Two key departures will reduce Mecklenburg County’s clout in the legislative session that starts Wednesday, though the influence of lawmakers from the Charlotte region is growing.
The loss of former Speaker Thom Tillis and Rep. Ruth Samuelson takes away not only two House leaders but lawmakers whose financial muscle helped build Republican majorities.
However, their departures could raise the profiles of other Mecklenburg lawmakers and force new alliances with regional legislators, including Speaker-designate Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican.
Tillis, from Huntersville, was elected to the U.S. Senate. Samuelson, of Charlotte, chose not to run. Both were replaced by freshman Republicans.
“They were both senior members,” said Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican. “Mecklenburg will have less influence than it did last session.”
Two Mecklenburg lawmakers have held the speakership for 12 of the past 16 years, first with Democrat Jim Black of Matthews and then Tillis.
Eric Heberlig, a UNC Charlotte political scientist, said the speaker not only had the ability to control the flow of legislation but to present Mecklenburg’s interests to legislators from across the state.
“We’re losing both dimensions of power simultaneously,” Heberlig said.
Though Democrats hold a 9-8 edge in the county’s legislative delegation, they’re a distinct minority in a General Assembly where Republicans hold dominant majorities in the House and Senate.
Local Republicans continue to wield influence, particularly Brawley and Sen. Bob Rucho, who is also from Matthews.
And Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville took Samuelson’s place as chair of the GOP conference, a post in which he’ll oversee campaigns and fundraising. In a building where office size and location is a measure of clout, he took over her expansive suite just steps from the House chamber.
Recently county lawmakers have rarely spoken with one voice, often falling out along party lines.
Two years ago, for example, they split over the fate of the Charlotte airport, with Republicans leading the charge to put it under an independent authority and Democrats arguing for continued city control. The matter went to court and is now in the hands of federal aviation officials.
Along with Moore, other GOP leaders will come from the Charlotte region. New House Majority Leader Mike Hager is from Rutherfordton. Influential committee chairs are from Gaston and Cabarrus counties.
Democrat Dan Clodfelter, who left the Senate in his eighth term last year to become Charlotte’s mayor, said local leaders will figure out ways to get things done.
“It’s always great to have the speaker or the (Senate president) pro tem from your hometown, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make headway without that,” he said. “It’s all about building your coalitions.”
Some Charlotteans who deal regularly with the General Assembly say they’re confident they’ll find allies in the region.
“We find that there are many leaders, including the speaker and majority leader and committee chairs and vice chairs in the House and Senate, from throughout the Charlotte region,” said Betty Doster, special assistant to the chancellor at UNC Charlotte. “So I would disagree with the statement that we’re losing clout.”
Natalie English, senior vice president for public policy at the Charlotte Chamber, said regional lawmakers “understand Mecklenburg County and the spillover effect of Mecklenburg County’s successes on their communities.”
Democratic Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte believes county lawmakers can offset the loss of two of its most prominent members.
“We’ll just have to counter it with diligence,” he said. “Explaining the connection between the health of Charlotte and the health of surrounding counties has never been more important.”