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48th SENATE DCT: Apodaca adapts to the heat

State Sen. Tom Apodaca talks about the 2014 legislative session at his office in Raleigh. State Sen. Tom Apodaca talks about the 2014 legislative session at his office in Raleigh.

RALEIGH — On an elevator ride after his coal ash bill sailed through a Finance Committee meeting, Tom Apodaca and his fellow passengers give wide berth to a pregnant lobbyist, joking that she may explode in the 100-degree heat that has blanketed Raleigh.


It's summer in the city — miserably hot days outside matched by the steady simmer inside of escalating political warfare among House and Senate leaders and the governor. Legislators, lobbyists and staffers tend to take the edge off with a steady diet of irreverent banter. Like his colleagues, Apodaca manages to keep things light in public, even as he controls the flow of legislation from his seat as Senate Rules Committee chair, chops away at House budget priorities and guides the high-priority coal ash bill. He gets the biggest laughs, because he's more powerful than anyone else on board the elevator.
All joking aside, for a moment, Apodaca made headlines when he single-handedly snuffed a stopgap budget drafted by House Speaker Thom Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory, using an obscure rule to swat it back to the House without a vote because it was not in balance.
"We are serious about getting a budget deal and it's time to stop playing games," he told the Raleigh News & Observer.
For Apodaca, slapping down the Tillis-McCrory gambit was all in a day's work.
"I'm the most hated man in the House of Representatives, regardless of party," he said in an interview last month. "But that's what this position brings. Because you're the one that has to say no, and they intentionally send stuff over here knowing we'll say no. But it makes us the bad guys. We have the same thing with some of the ideas some of our people put in."
When asked how he puts up with it, he laughs.
"It takes a certain kind of fool to do this," he says. "I think Sen. Berger and I make an excellent team because he's very steady, very easy going, doesn't like to upset anyone, and he knows I'll do the bad — good cop, bad cop. I'll be the one to say no.
"I learned a lot from Sen. (Tony) Rand," he says, referring to the longtime Democratic Rules chair from Fayetteville whose political skills were legendary. (To Rand, Apodaca was "Sweet Pea.") "I've just got to be perfectly honest, watching how he did it and I've kind of mimicked that. I've had some people say I mimicked it 100 percent. I understand a lot now of what he told me, that a lot of folks aren't going to care for you, because they see you as the person stopping what they want to do. You just have to get used to it. He said, 'You'll find you're not welcome as much at receptions.'"

 

Campaign account is hefty

He may be unwelcome around the punch bowl, but his role as "Father May I" has not hurt his fundraising. He raised $476,000 in 2012, against a token Tea Party opponent, and has $153,145 in the bank as the fall campaign looms against Henderson County School Board member Rick Wood.
Apodaca understands the political opposition in Raleigh to the GOP education policies. But he says teachers back home, many of whom he has known since they taught his boys at Hendersonville High School, are unfairly tarring him.
"I think the one thing, going down that path that's bothered myself and Lisa, is what's been brought on by the education folks at home," he says. "I think a lot of it's unfair."
His wife is a former classroom teacher, and Apodaca feels targeted over budget cuts, the Legislature's decision to eliminate tenure and other education issues.
"I have been really attacked by the teachers at Hendersonville High School," he says. "I have been attacked in the classroom. I have offered to meet with them and discuss it. I've talked Jerry Smith, I offered it to Jon Sherrill (both HHS teachers) and they run around saying that I wouldn't meet with them, and I've offered to meet and they never have returned a call or asked for a meeting. I just think that's inappropriate. I'll be more than happy to talk to them and let them know where we're coming from."
When he reflects on the politics of it, he acknowledges that a lot of the changes teachers dislike are meant to fix performance issues that schools in his district — Henderson, south Buncombe and Transylvania counties — don't share.
"I'm blessed. We've got three of the top systems in the state," he says. "We don't have these problems."


Power shift 'a big difference'


The political heat notwithstanding, Apodaca prefers power to the alternative. During his first four terms he watched as Democrats exerted power and brushed aside Republican ideas.
"The biggest change had to be the eight years on the back row versus the last three or four on the front row," he says. "It's a big difference. You can get more things done. Your opinion matters more. Back in the old days they didn't care what we did on the back row, and now it's kind of reversed."
Although he is the heavy favorite in the 49th Senate District race, Apodaca faces an opponent who has won countywide election twice. That hasn't been true since he won the Republican primary in his first-ever primary in 2002. It was somewhat of a surprise, said Jeff Miller, his longtime friend.
"When I met him, he had about three pair of corduroy pants, a couple of navy blue blazers, some nice dress shirts and that's about it," Miller recalled back in March when he introduced Apodaca at a Republican event. "I called him a one-and-done. It's the kind of customer I like in the drycleaning business. Wear a shirt one time, you throw it in a pile, you take it to Miller's."
Around Christmas of 2001, Apodaca reached Miller at the beach.
"He said, 'Miller I want to do something. They've established a new district. I want to run for Senate.' And I told him he was crazy," Miller said. "We talked about it some more and I got back here and he asked me to chair his campaign. And it was an interesting thing because not a lot of people knew Tom at that point — a good old mountain boy with the last name Apodaca."
Miller says Henderson County's fortunes have risen along with Apodaca's power.
"He's literally one of the most powerful people in this state, and don't doubt that for a second," he says. "But with that power comes responsibility and you're a lightning rod, and he's received more than his share of hits. I know Tom is bullheaded, he's demanding but he's very passionate and he's the first one to come and help if you need it. We have a very strong voice this side of I-77 now because of Tom. ... If you ever need something and he can do it, he does it very quietly. You won't read about it in the paper. It's under the radar and he gets it done.

Going back to work

Like all legislators from the west, Apodaca tires of the five-hour drive to Raleigh. He misses the time away from Lisa. But he's at home in the Legislative Building, where he is recognized and respected, if at times feared and shunned. On a shelf in his office is a twin pack of CVS "Ready to Use" enemas.
"I didn't put it there," he says with a laugh. "It was on my desk one morning as a gift."
It's part of the game, a prank the lobbyists knew Apodaca would embrace.
"I enjoy it down here," he says. "I enjoy the fight and the opportunity."
Having sold his sureties business three years ago, he talks now about having to go back to work fulltime.
"I can't get revved up about being a lobbyist," he says. "I thought about opening a consulting business in the west because as we get more power in the Raleigh area, more and more cities and counties could use representation on the private side, representing and lobbying for the cities and counties down here, and probably could make a pretty good living at it."
He says he has no higher ambitions in elective politics. If he had wanted to move up to Congress, he says, he would have run for the 11th District seat in 2012 when new GOP-drawn boundaries made it a certain Republican pickup.
"There's nothing that appeals to me in Washington," he says. "As far as helping people and helping North Carolina you do far more here than you could ever do in Washington. I just don't have a statewide race in me, and I know Lisa doesn't. She's had to make a lot of sacrifice for me to do this."
For now, he's focusing on the legislative session, and says after that he fight as hard as he ever has to win re-election, dusting off the organization he first used in 2002 and counting on political allies like Miller and former Sheriff George Erwin.
"It's been a helluva ride," he says, "for something I never imagined doing 15 years ago."