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Newbies Infiltrate State Legislative Chambers

Thanks to term limits and anti-incumbent fervor, half the lawmakers across the country have less than two years’ experience.

David Kidd
Jim Fulghum is 68 years old and a successful neurosurgeon, but he still finds freshman orientation a little overwhelming. Fulghum was elected in November to the North Carolina House and, as he’s the first to tell you, he has a lot to learn.

“I’m not mechanically up to date on how to file a bill,” he says. “I’ll know within a month how much I don’t know, but I know I don’t know a lot.”

If Fulghum is feeling a little lost, he’s not alone. He’s part of a big freshman class just now coming in, following the decennial redistricting process. His class joins an even bigger group of sophomores who rode to power, in Raleigh as elsewhere, on the gigantic Republican wave in 2010. Altogether, nearly two-thirds of the legislature in North Carolina is now made up of sophomores and freshmen.

North Carolina is not unique. Nationwide, roughly half the state legislators in the country have two years of experience or less. The 15 states with term limits in place are accustomed to such mass turnover, but now it’s happening everywhere. “Half the people weren’t here two years ago,” says Texas state Sen. Robert Nichols. “They simply weren’t here.”

That means a lot of old hands are missing at a time when states face a raft of complicated questions, including ongoing budget problems, a decline in financial help from the federal government and the job of implementing (or continuing to resist) Obamacare. “All of us run on the premise that we’re smarter than the people in there, but you get there and find out there’s a lot to learn,” says Brian Cronin, a recently retired legislator in Idaho. “In the committee process, you develop a certain amount of expertise over the years. Without that, you’re left with legislators voting on things that frankly they don’t understand all that well.”

The North Carolina General Assembly has long been considered a strong branch, with experienced “gangs” of seven or eight leaders able to stand up to any governor and avoid being rolled over or finessed. But the House alone has just lost two former speakers. Harold Brubaker, a Republican, was considered a leading expert on the budget, and Democrat Joe Hackney was a master at guiding bills through the process -- or making sure ones he didn’t like got bottled up in committee.

The current crop of leaders, including Speaker Thom Tillis, believes that what the newcomers bring to the body in terms of new ideas and freedom from the status quo outweighs any negatives that might be associated with lack of experience. They may not yet have mastered the art of presenting a bill to committee, Tillis says, but with their MBAs or experience handling complicated cases as attorneys or their work in local government, they’ll catch on just fine. “I’ve learned that I can’t do complicated things without listening and studying first,” Fulghum says. “You can’t go into an operating room without making a plan.”

There’s also strength in numbers. Tillis keeps a set of veto override messages under glass on the conference table in his office, testimony to the Republican majority’s ability to get what it wanted -- including passage of last year’s budget -- despite the opposition of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Perdue is now out, replaced by Republican Pat McCrory, who becomes the first Republican governor to enjoy a GOP-controlled legislature since 1869. (That governor, William W. Holden, was impeached essentially for fighting the Ku Klux Klan.) McCrory, Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger spent the transition period following the election batting around draft bills that aim to overhaul education and tax policy, and ease regulations on business.

With Republicans in firm control of all the political branches in North Carolina, there aren’t likely to be a lot of veto overrides -- or vetoes, for that matter. But the legislature -- its freshman members included -- will still have a strong hand in negotiations. North Carolina followed another nationwide trend last November, giving the GOP a two-thirds supermajority in the House to match the supermajority Republicans won in the state Senate back in 2010. (Legislative chambers in half the states are now controlled by supermajorities of one party or the other.)

That much power can breed problems of its own -- particularly for freshmen who arrive with a lot of enthusiasm to make wholesale changes. Tillis says it’s imperative that his caucus remains focused on what is already an ambitious agenda shared by the governor. It would be both easy and tempting to try to do more, given his party’s big majorities but, he says, “You typically lose when you fight on too many fronts.”

“On paper, there’s nothing we can’t do, so that raises the bar,” says Tom Murry, a House member first elected in 2010. Murry, a pharmacist in his life outside the Capitol, has been listening to “All the President’s Men,” the classic book about Watergate, while driving between drug stores. He says it offers a reminder of the potential dangers of overreaching. “The ‘we can do anything we want’ mentality is dangerous,” he says.

Mainly, Murry senses opportunity. He notes that he was born a year after Harold Brubaker (the former GOP speaker) first joined the House, and argues that a younger generation can accomplish things in new ways. He cites Twitter as a tool for organizing and communicating that some veteran members still aren’t entirely comfortable with.

Although he didn’t get to chair a committee in his freshman term, Murry says he still was given plenty of responsibility. Freshman members over the past couple of years have been able to carry significant pieces of legislation to the floor in North Carolina. Now, as sophomores, they feel ready for more responsibility. “When you’ve got 500 years of legislative experience that retired over the interim,” Murry says, “that leaves a lot of opportunity for sophomores to fill that gap.”

Paul Stam, who’s been in the House since 2003 and served as the House majority leader during the last term, says that over the last two years, he acted as a primary sponsor of legislation along with 32 separate Republicans. “They would have the [policy] expertise and I would help them through the maze,” Stam says. “A lot of them were freshmen.”

In this role of mentor, Stam sent out email blasts to the caucus on more than a daily basis with background material on a particular issue, or offered a simple rejoinder to releases from interest groups. He wouldn’t tell caucus members how to vote, but he would tell them what he was thinking, either about the issue or the particular lobbyist. “I wouldn’t call it hand-holding,” Stam says. “What I would call it is equipping, or arming.”

Stam last month was selected as speaker pro tem for the new session. He had been one of three Republicans angling for that job, while three others had sought to replace Stam as House majority leader. This points to a potential problem for Republicans, says Democratic state Rep. Larry Hall, the newly selected House minority leader. When a party is growing, it can be difficult for leaders to keep all its members happy. “They’ve got 77 mouths to feed,” Hall says, referring to the size of the House GOP caucus. “How do you keep that group together?”

In part to pass out plums themselves, Democrats during their long years in power had created more than 40 standing committees in the House alone. Tillis and the GOP cut that number back significantly and, Tillis says, it would be a mistake to create more gavels in order to make members feel special. Tillis admits that he faces a challenge in elevating junior members without angering their many classmates, but says there will be plenty of work to go around for everybody.

Two years ago, says Senate President Berger, “We didn’t have anybody who had chaired an appropriations committee. That’s something if you sit back and think about it.” But two years have passed, and as Berger notes, he and his committee chairs might have been new to leadership, but they weren’t all new to the process. That’s the difference between a place like North Carolina and the states with term limits. As massive as the freshman and sophomore classes may be, there’s still a cadre in place of veterans with 12 or 20 years’ experience who can act as shepherds. “We’re in constant conversation with the leadership and that makes you confident,” says Jeff Tarte, a freshman senator. “Over half will be freshmen and sophomores, but we have excellent, sound leadership with experience to help guide us.”

Having a guide though, doesn’t guarantee you’ll want to follow his lead. Most of the time, legislative neophytes become members of the Mushroom Caucus -- kept in the dark and fed bull. But huge classes can create their own identities. Those elected en masse typically share a common agenda and believe they have the mandate to carry it out.

In North Carolina, as in other states, there has been some tension between the Tea Party-aligned members of the Class of 2010 and more established, business-oriented veterans. That tension is likely to heighten in the coming weeks as legislators grapple with the question of whether to raise taxes on employers to fill a $2.8 billion gap in the unemployment trust fund, even as promoting job creation remains a singular focus for the GOP.

Like teenagers, neophyte legislators tend to see things in black and white and believe they know more than they actually do. Having so many of them running around the Capitol -- and giving them a good-sized share of power -- only makes this problem worse. Freshmen, whether in high school or the state House, aren’t known for their patience. “It used to be that you kept your mouth shut for a term or two, but that isn’t the norm anymore,” says Hackney, the former Democratic speaker. “They realize eventually that they didn’t know as much as they thought they did, but it takes a while for that to happen.”

Freshman and sopohomore legislators themselves joke about how they’re like teenagers -- specifically, like a high school class where some are more popular or more ambitious or considered most likely to succeed. One of the most important things they have to learn is who their true friends are. Fulghum, the freshman legislator, says he’s been “overwhelmed with business cards” and lobbyists looking to set up first dates ever since Election Day.

Newcomers may be wary of lobbyists, but quickly come to realize that they’re an integral part of the process -- they can act as “an extension of your staff” in a state where there’s no funding for individual members to have staff, says Tarte, the freshman senator. In turn, lobbyists -- who may be in mourning at the departure of their buddy, the 20-year committee chair -- must earn legislators’ trust anew. Obviously, they’re going to plead their case, but they can’t stretch the facts too far without gaining a bad reputation.

They have to learn to possess the patience that new legislators sometimes lack. Newcomers might slip in ways that lawmakers who have already sat through 4,000 committee meetings won’t, but calling them out on such blunders leads to “a long session,” says John McMillan, a longtime lobbyist in Raleigh.

Republicans in North Carolina made plenty of rookie mistakes during their first term in power, says Hall, the Democratic representative. With first-time responsibility for writing the budget, some legislators would ask things like why they couldn’t move money from Pot A over to Pot C, where the need seemed greater. “Well, that money is devoted to a trust fund,” Hall says. “You can’t take that money and move it to the general fund, or you’ll never see a dime of that money again.”

McMillan says it’s easy to bemoan the passing of an older and allegedly superior generation. “Thirty years ago, people said, ‘You’ll never replace these people.’” People have always been nervous about the old hands leaving, he says, but somehow the place still functions.

Freshmen and sophomores will eventually find their way, in large part by asking questions of others, whether it’s leaders or lobbyists they trust. Much of the work of the legislature, after all, is less about the technical data backgrounding each bill than it is about relationships. It may take time to build a sense of trust among so many new faces. But just as in high school, people soon get to know each other pretty well, for good and for ill.

“It’s important to keep yourself out of the ditches in terms of your relationships with people,” says Senate President Berger. “The biggest thing you learn is that the person who opposes you today is the person you’re working with tomorrow.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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