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The return of the Doghouse Democrats

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Sometime soon, Gov. Mike Easley is expected to appoint Dan Blue, who was chosen by House District 33 Democrats to stand in for the late Bernard Allen, the man who took Blue's seat when the longtime Wake representative left office to run for U.S. Senate in 2002.

Blue's name jumped out quickly as a natural replacement for Allen, who died Oct. 14 after complications from a stroke. When Allen assumed the job in 2002, he told reporters he just wanted to carry on the work of Dan Blue.

When the governor signs the appointment, he'll no doubt do so with a bit of pleasure, for it throws the resurgence of Jim Black, a man with whom he's had testy relations, into even more doubt.

Blue, who served two terms as speaker from 1991 to 1994, is a heavyweight in the race for the gavel, either as a candidate or in support of a candidate. He lost a close race for the speakership to Black by one vote in 1998, and he's already suggested that Black ought not run for speaker again. "There are clouds hanging around there," he told the Associated Press. The same article had a nod to Blue's skills from former speaker Joe Mavretic. He would know. (Cue the flashback music.)

Mavretic served as speaker from 1989 to 1990. He rose to the post by unseating Liston Ramsey with the help of Republicans and dissident Democrats. Dems like Blue—who lost that battle and with it their committee chairs—were dubbed the Doghouse Democrats. They waged a spirited legislative battle against Mavretic's coalition and plotted their return to power.

That day came on Jan. 30, 1991, when Blue was elected speaker by a majority of re-united Democrats and the doghouse crowd celebrated not just the return of the speakership but the first African-American speaker in the state's history.

In a hallway outside his office, the new leadership met an eager press. Blue, Rep. Joe Hackney and Blue's press officer, Chris Fitzsimon, started talking about the changes. It was a rare, chaotic moment in the halls and I remember one reporter intent on finding out what kind of farming Hackney did.

In a sit-down session later that day, the new speaker, then just 41, talked in serious tones about unifying Democrats, the troubles a predicted deficit of $1 billion would cause and how the administration of a president named Bush was shifting more and more spending to the states. Although the budget compromise he brokered in 1991 helped avert a fiscal meltdown and won him a second term as speaker, Blue was sent back to the doghouse when the GOP surfed the 1994 tide into a majority in the House.

So is Blue running for speaker again? For now, he isn't saying anything beyond reminding folks the election of a speaker is three months away, and it's not right to talk about it at least until after Election Day. Translation: Game on.

No big shift

First thing to remember: Half of the state legislature is running unopposed this year.

So how will the N.C. House look next January? Best guess: 'bout the same. Right now, Democrats have a 63 to 57 advantage, and with a host of safe seats on each side, a major shift is unlikely. Depending on who's doing the wishful thinking, there are six to eight races in play, but they're split evenly between the two parties. Wake County is the hot spot for Democratic pickups, but a heated school bond vote makes it a tough call.

As for the N.C. Senate, the Democrats' 29 to 21 edge is also likely to remain static with maybe six seats in play. The GOP is pouring money into television in the east to try to knock off Democrats Pete Bland and Julia Boseman, but Dems are running strong in a couple of contentious western races. Best guess: TIVO sales go through the roof in Cherokee, Buncombe, New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

Fred Smith sign watch

As readers of this column may recall, Fred Smith—senator, wealthy businessman and future candidate for governor—has a penchant for displaying giant billboards of himself along U.S. 70. Even though he is in a safe district facing an underfunded challenger, Smith is intent on a much-much-larger-than-life branding campaign.

Earlier this summer, there were four or five such signs, but a recent trip Down East was a veritable Tour de Fred with more than a dozen well-lit billboards—Fred with his family, Fred with big words like "values" and "leadership" around him and, of course, Fred in uniform.

He may not become governor, but he sure is the biggest thing along U.S. 70.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileonJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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