Richard Burr's legacy: Old-school statesman or generic creature of Washington?
As North Carolina's senior senator heads into retirement, how will the state remember him?
The end of the biennium means a week full of farewells in both the General Assembly and the halls of Congress. North Carolina is saying goodbye to quite a few long-standing political figures this year, including Democratic U.S. Reps. David Price (30 years in Congress) and G.K. Butterfield (18 years).
On the Republican side, the biggest departure is unquestionable: U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. He announced after winning re-election in 2016 that he would not run again, opening the way for Senator-elect Ted Budd.
Among his colleagues in Washington, Burr is known as a congenial workhorse, forging deep relationships with politicians on both sides of the aisle and diving deep into the business of congressional committees.
Here in North Carolina, he’s hardly known at all. Over 28 years in office, he largely shepherded non-controversial bills through the committee process to become law. While generally well-liked on Capitol Hill, he was nearly invisible in his home state — even during campaign season.
So which will be his legacy: The old-school statesman, or a generic creature of Washington?
Below, we’ll outline the case that can be made for both interpretations.
In one interpretation of Richard Burr, he’s the model of statesmanship. Never flashy, Burr dove head-first into his work in Washington, prioritizing committee assignments and constituent services. He earned a reputation as a down-to-earth guy, best known for not wearing socks, bringing a bag lunch to work and driving a beat-up old Volkswagen Thing.
His Facebook page and Twitter feed haven't been updated in more than two years, though the press release page on his official website displays a steady stream of committee reports and strongly worded letters to government agencies he was tasked to oversee.
"Committees are where you roll up your sleeves and you get to work," he said in his farewell address this week. "It's where friendships are made, and where we work together to get results for the people who sent us here."
In the Senate, he slowly amassed respect and power — with the capstone being four years as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Along the way, Burr was a behind-the-scenes figure helping bring significant legislation to the floor for a vote. These include:
ABLE Act of 2013, which created 529 savings accounts for people with disabilities.
Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014, which allowed veterans to see doctors outside of the VA system if they faced long wait times.
Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act, which sped up the approval of new pharmaceutical drugs.
Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which established government agencies to prepare for public health emergency response.
Throughout his Senate career, Burr prioritized relationships with both Democrats and Republicans. All of these bills were all passed with huge, bipartisan majorities.
Burr also kept North Carolina in mind, helping land 19 new VA medical facilities in the state.
Generic creature of Washington
Of course, Burr’s career in Washington can be read in a much less charitable way, as well. People who argue for congressional term limits basically have politicians like Burr in mind.
After losing his first Congressional race in 1992, Burr was swept into office in the Republican wave two years later, handily defeating a no-name Democrat to become a U.S. Representative from the 5th District. He never faced a serious challenge after that, beginning 28 unremarkable years in Washington. He often ran unopposed for his Hous seat, which he held for five terms.
When then-U.S. Sen. John Edwards relinquished his seat to join John Kerry’s presidential ticket, Burr entered the race for U.S. Senate in 2004, facing former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.
Burr prevailed largely by tying Bowles to former President Clinton and riding President George W. Bush’s coattails: Bush carried North Carolina by nearly 13 points, while Burr squeaked in by just 4.5.
After that, he was re-elected twice against fairly weak opposition. In 2010, Burr defeated Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in a Republican wave year. In 2016, he defeated Deborah Ross, at that time an obscure, out-of-office former state representative (she’s now a member of Congress, elected to the House in 2020).
In both races, Burr was known as a lazy campaigner — criticized especially in 2016 for putting an easy win at risk. You’ll find few television ads on the internet from any of his campaigns, but the only one I did says basically nothing.
His work in Washington was largely invisible to North Carolinians, as well. Over those 28 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find Burr take a strong stand on any issues of importance.
If you're having trouble falling asleep, spend some time on Burr's YouTube feed, where you can watch video after video of the senior senator behind a dais with his face buried in a sheet of paper reading in a dull monotone about things like reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Burr described as "at the forefront of the American people."
The only time Burr truly made headlines was in 2020, when he was federally investigated after dumping $1.6 million in stock that February — just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and decimated the markets. In public, he’d made few statements on the issue. But his position on the Senate Intelligence Committee gave him access to the unvarnished truth, and he’d privately told big-dollar donors about the impending catastrophe. Burr was ultimately not charged with any crimes.
How North Carolina will remember U.S. Sen. Richard Burr
The truth is, they won’t. I couldn’t help but watch his farewell speech with a profound sense of sadness, especially when Burr spoke of his family.
“[My wife] Brooke and I have lived apart for 28 years. Outside of the congressional recesses or a few trips every Monday, I’ve had to wake up — just like you — and know I had to fly back to Washington to cast a vote. I look forward to being home with the love of my life when I’m done with this,” he said.
He’s missed the majority of his two sons’ lives as well. And for what? A place in the annals of obscure North Carolina trivia?
I thank Senator Burr for his genuine efforts to improve our state and country. I saw him in person only once, briefly, as a reporter covering some sort of political event that he also attended. But he seems like a good man with a good heart.
I also hope he has many years ahead of him that he can spend with his family, where a man leaves his true legacy.
7 things of note
Sen. Tillis's immigration deal is dead
We reported a few weeks back that U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis was working with U.S. Sen. Kristin Synema on a bipartisan immigration plan that they wanted to push through before the new Congress takes over. Well, that plan is now dead, according to a CNN reporter. Details of the plan were never publicly released, though there were rumors that it would be mostly an amnesty bill with little in the way of border security. If that's the case, good riddance.
"Extreme anger and frustration" in N.C. Democratic Party
Post-election hand-wringing is a bipartisan affair. After an election in which Democrats nationally overperformed but lost most key races in North Carolina, the state Democratic Party is considering a major leadership overhaul, WRAL reports. "No one is completely happy with the direction the party is going," Ryan Jenkins, president of the NCDP progressive caucus told WRAL. "Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to has expressed extreme anger and frustration.”
Interestingly, all the conflict in the article is around finances — where the party directed resources in the 2022 elections, and whether the party adequately invested in get-out-the-vote efforts. There is really no mention of ideological differences. But you can trace the decline of North Carolina Democrats directly to their growing embrace of radical liberal positions from the national party.
Mecklenburg County sheriff sued over year-long concealed carry permit wait times
Grassroots North Carolina announced this week that it has filed a civil action against Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, alleging that he is using an abusive interpretation of North Carolina law to delay issuing concealed handgun permits for a year or more. Under the law, sheriff's offices are supposed to approve or deny a concealed carry permit within 45 days of receiving the application. This happens in 99 counties, Grassroots North Carolina says. But in Mecklenburg County, wait times are a year or more.
McFadden justifies this by saying the law allows him to wait until all mental health background checks come back. Then, he floods dozens of agencies with requests for mental health records knowing that it will take months and months for them to respond. This includes filing requests with the Veterans Affairs system, even for non-veterans, Grassroots North Carolina alleges.
Ideally, North Carolina would move to a "Constitutional carry" system, where no permit is required to carry a concealed handgun. Georgia passed this type of legislation this year. At the very least, the Mecklenburg case shows that significant overhaul is necessary to protect North Carolinians' Second Amendment rights. South Carolina, for example, handles concealed handgun permits primarily at the state level, but gives sheriffs 10 days total to weigh in.
A law change is unlikely with a Democrat in the Executive Mansion, though, so the court system is likely the best way to proceed for the time being. Interestingly, the North Carolina Constitution specifically states that its right to bear arms does not include concealed carry. But I'd hope the new state Supreme Court would interpret McFadden's abuse of the law unfavorably.
Republicans increase control of county clerk posts, county commissions
Former state Rep. Paul Stam has a good roundup of the statewide picture after the 2022 election on Politics NC, showing that Republicans now control the majority of the county clerk of court positions statewide and increased the number of counties where Republicans control the county board of commissioners. Republicans also flipped six county sheriff positions and dominated partisan school board races.
Rep. John Hardister considering Commissioner of Labor race
The 40-year-old House majority whip from Guilford County is "strongly leaning" toward running for the Council of State position, which current commissioner Josh Dobson will be vacating after a single term, according to Carolina Journal. Hardister pledged to bring a pro-business and pro-worker approach to the role.
I see this as a good move for him. He's currently the longest-serving majority whip in state history but does not have an easy path to becoming House Speaker. He'll also face increasingly difficult re-election bids as Greensboro's population grows. With his age, Hardister could serve many terms as Commissioner of Labor and make a real impact on the state.
Gov. Cooper replaces Republican with activist Democrat on Court of Appeals
With Judge Richard Dietz set to take a seat on the N.C. Supreme Court, Gov. Roy Cooper has selected a liberal Democrat activist to replace him on the Court of Appeals. Cooper appointed Allison Riggs, currently the co-director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and an advocate for "increased access to voting and fair representation," as WRAL describes her.
Riggs worked for current state Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls at the coalition, where they pushed to overturn General Assembly-drawn electoral districts. Riggs will get the seat for two years, until it goes on the statewide ballot in 2024.
This may be a good time for the General Assembly to revisit how judicial vacancies are handled. With legislative seats, the governor is required to pick a replacement from a list prepared by the state party. This means that the seat remains within the same party of the person who's leaving. Now that judicial seats are partisan, it would stand to reason that appointments should be made the same way. Under current law, the governor gets to pick whomever he wants.
However, it may require a constitutional amendment to make this change. The state Constitution allows the General Assembly to dictate how vacancies in its body are filled, while specifically giving the governor the authority to fill vacancies in the judicial system. There would certainly be an argument for the General Assembly's ability to set guardrails for this, but Cooper would almost certainly sue.
Outgoing Democrat majority rushes through N.C. Supreme Court rulings on voter ID, electoral districts
In the final days of their term, the 4-3 Democrat majority on the state Supreme Court rushed through a few significant rulings: one that strikes down the state’s voter ID law, and others that invalidates congressional districts and state Senate districts.
We’ve written at length about the state Supreme Court’s wild rulings in the past, and I’ll take another look at this term in the new year. But this should be the last time this group of activist judges gets to weigh in on North Carolina politics.
The state Senate ruling may end up being a blessing. The General Assembly would like to redraw maps in the 2023 long session but is prohibited by law from doing so if maps have already been set. This ruling could give leadership the opportunity to take a fresh look at Senate lines.
The voter ID decision is more troubling. Gov. Roy Cooper may be able to stop a new voter ID law using his veto power, leaving North Carolina without ID requirements in elections for at least two more years.
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