NC legislature returns with some new faces, other familiar ones

Jan. 13 marks beginning of session for both state House and Senate

General Assembly - Raleigh - May 2020
N.C. General Assembly as seen from the grounds of the Capitol building. (A.P. Dillon, North State Journal)

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s legislature officially begins Wednesday, Jan. 13 for its 2021-22 biennium session, and, as is the case after any major election year, many new faces are present representing districts across the state. But despite the massive amount of money poured into the General Assembly races, much of it by groups hoping to flip one or both chambers blue, the majority of seats remained in the same party’s hands, if not with the same member.

Starting at the top, the leadership of both chambers remains the same, with President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Eden) atop the Senate and Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) leading the N.C. House. Berger and Moore were able to maintain their positions after Republicans only lost one seat in the Senate, giving them a 28-22 advantage, and gained four in the House, now at a 69-51 GOP advantage.

But while only five net seats changed hands, there are many more than five new faces — including those filling seats left open by retirements, primary battles which took out incumbents and even former members retaking their prior seats.

On the Senate side, Sen. Sarah Crawford (D-Wake) and Sen. DeAndrea Salvador (D-Mecklenburg), both of whom operate non-profit organizations, flipped their suburban districts blue. SD-39, which Salvador won, had been the district of now-U.S. Congressman Dan Bishop (R-NC9). Despite these wins, the loss of the Wilmington area’s Senate District 9 to Republican Michael Lee gave Democrats only one net gain in the chamber.

After retaking his seat from Sen. Harper Peterson (D-New Hanover) in a rematch, Lee said, “To those who voted for my opponent, and those who supported my campaign, I offer the same commitment: I will be honest, ethical and fair-minded, and I will use my best efforts and judgment to support every citizen of New Hanover County. You have placed your trust in me to represent you in the N.C. Senate, and I will earn that trust every day.”

Another new face in the Senate, although one that is familiar in the halls of the legislature, is Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon). Corbin had been a state House member for the same area, but with the retirement of Sen. Jim Davis (R-Macon), Corbin was able to move to the upper chamber. Republican Lisa Stone Barnes of District 11 also moved from the House to a secure Republican seat in the Senate.

Many other seats stayed with their party but with changed members. Attorney Amy Galey, for example, will replace retiring Republican Sen. Rick Gunn of District 24, known for his pro-alcohol bills like the “Brunch Bill.” Democrat Ernestine Bazemore of District 3, Republican Michael Lazzara of District 6, Republican Steve Jarvis of District 29 and Democrat Julie Mayfield of District 49 are all new members who also replaced outgoing members of their own party.

A late addition in the group of new Senate faces is Sen. Sydney Batch (D-Wake). Sen. Sam Searcy resigned unexpectedly after securing re-election to the District 17 seat. Batch, who had lost her House seat in November, was then selected by local activists to complete Searcy’s not-yet-started term. Searcy said he had “another opportunity to serve the people of North Carolina” and thought it would be less disruptive to leave before his term began in earnest.

On the House side, Republicans gained six seats and lost two, for a net gain of four seats. GOP gains include HD-43, the Fayetteville area seat of Rep. Elmer Floyd (D-Cumberland), who lost his primary to Kimberly Hardy. Hardy then lost the seat 52% to 48% to Republican Dianne Wheatley.

Republican now-Rep. Ben Moss of Richmond County not only flipped House District 66 red, but did it by a convincing 20-point margin. Moss is a railroad worker from Rockingham and was able to win the rural district by running on conservative values. Like many rural areas, District 66 voters are traditionally Democrat but see the modern party as too far left. The Democrats knew it would be hard to hold on to the seat, but Moss showed the area is likely out of their grasp for the near future.

While rural areas continued their shift away from Democrats, suburbs and smaller cities maintained their status as the battleground. Four suburban or smaller city seats that flipped blue in 2018 — HD-37 in Wake County, HD-98 in Mecklenburg County, HD-93 south of Asheville and HD-119 in Boone — flipped back. Two seats in suburban or small city districts —  HD-9 in the Greenville area and NC-63 in the growing suburban county of Alamance, sandwiched between the Piedmont Triad to its west and Research Triangle to its east — flipped from red to blue.

Those two seats were won by young millennial Democrats: Rep. Brian Farkas, a 33-year-old who has served a number of political and non-profit roles; and Rep. Ricky Hurtado, a 32-year-old UNC Chapel Hill instructor and community activist.

Just like on the Senate side, there are also many other House members who filling seats vacated by their party. These include Republican Reps. Steve Tyson of District 3, Matthew Winslow of District 7, Charles Miller of District 19, David Willis of District 68, Jeff Zenger of District 74, Sam Watford of District 80, Dudley Greene of District 85, Grey Mills Jr of District 95, Mark Pless of District 118 and Karl Gillespie of District 120.

For the Democrats, new members who held onto empty seats for their party include Reps. Abraham Jones of District 38, Amber Baker of District 72 and Terry Brown Jr of District 92.

Three Republican House members — Reps. John Bradford III, Mike Clampitt and Tim Moffitt  — are not entirely new but are returning to the chamber. Bradford defeated Rep. Christy Clark in a rematch, after she won his seat in 2018; Clampitt won a fifth rematch against Joe Sam Queen, which has seen them passing the seat back and forth; and Moffitt won an adjacent seat to one he lost in 2014.