Ned Barnett

Daughtry’s departure will cut the ranks of NC lawmakers who are more practical than partisan

Rep. Leo Daughtry
Rep. Leo Daughtry

One of state Rep. Leo Daughtry’s first memories of serving in the General Assembly is of being lost. The Legislative Building has such a confounding design of levels and hallways that it took the Smithfield Republican a year before he could confidently find his way around.

“I think the guy who designed that building ought to be sentenced to something,” he says.

But after two terms in the state Senate followed by more than 20 years in the House, Daughtry knows by heart the paths within the building – and the paths a bill must take to get through it. That legislative knowledge will leave the building next year. Daughtry, 75, has announced that the 2016 session will be his last.

I met with him last week in his law office on Smithfield’s Market Street, a block down from the Ava Gardner Museum. He goes by the museum now and then. His wife is a big fan of old movies. But Daughtry is not much of an actor himself. He is who he is.

When he leaves the state House, Daughtry will be missed by Republicans and Democrats who appreciate his willingness to deal, and his departure will be a loss for his Johnston County constituents who benefited from his ability to get things done. His absence also will be felt by those who value the General Assembly as an institution and the legislative process over raw partisanship.

Daughtry is one of a disappearing breed of practical politicians who worked with what was possible, met others in the middle and helped create North Carolina’s moderate political climate. Much of that has disappeared with the rise of tea party absolutism and gerrymandering that creates lopsided majorities in districts where there’s no need for candidates or lawmakers to appeal to moderates and independents.

Asked whether he’s a conservative or a moderate, Daughtry responds, “I don’t know. It depends on the issue, I suppose.”

There’s no doubt about Daughtry’s Republican credentials. He’s pro death penalty, agrees with the cuts in unemployment benefits, thinks the public schools receive adequate state funding, favors charter schools and was unmoved by the Moral Monday protests. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen a lot of people with a cause,” he said.

But Daughtry also voted against a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he supports the state’s Actual Innocence Commission that explores claims of wrongful conviction, he would back having an independent commission draw redistricting maps, he thinks state judges should be appointed instead of elected and he’s skeptical about the quality of some schools that are getting vouchers. He supports increased funding for the court system and mental health.

Partisanship contributes to what Daughtry says is a loss of collegiality in the General Assembly, but he thinks it also stems from there being fewer practicing lawyers in both chambers.

“When you practice law and you go to court, you do your very best,” Daughtry says. “And if you lose, you’re not mad with the other side, you’re not mad with the lawyer. He’ll be your friend, or she’ll be your friend. What you’re mad about is the fact that you lost, but it’s not personal. I think a lot of times now members of the General Assembly take things too personally when they have a bill that they are determined to support.”

Daughtry unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor in 2000, which went to former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, and he fell short in runs for House speaker in 2003 and last year. But as a lawmaker representing Smithfield, Clayton and northern Johnston County, he represented a practical region in a practical way, getting his district what it needed, helping its economic base shift from farming toward suburban real estate and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

The son of a fertilizer salesman, he grew up on a Newton Grove farm, but he took a different path. He got a college degree from Wake Forest and stayed on for law school, in part because he was likely to be drafted into the Vietnam War. After law school, he got drafted anyway but was fortunate to be sent to Turkey rather than Southeast Asia.

In politics, he also took an unexpected path. He was elected to the state Senate and became the only Republican in the General Assembly from east of Greensboro. That distinction was eliminated when Democrats drew him out of office in the redistricting following the 1990 census. He came back to Raleigh as a state representative and proved unmovable.

After many years in the minority, Daughtry is happy to go out with Republicans holding super majorities in both chambers. It’s a vindication of his politics, but he knows that the General Assembly itself remains unpopular. He tells about a time in 1989 when lawmakers went by bus to watch a Durham Bulls game, and they all sat in a roped-off section behind home plate.

“They played the national anthem and then the announcer said, ‘We are delighted to have as our special guests for this ballgame, the North Carolina General Assembly,’ ” he recalls. “I bet they booed us for three minutes. They started booing and kept right on.”

Asked whether the honorable members would be booed today, he says, “I don’t know. I haven’t been to a Bulls game since then.”

But not yet a retired politician, he adds a nod to the local minor league team, “I always go to the Mudcats.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com