Friday, May 25, 2018.
Jim Blaine, center, Senate leader Phil Berger's chief of staff, discusses budget priorities with House Speaker Tim Moore and staffers of the North Carolina General Assembly on Friday, May 25, 2018. NCInsider.com

"Equipment intern" is the label on Jim Blaine's office door in the Legislative Building.

The sign serves partly as a joke, partly as a disguise for the man who's served as state Senate leader Phil Berger's chief of staff since Republicans took control in 2010.

"Jim is one of the most powerful people in the state that no one's ever heard of, because he is effective and knows how to get things done at the legislature," said former state Sen. Patrick Ballantine, who hired Blaine for his first job in politics. "He's intentionally low profile; he doesn't want the spotlight."

Blaine, 40, has been a key figure in implementing Berger's legislative agenda, particularly on education, tax policy and budget issues. And before he followed Berger into the Senate president pro tem's office, he served as the Senate GOP's caucus director for several election cycles, including the 2010 election when the Republicans won the majority for the first time in over a century.

He's credited with helping develop the strategy that enabled the Senate GOP to take advantage of the Tea Party wave and ultimately change the political direction of the state. He's continued to take an active role in Senate campaigns — when the legislature isn't in session, he quits the chief of staff job and serves as a consultant for Berger's campaign.

"He was and is very good about mapping out how things would play out and predicting or anticipating what the next steps were," Berger said. "You name something big we have worked on, and Jim has been part of that."

Blaine serves as Berger's representative in budget meetings and other high-level policy discussions, he hires the senator's advisers and staff, and he helps craft Berger's message to the media and the public.

But both Berger and Blaine reject the common joke around the legislature that Blaine is the "51st senator," calling the shots on his own.

"I think people underestimate Sen. Berger at their own peril," Blaine said. "He's a force to be reckoned with, and for some reason I think his opponents seem to want to attribute his success to other people."

Berger says he "can't think of a situation since November 2010 that Jim has done anything other than things that are consistent with what I've asked him to do." Friends and colleagues say it's difficult to tell which ideas came from Blaine or Berger, and Blaine says he and his boss "agree on 80 percent of stuff from a policy standpoint."

Still, Blaine's role got a critical shout-out during this year's budget debate when House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County blamed Republicans for being "willing to abdicate your responsibilities to Mr. Blaine, other professional staff and a few select members of this body."

Blaine wasn't always a Republican, and as a teenager he even attended President Bill Clinton's inauguration with a group of Young Democrats. He's the son of Jim Blaine, the retired CEO of the State Employees Credit Union and a Democrat.

His mom, Jean, says they raised their kids to think for themselves, and the younger Jim Blaine says his conservative views were ultimately shaped by reading the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. He'd read editorials criticizing Hillary Clinton's health care proposals and President George H.W. Bush's flip-flop on tax hikes and "started saying 'man, these guys are onto something with their economic policy.' That really started to inform my political thinking from an economic standpoint and move me more toward the right on fiscal issues."

Blaine's high school years also provided him an education in North Carolina's rural-urban divide. When he was 15, his father had what his son calls a "mid-life crisis," uprooted the family from their home in Raleigh's Cameron Park neighborhood and moved to a farm in rural Granville County.

Blaine left Broughton High for a school where he often had to take advanced classes through independent study. "It was the most miserable experience of my life at the time," he said. "In retrospect it's probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me an entirely different perspective on the world."

That perspective has helped influence policy as leading senators seek to direct resources — such as sales tax revenue and other funding — to rural counties.

Granville County also taught Blaine about the challenges facing the state's education system when he took a break from college and worked as a teacher for students with emotional disabilities. Many of his students were getting advanced through the school system even though they couldn't read or write.

"That just really opened my eyes to how our school system in North Carolina was failing a bunch of kids," he said. "It got me interested in educational policy." In his Senate role, he worked on the 2012 Read to Achieve law, which aimed to make sure elementary students are reading at or above grade level before they advance to fourth grade.

Blaine attended UNC-Chapel Hill, where he majored in history and didn't get involved with campus politics. "The only thing I succeeded in doing at Carolina was having a good time and drinking beer," he joked, adding that it took him an extra two years to graduate.

After graduation, Blaine landed a job at the General Assembly as a research assistant for Ballantine. With Republicans in the minority, he spent his time working on legislation that would never pass and responding to constituent mail. He soon moved over to Ballantine's campaign as the Wilmington senator sought the GOP nomination for governor in 2004. He'd spend entire weeks on the road with Ballantine and traveled to all 100 counties.

"I think we stopped at every Bojangles' in North Carolina," Ballantine said. The campaign won the primary but fell short of unseating Democratic Gov. Mike Easley. "The best thing about my loss was (Jim) got married to Airen," who was another staffer on the campaign, Ballantine said.

After the 2004 election, Senate Republicans hired Blaine to become their first caucus director — part of a stepped-up effort to win more seats in 2006. "Republicans had not been in charge of the Senate in 140 years, so we had a big learning curve," said former Sen. Richard Stevens.

Blaine worked to spend campaign money more efficiently, cutting costs on mailers and advertising and focusing on recruiting strong candidates in flippable districts. "The Senate caucus under his and Phil Berger's leadership became a lot more selective, creating a much more robust vetting process," said former NCGOP chairman Tom Fetzer, adding that the strong 2010 slate "was the single most decisive thing in Republicans taking over the Senate in the first time."

Blaine said he used the Democrats' playbook for legislative races.

"It became readily apparent to me that we didn't need to reinvent the wheel," he said. "We just needed to look about four blocks down Hillsborough Street, and we just needed to rip off their model."

Blaine helped the Senate GOP refine the model for several cycles ahead of the big win in 2010. The model has continued after he left the caucus director job, and he still assists when he leaves his legislative job to do consulting work around election time. "He definitely built the operation, built the machinery — I'm just sort of running the plays," said Ray Martin, the current Senate caucus director.

After the election, Berger made Blaine his first hire as chief of staff.

"I grew to depend on him a lot for a lot of things, whether it was how do you deal with the press, how do we message certain things," Berger said. "I found that anything that was delegated to him was taken care of."

Blaine was involved in the decision to give minority party senators full-time, year-round legislative assistants, and the decision to stop assigning windowless closets as offices for senators at odds with leadership.

Blaine immediately took a major role in budgeting as the state faced a substantial deficit in the recession. "I think he sat in on every budget meeting we had," Stevens said. "He certainly got it quickly and was adept at budget work right away."

Blaine's mom, Jean, says he's had a knack for numbers since an early age when he'd call in to a Durham Bulls trivia radio show. He ultimately got banned from calling because he won too much.

Former Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, who's the godfather of one of Blaine's children, once visited the family in the hospital while Blaine's wife, Airen, was giving birth — and he noticed a stack of budget documents in the corner of the room.

"Even during labor he was over there working on budget papers," Apodaca said. "He loves to take on budget issues, every item that has a number with it."

While he's not Berger's official spokesperson, Blaine has recently been stepping out of the shadows to give occasional TV interviews. He brought props to a Spectrum News interview about the budget, pulling out packets of Alka-Seltzer and stuffing them in the pockets of a Democratic legislator and the show's host to make a point about the governor's proposed spending causing future heartburn.

And last year when The News & Observer asked Berger to stop altering newspaper headlines on his Facebook page, Blaine responded with a "modest proposal" that Berger's staff collaborate with journalists in writing stories' original headlines.

"Please let us know if you'd be willing to work together with us to provide your readers and our readers with the accurate and honest headlines they deserve," he wrote to The N&O's editor.

Berger says Blaine carries his message well. "Jim is just so good in terms of boiling something down, kind of to its essence," Berger said. "It's been a very effective thing for Jim to just deal directly (with reporters) when he feels strongly about something."

Colleagues say Blaine's success stems from his ability to handle the political side of the legislature as well as the policy side. "He's politically brilliant, but I think what probably would surprise people is how much he knows the policy as well," said Tracy Kimbrell, former general counsel to Berger. "He's not driven by the politics. He's driven by the policy."

In four terms as chief of staff, Blaine has seen multiple counterparts come and go from the same job on the House side. "I feel like I'm making a difference, that's why I've stayed so long," he said, but he noted that with four young daughters at home, "it's getting increasingly more difficult for me to make dance recitals, soccer games. At some point in time, the dam's going to have to break."

His wife, Airen, understands the legislature's grueling schedule because she worked as an aide to Apodaca, and he says she's "a saint to put up with this."

Friends and colleagues say they don't expect him to go into lobbying or elected office when he leaves the Senate leader's office.

"Jim is one of the best political minds I've ever met, and I would be surprised if he didn't continue on with politics," Apodaca said. "Personally I'd love to see him run for office, but I think he's too smart to do that."