Sunday, August 20, 2006

Coming up next for Bill Faison ...

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on July 22nd, 2006

As this year's state legislative session winds down, one of the most interesting trends for the Orange County delegation is the silence of Bill Faison, representative from N.C. House District 50 that includes part of Orange as well as all of Caswell County.

During his inaugural session last year, he made all sorts of noise. He attracted attention statewide as one of only two Democrats to vote against the state budget, while gaining notice locally for his effort to force a referendum on district representation for the Orange County Commissioners through the N.C. General Assembly. This drew him the enmity of many other local elected officials, who thought his efforts were an attempt to wrest power away from them.

This year has been a completely different story.

Amazingly, his name has not even appeared in the pages of this newspaper since early March.

The thing that makes his lowered profile during this session even more perplexing is that while his attention-making actions have been minimized, his ambition to move on to a position of greater power has exploded. He has expressed interest in serving as speaker of the House if current speaker Jim Black steps down, and in running for governor.

These are pretty high hopes for a first-term legislator, so what are Faison's chances of achieving either position? Not good, but not impossible.

One reason for Faison's less rebellious behavior during this session could be his ambitions to be speaker of the House. Voting against the budget did not endear him to very many of his colleagues last summer, and he may be hoping that toning down his act will help that vote to be forgotten if he enters the speaker election in January.

Another thing that can help past indiscretions to be forgotten, as always in politics, is money. Faison's best hope for being elected speaker through the support of the Democratic caucus is probably liberally dispensing his significant personal fortune to legislative candidates throughout the state in an effort to earn their loyalty.

It might sound like a far-fetched way of getting ahead, but there's a precedent for it in Faison's short-lived political career. During his hard-fought primary campaign in 2004 against Orange Commissioner Barry Jacobs, he garnered a lot of support by pouring large amounts of money into a wide variety of community groups in northern Orange and Caswell counties.

The more likely scenario, though, goes back to the independent streak Faison showed during the 2005 legislative session. His voting with the Republican caucus on the budget shows some ability for him to form alliances across party lines.

If the 2006 election ends up with a Democratic majority of say, 63-57 in the House, Faison would only need to bring four Democrats with him to cut a deal with the Republicans that would make him speaker. It's not unprecedented -- Joe Mavretic put together a bipartisan coalition to earn the top spot for one term in 1989.

The chances of any of this happening are slim. Most likely either Jim Black will continue in the position or be replaced by a longtime Democratic legislator who has built years of relationships with his or her colleagues. But it's not impossible and Faison will doubtless attract some attention.

The even wilder of Faison's ambitions is a possible gubernatorial run in 2008. His prospects may have been helped by Attorney General Roy Cooper's announcement last week that he will not be running -- two well-known opponents are always easier to deal with than three.

Believe it or not, there's already polling out on that future race.

Faison earned 6 percent of the support in one recently conducted by Raleigh's Public Policy Polling, compared to 36 percent for Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and 23 percent for State Treasurer Richard Moore. More than one-third of the electorate remains undecided, not terribly surprising 21 months out from the election.

Faison has an uphill battle trying to run against two foes with strong statewide political organizations. The good news for him, compared to most candidates with such a gap in name recognition, is that fundraising shouldn't be an issue thanks to the fortune he's amassed as a medical malpractice attorney.

But it seems inconceivable that merely pouring tons of advertising money into the race in 2008 will be enough.

He needs to start doing something soon to become more prominent across the state.

Considering how stacked the odds are against him to become either governor or speaker of the House, it would seem that the best chance Faison has for political advancement in 2008 is if Ellie Kinnaird of Carrboro retires and he runs for her N.C. Senate seat. It's a position he's familiar with though, as few people would have predicted he would knock off popular commissioner Jacobs in 2004.

His adept dispensation of money helped him to that seat, and he's not likely to be deterred from trying to repeat that success in the next two years.

Love Bill Faison or hate him, it's hard to ignore him.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette Street, Chapel Hill NC, 27516.



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