If you had any doubts about the kind of people who can really afford to run for elected office and serve in the General Assembly, an incident that occurred on the floor of the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon should clarify things for you. It happened on a run-of-the-mill piece of legislation that would change the law governing landlord-tenant relations.
When the bill came up for consideration, former Speaker Joe Hackney – a stickler for ethical behavior – stood up and asked to be excused from voting because of the fact that he, as a landlord in real life, could be perceived to have a conflict of interest. His request was not that unusual and was readily granted.
What was unusual, however, was what happened next.
Spurred by Hackney’s action, dozens of other lawmakers all of a sudden realized that they too might have a conflict. As it turns out, a huge proportion of General Assembly members of both parties are landlords. After receiving dozens of requests to be excused from voting, Speaker Thom Tillis began to worry that there might not be a quorum of 60 members (out of 120) left to vote on the bill. At that point, Tillis and House Rules Committee chair Tim Moore removed the bill from the calendar and re-calendared it for today so that they could determine whether or not such requests to be excused are really “necessary.”
The upshot of all this is to publicize and clarify something that advocates for lower and middle income people (a huge proportion of whom rent the places they live) have known for decades: the General Assembly is dominated by North Carolina’s economic elite. Oh sure, most of the landlord legislators aren’t big time developers or gazillionaires; many of them just own a few houses or part of a small apartment building. They undoubtedly see themselves as “middle class.”
But the truth of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians are not landlords. In fact, most people of modest income rent the homes in which they reside. This is not the case for legislators, of course. Setting aside the temporary living arrangements that some lawmakers have in the capital city, there probably aren’t five renters out of 170 lawmakers – if that.
And while this does not mean that they are incapable of doing the right thing when it comes to economic justice matters in our state (many landlord lawmakers are extremely good and progressive folks) it does serve to highlight a huge divide that exists between the governed and those who govern.