State Rep. Deb Butler of Wilmington is listed as a Democrat, but what she really is is an idealist. She thinks Republicans and Democrats can work together, drawing on each others’ experience, intelligence and ideas to make better legislation that makes a better state.
But that rosy view has been tested since she was appointed in February to replace Rep. Susi Hamilton, who resigned from the legislature to become Gov. Roy Cooper’s secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources. Butler shared her experience in an interview last week with me. It offers a window into this legislature’s hyper-partisan dysfunction and a ray of hope about how that might change.
Upon arriving in Raleigh, Butler enjoyed moving into Hamilton’s former legislative office, a corner one with a view. Republicans who run the legislature promptly moved her to a windowless location she likened to a broom closet. “It was a real knock in the head right out of the gate,” she said.
Things went downhill from there. She was denied the committee appointments she requested and put on low-profile panels that rarely meet. She was especially miffed at being denied a seat on the Environmental Review Commission or the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality, since a plant’s discharge of the chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River is a major issue in Wilmington. She went to one of the River Quality panel’s meetings anyway only to find “some (members) were asleep, some were absent and some clearly were not informed.”
The offices of House Speaker Tim Moore and House Majority Leader John R. Bell did not respond to requests for comment on Butler’s description of her freshman experience.
It’s not that Butler, 56, was politically naive. A Wake Forest University law school graduate, she had run unsuccessfully for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and the state Senate. And she knew there would be tensions beyond partisanship. She is one of only three LGBT lawmakers in the 170-member General Assembly, and she’s married to her longtime partner. She was going into a legislature that had passed the notorious anti-gay rights bill HB2, exempted magistrates from having to preside at same-sex marriages if they have moral objections and approved a proposal in 2011 to ask N.C. voters to ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina.
Still, the views of some members caught her by surprise. She said, “Some are polite to your face, but then are supportive of policies that are so discriminatory it’s hard to believe they are the same people who just held the door open for you.”
But she thought there were areas beyond social issues where she and members of the Republican majority could reason together. Then she discovered that reasoning together isn’t what happens on the House floor.
“I quickly realized the body is not deliberative in any way,” she said. “People are on their phone. People are not listening to each other. People are just there to push the buttons. That’s a product of extreme gerrymandering. It’s really corrupted the process.”
Butler got so frustrated she went for a walk outside the Legislative Building and made a phone video of what she thought was wrong with what was going on inside the building. She did it just to vent, but when she posted the video to Facebook, it received more than 1,000 views. Now she does the “walkabout” videos on a regular basis with views getting as high as 12,000. “I’m doing a little bit of a reality show,” she said.
Despite the closed legislative process, Butler was encouraged by how members of the public still push for action. She said, “That building is abuzz not just with lobbyists but with citizens. That gives me hope, to see people protesting and demanding that their issues be given full consideration. All that is very refreshing to me.”
But so far, protests seem only to have hardened the Republicans’ commitment to raw and rigid partisanship that has shut Democrats out of the democratic process. Butler said that a Republican legislator told her it was payback after Republicans were shut out during the Democrats’ long rule that ended with the 2010 election.
If Democrats do regain power, Butler hopes there won’t be another round of retribution. Instead, she will push for a new era of cooperation.
“If I have any influence, I’m going to work as hard as I can to get everybody to turn the other cheek and try to do a better job including people of different backgrounds,” she said. “I think people are clamoring for that. Everywhere I go people say, ‘You guys need to get it together,’ and I agree.”
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com