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In exit interview, Apodaca recounts wins, losses

State Sen. Tom Apodaca State Sen. Tom Apodaca

State Sen. Tom Apodaca says he had never before seen a controversy the magnitude of the Duke Energy plan last summer to run high-tension lines through Henderson County as part of its Lake Julian power plant upgrade. The ultimate outcome — Duke's decision to abandon the connection from Asheville to the South Carolina Upstate — was a victory for Apodaca, a strong advocate of the natural conversion who became an opponent of the widely panned transmission lines.

That was one of the political challenges Apodaca described on Friday, the day he resigned from the Senate. Having reached the highest pinnacles of legislative power in the state, the seven-term veteran said that after the General Assembly adjourned for the year last week, he had no more to do. The executive committees of Henderson, Buncombe and Transylvania counties are expected to appoint his replacement, most likely Chuck Edwards, the Republican nominee for the seat.

Edwards, a Hendersonville businessman, and school principal Norm Bossert, the Democratic nominee, face off in on Nov. 8.

"I can't say exactly what I'm going to do yet but I still have time to look at," Apodaca said in an interview from his Lake Keowee, where he was taking time off with his wife, Lisa, and looking ahead for the first time 14 years with no legislative session on the horizon.

As a former legislator, he's subject to a six-month quarantine during which he is not permitted to lobby the Legislature, which is one of the options he's considering. "I have had a couple of job offers already," he said. Some are in government relations and others "not even quasi-government relations but that have had dealings with the Legislature and have an interest in my working for them. It's nice to have options."

Apodaca endorsed Edwards as his replacement.

"I think it will be good for Chuck Edwards. I hope the executive committee appoints him," he said. "He'll be able to get to know the Legislature. The way he studies and the questions he asks he'll keep the staff very busy."

Among the top achievements he cites is his work to create a medical campus at MAHEC (Mountain Area Health Education Center) in Asheville, the science building at his alma mater, Western Carolina University, coal ash legislation after a major ash spill fouled the Dan River in the home district of the Senate's leader and efforts that led to Duke Energy Co. dropping a high-powered transmission line through Henderson County.

"That turned out to be the most controversial thing that I had ever seen during my term," he said, "followed closely by the building heights" in Hendersonville, when he pushed through a local bill requiring a binding referendum on high-rises in downtown Hendersonville. Other achievements he cited were his role in recruiting Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and the behind-the-scenes efforts that resulted in the Pardee Hospital merger with UNC Health Care, repelling an effort by two county commissioners to put the county-owned hospital on the auction block.

His wife, Lisa, hollers out that he's forgetting perhaps his proudest moment — guiding a bill to passage that was named the Raleigh Apodaca Service Dog bill, in honoring of his bulldog, Raleigh, who died last year.

Married to a teacher, Apodaca aspired to make a fundamental change that he thinks would significantly improve the K-12 education system.

"I wanted to do something about our testing system in schools," he said, "and I don't know that I made much of a difference." He favors a national testing standard that tests "how the kids are doing compared to other kids in the U.S. The education bureacracy is a tough bureacracy to pierce."

One his bigger regret was actually his last stand, when House members from Asheville attacked Apodaca's motives and methods in pushing a bill that require district representation in the city dominated by liberal Democrats. Twenty-two Republicans joined House Democrats in defeating Apodaca's bill.

"If you go down the list every one of them had a bone to pick because I said no to them on legislation" as the traffic cop for the flow of bills in the Senate, he said. "I don't necessarily think it's totally dead," he said of the district elections bill. And he clearly retains animosity for the legislators who helped sink it. "Asheville has the weakest delegation in the state for a metropolitan area."

A back bencher with no experience in elective office, Apodaca nevertheless rose quickly in the Republican caucus. Soon after his election in 2002, he joined the Republican leadership team that worked on raising money and recruiting Republican candidates around the state. In November 2010, voters in North Carolina and around the country pushed a huge tidal wave that gave the GOP supermajority control of both houses of the General Assembly. Two years later, the Republicans took control of both chambers plus the governor's mansion for the first time in 150 years.

"Globally, what we've done has been amazing," Apodaca said, giving Republican fiscal policies credit for a half a billion dollar surplus the state just announced this week and for tax cut and jobs growth. "It's a lot better than the way I found it, let's put it that way."