July 5, 2011 Facebook TwitterMore...


Freshman Democratic Sen. Stan White reflects on his first legislative session

By CATHERINE KOZAK



It was tough enough taking the helm from one of the state’s most successful politicians, but when Nags Head Democratic Sen. Stan White began his job representing the 1st Senatorial District, he was outnumbered and outgunned by energized opposition.

With his first legislative session behind him, sitting where former state Sen. Marc Basnight had served for 25 years, White said that being a newcomer in the minority was no picnic. 

The state spending plan passed recently was especially painful, slashing funds to the bone for schools, cultural resources, and environmental protection.

“In my opinion, it was a bad budget,” White said. “It’s setting back North Carolina in a lot of areas, certainly in education.”

A former Dare County commissioner and most recently a member of the state Board of Transportation, White, 64, was selected in January by the district Democratic Party to replace Basnight.  Prior to the vote, White assured the party that he intends to run for the seat when his two-year term is up.

Basnight, first elected in 1984, announced his retirement on Jan. 4, three weeks before he was to start his 14th term in a wholly new legislative landscape in Raleigh. For the first time in 140 years, both houses of the General Assembly were controlled by Republicans -- automatically ending the Manteo Democrat’s record-breaking nine-term streak as Senate president. 

The senator, suffering from a motor-neuron disease that affects his speech, decided he would no longer be able to do an effective job as a minority member.

White said the party asked him to throw his hat in the ring, and he was endorsed by the eight counties in the district, comprised of  Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Hyde, Pasquotank, Tyrrell and Washington counties.

White describes himself as a strong supporter of the environment, education, and helping the needy, but said he is “a lot more conservative” than he was 20 years ago. He lets his constituents’ views guide him on social issues, he said.

An admirer of Basnight’s political skill and wisdom ---- calling him “as great a visionary as I’ve ever seen”--White held no illusions that he could come close to filling Basnight’s shoes. Not only was he a neophyte in the Senate, he had the misfortune to take office as a Democrat right when Republicans, flexing their newfound power, took over.

“My fellow Democrats there are telling me it’s bad,” White said shortly after he went to Raleigh.

But White, owner since 1973 of Stan White Realty & Construction, is no political babe-in-the-woods. He grew up in a political family. He served nine years on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, three of those as chairman. Until his recent resignation, required when he became senator, he represented Division 1 on the powerful state Board of Transportation for nine years.

His father, W. Stanford White, who died in 1989, had served 20 years as county commissioner, followed by two terms in the state House. In 2003, a North Carolina ferry was named after the senior White, who was instrumental in bringing the ferry maintenance facility to Manns Harbor.

Pulling an old photograph of his father from a drawer in his office desk, which has piles of neatly stacked papers and reports completely covering the top, White showed a portrait of a trim, neatly-dressed man, looking the epitome of a serious politician.

“He was a good one, they say,” White said, studying the picture for a moment before carefully putting it back.

Nearby, White shows off the latest version of an annual calendar that his niece has made for the last eight or so years that features old photographs of family members.

Every Thursday, White shares a family dinner with his 96-year-old mother, Grace, who lives next to the family’s store in Manns Harbor.  She was happy that her son is following in her husband’s footsteps, White said, sounding more pleased than boastful.

“Of course, she’s proud as can be,” he said.

Born in a long-gone hospital in Columbia, White grew up in Manns Harbor, the middle child between two brothers. He remembers spending long hours working in the family store, looking yearningly out the door as his friends walked by with cane poles hooked with worms as they headed to nearby Bratton’s Pond.

“My hobbies have always been hunting and fishing, because that’s all there was to do,” he said.  “I just love being outdoors.”

To this day, White loves to escape to his hunting cabin at Durant’s Island or his cottage on Ocracoke Island. But since his grandson was born three years ago, he said, weekend getaways with his wife, Susie, who works in the family business, have been frequently replaced with grandparenting in Nags Head.

After weeks of intense negotiations that often found legislators working until 2 a.m. in order to meet the Republican leadership’s budget deadline, White will be looking for some down time until legislators reconvene briefly on July 13.

The session may have been brutal, he said, but it was also eye-opening.

Satisfaction was found in being able to help people, but he spent much time “very, very frustrated.” Early on, White observed what he considered differences in philosophy in his Republican colleagues that influenced budgetary choices.

“They’re number crunchers, but they don’t seem to care what those numbers mean when they hit the street,” he said. “They are taking away a lot of stuff from the people who don’t have the ability to fight them. They get what’s handed them and that’s about all they can do.”

White said that the cuts the Republicans made could have a long-term detrimental effect on education, driving teachers to leave the state permanently and undermine the quality of education for years.

“We’ve got all these poor counties that just can’t afford to pick up all these additional costs,” he said.  “There’s just a ton of progress they’re eliminating . . . when you’re talking about education and programs for the needy, you really have to be careful. I mean, we’re looking 10 years down the road.”

With the state House of Representatives having the last word on the budget this session, Creswell Democrat state Rep. Timothy Spear ended up having to align with Republicans to keep the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry from being tolled and to save funds for the mid-Currituck Bridge, the Ocracoke School, and the Museum of the Albemarle, among other state facilities and projects.

Despite pressure from his party, Spear voted with four other Democrats, including Elizabeth City Rep. Bill Owens, to override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of the budget.

But White said he understands that Spear made the choice in order to put him in a position to negotiate with Republicans, rather than having no say over the proposed cuts.

“I’m glad I wasn’t in his position,” White said. “Everybody can speculate one way or another ---certainly, the governor wasn’t happy.  But I can tell you, because of what they did, northeastern North Carolina is a better place. There’s a whole litany of things they were able to keep in the budget.”

As the dust settles, White said he believes significant backlash from a politically disengaged public will come later, after the results of the budget cuts becomes evident.  

“I don’t think the average person is going to feel the impact,” he said, “until they go to get some of these services.”

If anything, White said he is less na´ve than when he first went to Raleigh, “thinking people would do the right thing.”  

Having more than 600 e-mails waiting for him in his senate inbox was not unusual. But he still does not expect to accomplish too much in his first term.

“I’m realistic enough to know what my limitations are,” he said.

Coming on the heels of Basnight presents its own challenges, White said, “because people expect the same thing from that office.”  Basnight has left him on his own, he said, telling him that now it was White’s turn.

“I tell you,” he said, “the folks in Raleigh, on both sides, really respected him and miss him.”

When White first came to Raleigh, he had no computer and no phone in his office. After about two weeks, the phone was finally hooked up. Unfortunately, he said, it was the same number Basnight had used.

“Since the minute they made it active, it lit up like a Christmas tree,” White said, laughing.  “We had the number changed.”  


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