12/12/06 — Legislators mull picks for speaker

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Legislators mull picks for speaker

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 12, 2006 1:45 PM

With elections over and embattled state House Speaker Jim Black set to return to Raleigh in January, local legislators are beginning to consider who they want to lead them during the 2007 session.

For those delegates representing Wayne and surrounding counties, selecting a speaker who cares about the eastern region is a top priority. But so far, none have decided which candidate will get their support.

"I really don't know enough about the people to formulate an opinion. As time gets a little closer I'm going to seek out some information and learn a little more about each one of them -- talk to them, see how they feel about helping eastern North Carolina and learn what their goals are -- and then make my decision," state Rep.-elect Van Braxton, D-District 10, said.

But Braxton, who represents Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties, won't support Black.

"I would hope Speaker Black would take his name out of consideration," Braxton said. "I think he would become the focus of the session instead of what the focus should be -- what we can do to move the state of North Carolina forward.

"I think it would be better for the state if we don't have to go through that."

Right now, the field appears to be wide open with as many as six or seven candidates being discussed.

Among those are Black, who represents Mecklenburg County, Rep. Drew Saunders also of Mecklenburg County, House Majority Leader Joe Hackney of Orange County, former Speaker Dan Blue of Wake County and chief budget writer Jim Crawford of Granville County -- all Democrats.

"We have some good people who have expressed an interest," said Rep. Larry Bell, D-District 21.

But, the House Democratic Whip continued, nobody should count Black out just yet.

"I think the Speaker has a good chance, if he is not indicted, to come back. I don't think the Democrats have any problem with how he conducted himself as Speaker running the House," said Bell, who represents Wayne and Sampson counties.

But because the race for speaker is still so muddled, many local legislators are keeping their options open.

"At this point, I'm not supporting anybody," Rep. Russell Tucker, D-District 4, said. "I'm trying to keep an open mind."

The only stipulation the representative for Duplin and Onslow counties has, is that the speaker help take care of the eastrn portion of the state.

"I want to be sure that the East will get its fair share of money, especially in roads," Tucker said.

Braxton is also looking toward the leadership for some local help.

"I'm looking for them to help us with economic development and jobs in District 10," he said. "I think that's the No. 1 priority."

The No. 2 priority, will be selecting somebody the whole party can support.

"I think whoever gets the majority (vote), I think it's important it be somebody everyone can rally around," Bell said. "I think it needs to be somebody who can hold everybody together so we can work as a unit to get some good legislation passed and a good budget in place for the next two years."

And though he's not ruling out the possibility, he doesn't think the Democrats will be forced to partner with the Republicans to select a House leader. The Democrats hold a 68 to 53 majority.

"You want somebody everyone can work with, but I think it would be important to the party to chose somebody ourselves," Bell said. "If somebody has to make overtures to the Republican side to win, I could see that causing some sort of split, and we don't need a split in the party."

But even if the Democrats end up slightly divided, Rep. Louis Pate, R-District 11, doesn't think it will help the Republicans.

"All it takes is 61 votes and I don't think the Democrats need any Republican votes to put in who they want to put in if they can unify their caucus," the Wayne County representative said.

He expects the Republican Caucus to put forward its own candidate after it meets Sunday in Greensboro.

The Democrat Caucus is expected to meet in January to pick a candidate.

"I'd like to see who the Republican nominee's going to be and I certainly have to give that person every consideration," Pate said. "I just hope we'll have someone who is business friendly and will do what he can to improve public education in our state. He also needs to address the illegal alien and health care situations.

"If he can do all that, we'll just have to see where it goes from there."

Black, who was investigated earlier this year in connection to campaign contribution violations, is now under fire for allowing state pages to stay at the home of a convicted felon -- and then creating a new and temporary House historian position for the felon's mother. He is seeking his record-fifth term as speaker.

The House Speaker will be elected on Jan. 24, the first day of the General Assembly's new session.

"I'm just hoping we can come up with a good, qualified speaker and that it doesn't turn into a dogfight or a polarizing issue," Braxton said. "I hope somebody can step out front, get support and become speaker so we can move on.

"Until we have a speaker a lot of things can't happen, so I hope we do that quickly."