Basnight and the Treadmill
The criticism from conservative corners, muted as it was, didn't come as a surprise.
Marc Basnight, the Outer Banker who had risen to become one of the most powerful politicians ever in the state, decided not to tack against the wind, but to go with it. After a quarter-century in the North Carolina General Assembly, and 18 years leading the state Senate, Basnight announced that he wouldn't fill the two-year term that he'd just won.
Basnight cited his declining health, a nerve disorder that over the last few years has affected his speech and balance. The widower of three years also told reporters that he's in love, engaged to a school librarian and musician back in Manteo.
Even so, few people believe that Basnight would be giving up his Senate seat had he and his fellow Democrats not lost control of the chamber to Republicans.
And relinquishing an elected office right after an election looks unseemly.
Conservative commentator John Hood of John Locke Foundation noted that Basnight's decision prevents voters in his district from choosing their elected representative in what would have proven a competitive district. (Democratic Party officials will select his replacement.)
Hood went on to call the move a "gimmick."
What his commentary and other less public criticisms ignore is that Basnight - like House speakers and, to a lesser degree, minority party chamber leaders - had become the head of a huge money-raising operation.
Over the past two decades, a substantial portion of the campaign money going to legislative candidates has flowed through the legislative leaders, aided by a campaign-giving loophole that allows political parties to make unlimited donations.
This isn't a column criticizing that loophole. (I've done enough of that.)
The political reality on the ground, though, is that the money-raising system puts legislative leaders on a speedy treadmill that always runs, that never affords an opportunity to step off.
Jumping off while the contraption is running has the potential to damage your party and your pals.
So, with all his fellow Senate Democrats dependent on his ability to raise money, and with the business interests that fund legislative campaigns wanting to keep the influence stream going, when was Basnight supposed to step off?
It's worth noting that during Basnight's quarter-century in the Senate, the House saw seven different House speakers or co-speakers - Liston Ramsey, Joe Mavretic, Dan Blue, Harold Brubaker, Jim Black, Richard Morgan and Joe Hackney.
Not a single one left the position of his own volition.
With Republicans set to take control of the legislature, the presumptive leaders of the chambers have vowed that they won't hold the reins of power for unlimited terms.
Hood, meanwhile, says that legislators should take steps to ensure that we never again see another lengthy, power-concentrating reign like Basnight's.
Short of a constitutional amendment to limit legislative leaders' terms, or continual flip-flops in the parties holding power, the money and recent history suggest that's exactly what we'll get.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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