Meet the new members
The session will be the first for some legislators:
In the footsteps of governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, albeit from a different party and ideological bent, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri extends the trend of Indian-American political success in the South.
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In March, the 46-year-old attorney with ties to state government soundly won a Democratic primary for the Raleigh-area Senate seat vacated by Democrat Josh Stein, who is running for attorney general. Chaudhuri will hold the seat for the short session as he was appointed to replace Stein, but faces Republican Eric Weaver in the November election.
A former counsel to Attorney General Roy Cooper and State Treasurer Janet Cowell, Chaudhuri has been an adjunct law professor at N.C. Central University, supervised a state safety task force after the 2006 Virginia Tech shootings and managed legal affairs for the $86 billion state pension fund. His campaign targeted education and “building an economy that works for all North Carolinians.”
While he plans to “spend time observing what is going on in the chamber,” his background scrutinizing complex public funding and policy probably will push him into the budget battle, in addition to the HB2 fight.
The son of Indian immigrants, Chaudhuri attended Fayetteville public schools and graduated from Davidson College, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, and N.C. Central University School of Law.
“My parents instilled a unique love of North Carolina in their children, and Jim Hunt made this such a welcoming place,” Chaudhuri said. “We live in less inviting times. That needs to change.”
The timing is not coincidental. For years, one of the state’s leading LGBT activists, Chris Sgro, dealt with the legislature as an outsider. Now, as House Bill 2 blossoms into a national controversy, the Guilford County Democrat is the General Assembly’s only openly gay member.
Sgro is completing the term of Rep. Ralph Johnson, who died in March. “With the passage HB2, Guilford County Democrats thought it would be critical to have LGBT leadership for this short session,” Sgro explained.
As head of Equality NC, a statewide organization promoting LGBT rights, Sgro addressed a range of issues, including a constitutional amendment defining marriage. As a House member, Sgro aims to focus solely on trying to repeal HB2.
“We’re hemorrhaging jobs across the state,” he argued. “The economic development implications are massive. More protests will follow.”
He acknowledged that repeal will be a serious challenge, but he pointed to emotions behind the issue. “The governor thinks this is a flawed piece of legislation,” he said. “You should not sign laws that you think are flawed.”
Sgro also thinks his presence in the chamber could put a human face on an otherwise abstract law. “It would be unprecedented for the legislature to fully repeal this, but we are in an unprecedented conundrum,” he said.
As for Sgro, his time in the house will be brief. He will not run in November, leaving that to Guilford Democrat Amos Quick.
The youngest House member, Rep. Kyle Hall, a King Republican, has political experience far beyond his 25 years.
Last fall, Hall was appointed to serve out the unexpired term of former Rep. Bryan Holloway. Hall’s career, however, began in his late teens while interning for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. He then jumped to the General Assembly as a budget researcher for former Sen. Neal Hunt of Wake County. Then, after graduating from the UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied political science, he strengthened his conservative network by working with Americans for Prosperity as a field director. Most recently Hall ran communications for U.S. Rep. Mark Walker.
Now a House member, Hall, whose parents are lifelong Stokes County educators, has focused on school issues. “Since taking office I have shadowed teachers at 10 different public schools across Stokes and Rockingham counties to see their needs and concerns firsthand,” he said.
Among his specific concerns is improving teacher pay. He also has expressed skepticism about national testing.
“Common Core standards put corporations and Washington bureaucrats ahead of teachers and parents,” Hall has written. “North Carolina must have its own rigorous standards.”
In the Republican primary this year Hall defeated Ira “Bubba” Tilley and Robert Knight. He will face Eugene Russell in November.
In addition to Bob Rucho, some other key players are leaving the General Assembly after this year.
Asked for thoughts on his final lawmaking session, Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, thought about the many fellow legislators who died during his seven terms in office. He listed former Sens. Vernon Malone, Don East, Hamilton “Ham” Horton, Earline Parmon, Martin Nesbitt, John Garwood and Jeanne Lucas, among others. “Too many good people have gone,” Apodaca said. “What I’ve enjoyed is the family.”
Apodaca, 58, the Senate’s second in command, will retire his gavel after the short session. A news release announcing his pending retirement late last year described him as a “master of memorable retorts and one-liners.”
Apodaca has been a major player since Republicans took control of the General Assembly earlier this decade. He recently was named the Senate’s second most effective legislator, behind Senate leader Phil Berger, by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.
He also helped build the GOP’s Senate political machinery and is a prolific fundraiser. Berger counts him among his best friends. “I can’t overstate how instrumental he has been to the Senate Republican Caucus’s electoral and legislative success,” Berger has said.
During his final session, Apodaca will continue as chairman of the powerful Senate Rules committee, controlling the flow of legislation in that chamber and guiding the Senate Republican agenda. He also heads the Senate education appropriations committee, among others.
Asked about his emotions leading into his final session, he said: “They haven’t hit yet. I’m just trying to get geared up for the session. I’m sure it’ll hit.”
Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican with more than a quarter of a century in the House and Senate, hopes his final session will bring pay raises for employees of the state judicial system, including judges.
“I’d like to see the judiciary get 5 percent, but certainly as much as teachers,” the 75-year-old attorney said. “The third branch of government is always overlooked and underappreciated.”
Daughtry chairs the House Judiciary I committee and is a lead budget writer for justice and public safety issues. He became House majority leader in the mid-1990s, when Republicans took over the chamber. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2000 and for House speaker in 2014, when now-Speaker Tim Moore of Kings Mountain won the post.
Daughtry announced last year that he wouldn’t seek re-election this year.
His legislative career began in 1989 in the Senate, where he served two terms. He’s been in the House ever since.
Daughtry said he would continue to work as an attorney. “I’m in good shape physically, and I’m in a good shape mentally,” he told reporters previously. “And I would like to end that way.”
Paul ‘Skip’ Stam
Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, an Apex Republican, spent more of his 16 years in the General Assembly in the minority than the majority. But as a leading Republican in today's GOP-dominated legislature, Stam has been one of the more powerful and effective legislators this decade.
Recently, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research ranked Stam the fourth most effective House member based on surveys of legislators, lobbyists and news reporters who cover state government.
Stam, a 65-year-old attorney and champion of fiscal and social conservatism, announced last fall that he wouldn't run for re-election this year, making this legislative session his last. He doesn't plan to go quietly.
"I hope to pass about 23 measures, but whether it's in my bill or someone else's, it will take a skilled detective to find out," he said in a phone interview.
Stam's legislative plans include a bill to increase funding so more students with disabilities can receive scholarships. He also wants to make individual teachers' salaries not a public record, although he said he hasn't heard much support for that idea.
Stam also wants changes to the eminent domain process, the way the state Department of Transportation condemns land for road projects. He's also working on regulatory reform legislation.
"It'll be very busy," he said.
As she runs for the U.S. House, state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat, will serve her final session in the legislature.
When appointed to the state House in 2007, Cotham, then 27, was the youngest woman ever to serve in the chamber. She also says she’s the only legislator to have had two children while in office.
Cotham said her main goals are for repealing HB2 and raising teacher pay. “I remain optimistic that there will be some type of raise, but I’m concerned that the raise will be too low, basically like the $750 tip they received last year,” she said. She was referring to the bonus state employees received in 2015.
Overall school funding and greater transparency in the use of taxpayer dollars by charter schools also are at the top of her list.
Cotham was among the early adopters of new technology, including Twitter, in the General Assembly. She also is responsible for adding diaper changing stations in a couple of bathrooms in the two buildings that make up the legislative complex. “We have so many children and moms who come to lobby,” she said.
Cotham is one of seven Democrats vying for the nomination in the newly drawn 12th Congressional District in Mecklenburg County.
The General Assembly’s longest-serving senator will relinquish that distinction this year. After 26 years, Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican, isn’t seeking re-election.
Hartsell, a lawyer, has led powerful Senate committees, including Judiciary and Finance. He also has led a special committee designed to evaluate state programs for efficiency and recommend changes to the General Assembly.
Hartsell, 69, counted his chairmanship of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee among his top accomplishments. “I think it has put out some good work,” he said. “I will miss that because that’s substantive policy and efficiency-oriented legislation.”
When he announced he was leaving, Hartsell said that after accompanying his young granddaughter to Disney on Ice, he realized he wanted to spend more time with family. “Twenty-six years is long enough,” he said.
Recently, he also found himself in hot water over campaign finances. Last summer, the State Board of Elections referred Hartsell to state and federal prosecutors amid evidence that he used donations to pay for personal expenses including dinners, shoe repairs and traffic citations. He declined to comment on those issues last week.
The only member of the General Assembly registered as an unaffiliated voter, Rep. Paul Tine, of Kitty Hawk, said one of his main priorities before leaving will be to stabilize funding for the state ferry system, which is mainly operated through state transportation dollars.
“We continue to every year and every budget have a fight about how we fund ferries,” he said. He also will continue to advocate for changes to the process of determining homeowners’ insurance rates along the coast, which are significantly higher than in many inland areas.
Tine, 44, made headlines in early 2015 when he switched from Democrat to unaffiliated, hoping to get more done for his district by caucusing with Republicans. Tine represents House District 6, which includes Beaufort, Dare, Hyde and Washington counties.
He has young children and said he is needed at home. “My family asked me to come home, so I’m going to come home,” he said.
His departure will leave the General Assembly with no unaffiliated members, even though they make up nearly 30 percent of the state’s voters.
Staff writers Patrick Gannon and Dan Boylan