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County could lose Capitol clout

After years of political famine, Henderson County has feasted for two years on power. The county has an unusual supply of clout, thanks to the seniority and position of Sen. Tom Apodaca and the fast rise of state Rep. Chuck McGrady.

State Rep. Chris Whitmire, an Air Force colonel and former Transylvania County School Board chair who represents southern Henderson County, has quickly gained influence and respect in the Legislature for his military affairs expertise.
After enduring a long legislative session that went three months into overtime, Apodaca and McGrady say they’re trying to get some rest and clear their head before deciding whether or not to seek re-election in 2016.
Decision time is fast approaching. The Legislature moved up the 2016 primary from May to March in an effort to achieve a more influential voice in the presidential nomination fight. As a result, the filing period for local and state offices moved up to Dec. 1.
“I’m not there yet,” Apodaca said Tuesday. “We’re still talking it over. I don’t know yet. Whatever I decide, I’ll finish at least the short session.” He did not sound like he was embracing the prospect of a four-hour weekly commute for two more years after that. “We changed our minds three times in the last week,” he said.
It’s possible that Hendersonville will lose half its one-two punch of power no matter what.
“My inclination, if Sen. Apodaca were to retire, is to stay another term because I don’t think we both ought to retire at the same time,” McGrady said. “On the other hand if he announces that he is going to run again I may take the opportunity to step aside, again feeling that we shouldn’t both retire at the same time, as long as he’s committed to another term.”
Like many people who know Apodaca well, McGrady senses that if the senator does file for an eighth term, that would be his last.
“I can’t see him serving for a long while after another term,” he said. “He’s pretty tired like I am.”
Losing either would be felt in tangible and intangible ways.
As chair of the Rules and Operations Committee, Apodaca serves as the Senate’s traffic cop, blessing a bill’s path to the floor for consideration (and even then signaling thumbs up or down) or banishing it to a dead docket.
McGrady, a non-practicing lawyer, won a promotion in just his second term to draft education spending bills under Thom Tillis, now in the U.S. Senate. Tim Moore, the new speaker, then made McGrady co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, which drafts the state budget and decides broad policy questions.
“I wouldn’t want to use the word devastating but it might be close to that given the position they’ve been in and the benefits we’ve garnished from their influence,” County Commissioner Michael Edney said of McGrady and Apodaca departures. “Both are tired and worn out, rightly so, but they also both love the community.”
Jeff Miller, the Hendersonville City Council member who managed Apodaca’s first campaign, in 2002, remains one of his closest confidants. He said he would understand if the senator retired.
“I’d hate it for Hendersonville because we’re never going to have that much clout again,” he said.
Although the schools, health care providers and environmental activist have not applauded the direction of the Republican-controlled Legislature, there is no question that the change has tilted in favor of Henderson County. The balance of power has shifted from urban counties and the old Democratic strongholds of Eastern North Carolina to smaller counties and, for once, Western North Carolina.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I have never worked in a community that had more influence statewide in Raleigh than we have today,” County Manager Steve Wyatt said. “It’s a unique position with Tom and Chuck. You have one in the Senate and one in the House. Tom has earned his stripes over the years and accumulated a lot of influence. Chuck has risen very quickly based on his competency and skill set, recognized first by Sen. Tillis when he was House speaker. So you have a unique convergence of talent and influence in Raleigh with those two. Let’s not dismiss Rep. Whitmire, who in my opinion is becoming more and more influential himself.”
The delegation’s work behind the scenes became evident when the Legislature enacted a new sales tax distribution plan.
“Were Henderson County’s interests at the top of the decision-making with that formula?” Wyatt said. “The answer is yes, thanks to Tom and Chuck. That was a big deal.” Henderson County would gain $500,000 a year while bigger counties would remain flat or lose money.
In day-to-day dealing with state agencies, the power matters.
“Because of the influence our delegation has, when we go to Raleigh and we talk to the Department of Commerce and these other state agencies they know we have a card to play, Wyatt said."I don’t play that card a whole lot because we feel like our arguments stand on their own merits. But the fact that these state agencies know that Tom has my back, that’s a sweet deal. I don’t know of a community large or small that’s in a better situation than we are. I get calls from around the state asking me how to deal with these people or to intervene.”
Wyatt tells them they’re on their own.
Hendersonville and Henderson County have their delegation, at least for a year longer. They’re not eager to share it.