RALEIGH — Despite being members of the minority party in both the House and Senate, Robeson County’s five-member state delegation, all Democrats, believe they can work with Republicans to enact legislation that will move Robeson County and the rest of North Carolina forward.
“I’m optimistic and excited about going into this new session,” said District 47 Rep. Charles Graham. “I’m looking forward to working with all of the Democrats and Republicans to move the state forward by promoting industry, ensuring our educational systems remain strong and reducing unemployment.”
The long session of the General Assembly officially opened Jan. 9, but it will be Wednesday when legislators return to Raleigh and get started conducting business. It is the first session in more than 140 years in which Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, as well as the governor’s office.
While optimistic, members of Robeson County’s state delegation also concede that the reality of the General Assembly’s makeup will make it virtually impossible for Democrats to push their agenda. The minority party holds only 17 seats in the 50-seat Senate and 43 seats in the 120-seat House.
“(Republicans) say that they want to be bi-partisan, so I’m going into this session with an optimistic attitude until proven differently,” said Rep. Ken Waddell, the District 46 representative who defeated former Rep. G.L. Pridgen, a Republican, in November. “It’s important that we all work together. Like us, most of the Republicans I have talked with want to make North Carolina better.”
The county delegation’s senior member, District 48 Rep. Garland Pierce, also said he believes Republicans will be open to considering ideas presented by Democrats.
“At the end of the day, we have to work together,” Pierce said. “There will be some battles that we can’t win. We’re not naive … . But there are some things that we agree on, such as jobs being a priority. We have to get more people back to work and off the welfare rolls.”
Rep. Ken Goodman, whose District 66 now includes a sliver of Robeson County, said it has the same issues as the rest of his rural district, which also includes parts of Hoke, Montgomery, Richmond and Scotland counties. He said more tax credits need to be made available to industries and businesses wanting to locate in Tier 1 counties, the most economically distressed counties in the state.
“I don’t think we can have a great state if we leave rural counties in need,” Goodman said.
Sen. Michael Walters, whose District 13 includes Robeson and Columbus counties, said issues confronting state legislators are not so much partisan as they are rural vs. urban. Lawmakers from rural areas, whether Democratic or Republican, need to join together to protect the interests of their constituents, Walters said.
“Republicans in rural areas of the state have the same concerns as Democrats in rural areas,” Walters said. “I’ll work with representatives from any rural district because at the end of the day, it’s more rural versus urban than Democrat versus Republican.”
All of Robeson County’s representatives say they intend to do whatever is possible to protect funding to the state’s public schools, universities and community college systems. They also say economic development, job creation and reducing the state’s unemployment rate head their agenda.
John McNeill, chairman of Robeson County’s Democratic Party, said he has little hope that Democrats in the General Assembly will be able to move any major party-supported legislation during the current session. Robeson County’s delegation, however, might be able to get special legislation passed targeting specific county issues, he said.
“The Republicans are going to pursue the same course they have nationally,” McNeill said. “They are going to cut services and raise taxes on the middle class, while giving tax cuts to corporations and those with high incomes.”
Phillip Stephens, the county’s GOP leader, agrees that Democrats representing Robeson County will “obviously have a diminished voice” in the current legislative session, but added that Robeson County has a friend in new Gov. Pat McCrory, the former Republican mayor of Charlotte.
“He had a lot of support from Robeson County in his bid to become governor,” Stephens said. “We are going to make sure he remembers that.”