Politics & Government

Tom Apodaca is NC Senate’s latest departure

Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca’s plan to join the ranks of retiring lawmakers guarantees an overhaul in the leadership of a Senate that has steered North Carolina’s conservative revolution.

The Hendersonville Republican announced on Monday, the eve of 2016 candidate filing, that he won’t seek an eighth term.

He became the latest legislative veteran, including Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, who plans to leave the General Assembly. At least 17 lawmakers have retired – or plan to – or will seek a different office.

“We’ve come to a point where we’ve accomplished almost everything we set out to,” Apodaca said Monday. “Politics has never been the driving force in my life.”

Burly and broad-shouldered, Apodaca, 58, has been the enforcer for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden. As Senate Rules chairman, he determines which legislation gets a vote and which remains bottled up in committee.

Like Rucho, co-chairman of the Finance Committee, he came to power when Republicans took control of the Senate in 2011. They helped helped pass legislation that changed North Carolina’s tax system and voting laws while shifting policies to the right on health care and social policy.

“With the ascension of the Republicans ... these guys did undertake a good amount of heavy lifting,” said Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation. “It’s not surprising that after a few sessions, the strain ... would lead some to (retire).”

Berger praised Apodaca, one of the legislature’s most colorful members and strongest personalities.

“Tom is not only one of my closest friends in the legislature, he’s one of my closest friends – period,” he said. “Tom was a steadying influence. … I can’t overstate how instrumental he has been to the Senate Republican Caucus’ electoral and legislative success.”

While Berger tries to stay above the fray, Apodaca is blunt and partisan. To critics he can be heavy-handed, dismissing opponents with a parliamentary maneuver or brusque retort.

“Of all the people who have ever yelled at me, Sen. Apodaca did it with the most class,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. “He is a genuine person and an irrepressible force.”

Apodaca balances gruffness with humor.

“Even when things got heated between us, we were able to get along afterward,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat. “He’s a likable person.”

Despite his place in the Senate’s conservative leadership, Apodaca is more pragmatist than ideologue. He’s a self-styled “chamber of commerce Republican” whose personal politics reflect his background as an entrepreneur who has started businesses from insurance to travel.

“My position is to make the trains run, and it doesn’t matter what I think of the particular train or where it’s going,” he once said. “I just try to get it to run on time.”

Apodaca was elected to the Senate in 2002. At the start of his second term in 2005, he became deputy to Berger, then minority leader. When Republicans took over in 2011, Berger elevated him to Rules Committee chairman.

Some say the flurry of departures points to the need for changes in a legislature that this year held its longest session in more than a decade – 260 calendar days.

North Carolina is one of only 11 states with no limit on their regular sessions. It’s a part-time legislature that pays members accordingly. Most members make $13,951 a year with a monthly expense allowance of $559.

“What North Carolina has done is the worst of both worlds,” said John Hood, president of the Raleigh-based Pope Foundation. “We have a virtually full-time legislature, but they’re only paid part-time.”

Apodaca said he tells would-be candidates, “If you can break even, you’ve accomplished something.”

David McLennan, a political scientist at Meredith College, said the legislature can be grueling.

“Being in leadership is even more difficult than being a regular member,” he said. “It’s just taking its toll on senior leadership. ... It’s a little unusual to see this many senior leaders resign while their party is in power. But it’s also understandable.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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