Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Stam’s role in N.C. politics major, often overlooked

Rep. Paul ‘Skip’ Stam took questions on the House floor after announcing last week he would not seek re-election in 2016.
Rep. Paul ‘Skip’ Stam took questions on the House floor after announcing last week he would not seek re-election in 2016. cdowell@ncinsider.com

When the dust settled on election night in North Carolina in 2010, Republicans had taken control of both chambers in the legislature for the first time in more than a century.

That night, there were three faces of the winning effort: Tom Fetzer, who at the time led the state Republican Party and is now a lobbyist; Sen. Phil Berger, who would become leader of the Senate; and Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, a Republican lawmaker from Apex.

Stam’s role in that period – and more broadly in the past decade – is often overshadowed, mostly because others took on more prominent public roles since then.

Stam would serve as a top lieutenant in the House, including this year in the No. 2 position. Late last week, as lawmakers adjourned until next year, Stam, who is 65, said he would depart from the House, announcing that he would not seek re-election for his seat in 2016. He’s long been rumored to be in line for a judgeship, but he brushed aside questions about what the future may hold. He said he has a list of legislation he is still working on.

Indeed, Stam is often noted for his fierce advocacy on several issues branded as “socially conservative.” Stam makes no apologies for his efforts to end abortions, to prevent gay marriages, to constrain the state lottery.

But he’s held other positions that cut across the political spectrum – Stam has long been against incentives for companies, believed that parents should have more choices in public education, and that lawmakers should not be the ones who draw up the state’s election districts in what he calls a current process that gives many a “free ride” and is “insulting” to voters.

Lesser known is that Stam was instrumental in a long series of criminal justice reforms – including the state’s unique Innocence Inquiry Commission, which was created in 2006; laws in 2007 that reformed eyewitness identification procedures and required confessions to be taped; and efforts later that strengthened the state’s laws requiring preservation of and defendants’ access to DNA and other biological evidence.

“He was a tremendous advocate on those,” said Rick Glazier, a lawyer who served as a Democratic lawmaker in the House until earlier this year and who now leads the liberal N.C. Justice Center. “A real partner.”

Glazier and Stam, both lawyers, disagreed on many issues, of course, but they also found common ground on a range of education policies in the past decade, Glazier said. They teamed on so many complex or obscure but important bills that became law, that neither could really count them up.

“When people were exhausted or it was 3 a.m. or real work was needed on an issue, he would be there, and focused, to make that happen,” Glazier said. “There haven’t been many with the talent, patience and capacity that he had to serve as the legislator that he was. And that’s what he was at heart – a legislator and an advocate.”

Glazier added that Stam kept in mind “the long term.”

“And he took the process of legislating very seriously and he did it very well,” Glazier said. “I consider him to be a good friend and know that the institution of the House and the state will miss his public service immensely.”

Stam told Dome that he chipped away at many issues he held dear because it was the only way to make progress on them. And so he’d push a fix here or a tweak there and then build on it, in session after session.

He mentioned a recent fix to an issue, known as the “exclusionary rule,” that involves the use of evidence and has been the subject of Supreme Court opinions. Stam said it had taken him more than 30 years to get that done. He may write a book about his legislative tactics.

Stam first served in the House for a term, beginning in 1989. He lost that next election, and had lost several others, before beginning his current run in the House in 2003. When he was running, in 2002, his main promise to voters was that he would be sure to read every bit of the hundreds of bills that are filed. No one doubted that he did.

Stam emerged as a leader in the state House after a tumultuous period for Republicans, which saw them often divided. Reminder: Some cut a deal with Democrats to share the speakership.

Stam was voted the Republican leader in the House beginning in 2007 and, for the first time in a decade, the Republican caucus began to advocate positions and issues in a coordinated message. They also organized their fundraising. It was a big change from the bitter infighting.

“We finally were together as a caucus,” Stam said.

Asked how he did that, he said it took work.

“Mainly, it was by not allowing people to insult each other,” he said.

Stam would soon join Berger at regular – and well attended – legislative news conferences in which Republicans pounded away on an alternative message and vision for the state.

Democrats stumbled, too, including a string of scandals that reached the top rungs of state government. It all set the stage for the sweeping Republican victory in 2010.

In the wake of that election, Stam sought the role of House speaker. He narrowly lost in the caucus voting, by three votes, to Thom Tillis. Tillis would lead the House until he won election to the U.S. Senate last year.

Reflecting back, Stam said he realized the speakership wasn’t for him after watching Tillis in the job. Tillis had to deal with wide-ranging and broad policy issues that were problems, but not longstanding concerns to Stam.

Stam saw that he could work on his issues. He mentioned successful efforts on abortion – the state now has a three-day waiting period, for example – and reforms allowing for more choice in schooling.

“I was glad it was him,” Stam said of Tillis winning the post, “and not me.”

“I then concentrated on more things of interest to me.”

J. Andrew Curliss