By Scott Mooneyham
Saturday, October 26, 2013 —
RALEIGH — In the fuss over a federal government shutdown and the various messes within the state’s health agency, the decision by state Senate leader Phil Berger to pass on a bid for U.S. Senate became little more than a speed bump in the recent run of political news.
With government benefits cut off, federal workers sent home and parks closed, the effects of a government shutdown are being immediately felt. When doctors are not paid for rendering service, then they, their employees and their patients suffer.
Still, these things will hopefully pass.
Berger’s decision, on the other hand, may have consequences for some time to come.
In this era of highly-polarized politics, Republicans don’t care much for being compared to Democrats and Democrats aren’t happy with comparisons to Republicans.
Even so, that Berger, a Republican, has decided to remain a big fish in the smaller pond of North Carolina politics means that he will inevitably be compared to that biggest of fish whom he succeeded, Democrat Marc Basnight.
Basnight owned the role of the state’s most influential and powerful politician for better than a decade.
There are variety of reasons to explain that rise to and consolidation of power: his own unique brand of populism; legislative actions that stripped the lieutenant governor of Senate power after a Republican, Jim Gardner, won the post; a run in office that paralleled the growing importance of money in legislative races and the role of top legislative leaders in raising that money.
Berger obviously inherits the same powers and the same role as a conduit for campaign cash that flows to his fellow GOP senators.
His decision to forego the U.S. Senate race did not come as a surprise in Raleigh political circles, although his interest may have been more significant than many political insiders believed.
Now that he has done so, Berger sets the stage for a long run leading the one of two chambers in a state legislature that has historically wielded more power than the state’s governors.
Even if Republicans suffer from political backlash to their legislative overreaching, the GOP appears to have a firm grip on the state Senate at least through the current decade.
Meanwhile, Berger, like Basnight during his final decade in power, sits in the job while a governor flounders and as a leadership change looms in the state House.
The Republican rank-and-file may not like the comparison, but it would be hard to believe that Berger and his chief lieutenant, Senate Rules Committee chair Tom Apodaca, have not contemplated the parallels with Basnight and his No. 2, Tony Rand.
There may never be another Marc Basnight.
But at this point, it would be more surprising to see Berger’s reign and power short-circuited than it would be to see him take a long-leashed run as the state’s top political dog.
Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist for Capitol Press Association and covers activities of the N.C. Legislature.