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State Sen. Tom Apodaca, shown in a 2013 file photo, announced Monday he won't seek an eighth term. State Sen. Tom Apodaca, shown in a 2013 file photo, announced Monday he won't seek an eighth term.

State Sen. Tom Apodaca, a political novice who rose over the past 14 years from back bench anonymity to become one of the most powerful legislators ever to serve from Hendersonville, announced on Monday that he is not running for re-election next year.

“The bull moose is going to pasture,” said Apodaca, who defeated two better known candidates when he ran for a newly drawn Henderson County-based Senate seat in 2002. “It’s time to move on with the next part of my life. I’m in my late 50s. I just haven’t been able to do anything for the last 14 summers and I think Lisa would like to go some place.”
Apodaca came to Hendersonville after he graduated from Western Carolina University and started work in banking. Like his father in West Texas, Apodaca then started his own bail bond business in Hendersonville and later Southeastern Sureties, which insures bail bonds. He also owns a travel agency.

Taking on a second calling in his 40s, Apodaca adapted quickly to the rough-and-tumble legislative battlegrounds and campaign strategy. Senate leader Phil Berger, one of his closest friends, lamented the departure of the “part grizzly bear, part teddy bear” who he praised as "a relentless advocate for Western North Carolina, and a master of memorable retorts and one-liners."

Since 2010, Apodaca has been a leading force in the ascendancy of the Republican Party in North Carolina, helping to recruit and run campaigns behind the scenes for Republican Senate candidates while shaping the party’s message and helping to craft its goals.

"Apodaca was often the Senate’s closer in candidate recruitment, goading perspective candidates into running with one-liners like: 'You can’t win if you don’t run' and dispensing political advice always followed by a reminder that he’d never lost an election," the Senate president pro tem noted.

After a GOP landslide in 2010, Republicans took supermajority control of the House and Senate, giving them the power to redraw the legislative boundaries. They fully exploited the opportunity, cementing power in 2012 when Republican Pat McCrory also won the governor’s office.

“We always dreamed of being able to” take over the majority, said Apodaca, 58. “Did I think we could? I did. I didn’t know how long it would take. After the first session I kind of devoted myself to seeing us take over the majority. What we have implemented since 2010, dealing with taxes and such – I’ve always been more of a fiscal guy than social (issues) — I think we’ve done a great job and the way surpluses are running and the economy is clicking.”
Apodaca, whose current term runs until January 2017, said he does not know what he will do next as a career. He has talked informally about forming a WNC-based political strategy and marketing firm. Under state law, he would be barred from lobbying for six months after he left the Legislature. He said he’s not concerned that by not filing he would make himself a lame duck for 13 months.
“No, it doesn’t because I'm in the unique position as the Rules chair and I still have and will have control over what moves,” he said. “That takes a lot of the lameness out of it.”

In the news release from his office, Berger recounted Apodaca's role in the 2010 election campaign and his work at home to recruit Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and to persuade Duke Energy to convert its Lake Julian coal plant to cleaner natural gas.

"It was Apodaca, rated the Senate’s second most effective legislator the past two sessions, who initiated the conversion of a Duke Energy coal plant at Lake Julian to natural gas, and led the negotiations on the nation’s first comprehensive response to leaking coal ash ponds," Berger said. "He protected funding and helped establish new programs at Western Carolina and UNC-Asheville, helped create hundreds of new mountain jobs with approval of live table gaming in Cherokee, and worked to safeguard scenic mountain forests and parkland."

“Tom is not only one of my closest friends in the legislature, he’s one of my closest friends – period,” Berger said in the news release. “Tom was a steadying influence when we made big decisions, and someone the caucus could always count on to solve big problems. I can’t overstate how instrumental he has been to the Senate Republican Caucus’s electoral and legislative success.”

A proud WCU alumnus, Apodaca last year received one of the university’s highest honors — the WCU Trustee award. The chair of the trustees, commenting on Apodaca’s departure from the board to run for the Senate in 2002, said “the record shows that Western Carolina’s loss was a tremendous gain for Western North Carolina and the entire state. Sen. Apodaca… has earned a reputation as a highly effective legislator who is unwavering in his determination to stand up for the interests of his constituents and all of Western North Carolina.”

Known in the legislature for his generosity, Apodaca for years has been one of the Henderson County Boys and Girls Club’s most generous supporters. The group honored him in 2013 with a “Local Hero” award, presented by two of Apodaca’s closest friends: Hendersonville City Councilman Jeff Miller and renowned golf course architect Tom Fazio.

Apodaca's retirement leaves state Rep. Chuck McGrady as the senior member of the Henderson County delegation. A member of the House budget writing team, McGrady praised Apodaca's leadership in the state Senate on behalf of his home district and took himself out of the running for the job.

“While Tom Apodaca will have earned his retirement after 14 years in the Senate, his ability to bring people together to accomplish big things will be missed," he said. "He brought UNC Health Care and Pardee Hospital together to form their partnership. He helped persuade Sierra Nevada to locate in Henderson County, and he was the one who successfully urged Duke Energy to convert its coal-fired power plant south of Asheville to natural gas to save jobs and improve air quality.

"Tom and I have worked together closely on issues ranging from the creation of DuPont State Recreational Forest to passage of the first-in-the-nation coal ash management law to a law mandating insurance coverage for autism. Without a doubt, much of my success in the legislature relates to Tom’s support, and I’ll miss him, particularly his quick wit and his legislative prowess.

"Some of our constituents will ask whether I will now run for the open Senate seat rather than seeking reelection to the House," McGrady added. "The answer is ’no.’ It makes more sense for our constituents that I continue as a senior House member rather than becoming a freshman senator.”