Robert Pittenger had just arrived in the state Senate in 2003 when he helped turn the Legislative Building into a scene out of a big-city hospital, with 3,000 doctors flooding the halls.
The doctors were lobbying for tort reform, to limit the ability of patients to sue their physicians in medical malpractice cases. It was a typical Pittenger moment.
Since his arrival in the legislature, Pittenger has been a high-visibility, high-energy lawmaker, who has been effective in calling attention to his conservative agenda – reducing government, banning same-sex marriages, fighting illegal immigration.
It was also typical for another reason; his effort to cap medical malpractice awards failed.
Pittenger, a 59-year-old Charlotte real estate executive running for lieutenant governor, has been adept at playing the outside game of putting together rallies and organizing letter-writing campaigns.
He has been less effective at the inside game of cobbling together legislative proposals. That's partly because Pittenger is a Republican in a Democratic-dominated legislature, but partly because he is a strong-willed, go-it-alone businessman in an environment that puts a premium on teamwork.
Pittenger carved out one of the more conservative voting records in the Senate.
He voted no to a lottery. No to raising the minimum wage. No to every state budget. No to requiring companies to provide mental health coverage. No to public financing of elections. No to a commission to review death penalty cases.
“Some might compare him to Jesse Helms as sort of a state senator no,” said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation. “But that would understate his coalition. Even though Pittenger has been a reliably conservative vote on virtually all issues, he has also developed strong relationships with the state's business community and particularly with the uptown elites in Charlotte.”
Pittenger has focused much of his attention on ways to reduce the size of government. After being appointed to a committee to evaluate government programs, he identified $1.5 billion in cuts and savings.
Shrinking government, said Pittenger, would allow the state to cut corporate tax rates, which he says are causing North Carolina to lose thousands of jobs to surrounding states.
“My interest, since the beginning, has been to bring a sharp pencil to government, to look for opportunities for waste and fraud and abuse and essentially restructure our government,” he said.
Pittenger's views have placed him outside the mainstream of the Democratic-controlled legislature, which has expanded spending for education and industrial recruiting. Pittenger's effectiveness rating fell from 39th in the 50-member Senate as a freshman in 2003, to 49th in 2007, according to the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.
Some Senate leaders, such as Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Democrat from Fayetteville, said they don't take Pittenger seriously.
“I've never seen anyone quite like Robert in the Senate,” said Senate Democratic leader Marc Basnight. “Forgetting his politics, this is a personality that is different. Robert is flying solo.”
Although Basnight says Pittenger's politics are too “extreme” for his taste, he likes him.
“Robert came to my house when my wife passed away,” Basnight said. “Robert prayed for her and prayed with me.”
Pittenger has drawn probably the most heat as the legislature's leading skeptic about global warming.
Serving on a legislative commission on climate change, Pittenger said the panel had a “pre-determined agenda,” and that he was seeking to bring a more balanced approach to the issue.
He said it doesn't make sense for the U.S. to “cripple our economy” with new environmental legislation while manufacturing competitors in China and India continue to operate their plants unfettered.
Environmentalists say Pittenger is arguing against prevailing scientific thinking.
“Sen. Pittenger is one of the last holdouts in echoing the message of the coal and oil industry, and actually going further to the right of those organizations, in objecting to the need to take any action on global climate change,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club.
While Pittenger has been a leading skeptic on global warming, his voting record on environmental issues is in keeping with other members of the Republican caucus. According to Environment North Carolina, Pittenger has a lifetime score of 57 percent – slightly higher than the GOP caucus average. He voted to promote solar energy, energy efficiency, and to clean up factory farms.
Pittenger hopes to use the constitutional powers of lieutenant governor to control the flow of legislation – a move that would likely put him into a pitched battle if the Democrats continue to have a majority in the Senate. Pittenger says being lieutenant governor will provide him a more visible platform for talking about shrinking government.
“The bully pulpit,” he said, “can become very important.”