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A freshman state senator goes to work

by Jordan Green

The door stood open, Don Vaughan’s law office business card hung over the nameplate for predecessor Kay Hagan and the phones were fairly quiet on the freshman senator’s first real day of legislative business in Raleigh. An air of impermanency hung over the spacious office, with the expectation that the freshman Democrat from Greensboro would soon be reassigned to more modest quarters befitting his lack of seniority. Among the matters to consider was a bill filed by Sen. Julia Boseman, a Wilmington Democrat, to allow state prosecutors to carry firearms in court. Vaughan took a skeptical view of the legislation, but had been soliciting input from those with a stake in the matter. He picked up the phone and placed a call to Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson. “Doug Henderson, how the world are you?” he began. “I am actually down doing the Lord’s work in Raleigh, and there is a bill to allow district attorneys to carry concealed weapons. And I thought before I touched it, I would touch base with you…. I know you’re a hunter like me, but you and I have never packed a weapon in the courthouse.” Henderson expressed indifference about the initiative. So had Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby Jr., who the senator visited after disposing of an opencontainer case for a client downstairs in criminal court — a small matter that wedged nicely into the schedule between an eight-minute Senate session and a latelunch. Vaughan, Willoughby and Sen. AB Swindell, a fellow Democrat from down east, are hunting buddies. Vaughan seems to know everybody in the relatively insular world of Raleigh politics. And he should: He first came to Raleigh as a college intern in the state Department of Human Resources in 1971, served as an economic advisor to Gov. Jim Hunt, and worked as a lobbyist in the state capital from 1993 to 2007. Vaughan has cultivated the kind of personal connections that help grease the political skids in other critical realms, too — as an undergrad student and cheerleader at UNC-Chapel Hill, in a clerkship with North Carolina Sen. Robert Morgan and law school at Wake Forest University. Under Morgan, Vaughan worked down the hall from Kay Hagan, then an aide to her uncle, Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles. Another aide in Morgan’s office was Dennis Wicker, and later the three attended Wake Forest Law School together. Wicker, the future North Carolina lieutenant governor, was favored to succeed Jim Hunt as governor but was knocked off in the 2000 primary by Mike Easley. Wicker now works as a lobbyist in Raleigh for IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, RBC Bank and other clients. Following his stint in the Hunt administration, Vaughan entered the private sector, working as vice-president and corporate counsel for the Stedman Corp., a Randolph County textile company, where his time overlapped with Keith Crisco, who headed the elastics division. Last month, Gov. Beverly Perdue appointed Crisco to the position of secretary of commerce. (“I’m tickled that he’s there,” Vaughan said.) Stopping for lunch at the Big Easy, a bar and Cajun eatery, Vaughan bumped into another law school classmate, who now works in the NC Justice Department. (“I know who to call,” Vaughan said.) Taking a mid-morning break, Vaughan headed down to the snack bar to get a soda and was met in the hallway by a handful of lobbyists. One, an acquaintance from the NC Bar Association, introduced him to two lobbyists for General Electric. Zeb Alley, who Vaughan later described as “the number-one lobbyist in the state,” stood against the wall watching. Formerly a state senator and legislative counsel for Gov. Hunt, Alley also represents Progress Energy and Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Co. “Don is a freshman, but believe it or not, he is well known in both the House and Senate,” Alley observed dryly. “Give me a call, who knows,” Vaughan said, as he disengaged himself from the NC Bar Association contact, and completed the gauntlet. In the span of a legislative workday that began before 8 a.m. with a prayer breakfast and ended around 5:30 p.m. with a reception hosted by the powerful business advocacy organization known simply as the NC Chamber at the Marble’s Kids Museum, Vaughan would come in contact with a total of 23 registered lobbyists. They represented the following entities: Blue Cross Blue Shield, General Electric, the Greensboro Partnership, Norfolk Southern Corp., the NC Association for School Administrators, NC Voters for Clean Elections, the NC Homebuilders Association, the NC Lottery, Progress Energy, Red Oak Brewery, Time Warner Cable and Wake

Technical CommunityCollege. The world of lawmakers and lobbyist can sometimes seem to runtogether in a seamless skein of social connections and informationaltransactions: After the chamber reception, Vaughan left to attend aRaleigh dinner hosted by Waste Industries, for whom he performsgovernment relations work in Virginia. (Stateethics rules forbid sitting lawmakers from actively lobbying their ownbody.) “They’re a great resource,” Vaughan said of lobbyists. “Theyhave a wealth of knowledge.” Lobbyists don’t just educatelawmakers on the particulars of bills, of course. They also financeelections. Vaughan’s campaign received thousands of dollars frompolitical action committees or individuals associated with many of theentities whose lobbyists chatted him up over the course of the day —$2,000 from the NC Homebuilders Association,$1,000 from Progress Energy, $750 from Time Warner Cable, $500 from RedOak Brewery and $200 from Norfolk Southern Corp. The door to Vaughan’soffice stayed open, with the exception of a meeting with Red OakBrewery lobbyist Mark Leggett. Pleaders of various stripes streamedthrough. “Your constituents will ask you: ‘Where is the moneygoing?’” said Alice Garland, a lobbyist for the state lottery, as shehanded the senator a brochure. “Do you have it broken down by county?” Vaughan asked. “Sweet.” Next came two lobbyists from the NC Homebuilders Association. “Ilove the homebuilders,” Vaughan said. “We love you, too, Don Vaughan.”Jessica Hayes said. “How’s the homebuilding business right now?”Vaughan asked. “Not so good,” Hayes replied. Then the association’s top lobbyist, Lisa D. Martin took over. “I want to talk to you about Jordan Lake,” she said. “I’m good on JordanLake,” Vaughan said. She continued with her spiel anyway, averring thatlawmakers shouldn’t be swayed by environmentalists’ claims that thesituation has reached a crisis point and shouldn’t give undue weight tomedia reports on the controversy. During his campaign, Vaughantold voters that he does not support the new administrative rules —which impose steep costs on developers, farmers, manufacturers andmunicipal governments in the Haw River watershed to reduce nutrientlevels downstream at Jordan Lake — as currently written. AfterHayes and Martin departed, Vaughan disclosed that he had alreadyreceived a visit the previous Friday from Marlene Sanford, president ofthe Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, whoinformed him that opponents and supporters of the rules have beenmeeting to fashion a compromise that would, among other things, delaythe day when municipalities such as Greensboro and Burlington had toretrofit their wastewater plants from 2011 to 2016. Other sessions wereshorter, and Vaughan did not ask the visitors to sit down. Threelobbyists from Time Warner Cable dropped in to introduce themselves. Asthey were leaving, one joked, “We were wondering if we could bring in abig flatscreen TV and put it on the wall here. That probably wouldn’tgo very well with the ethics. Aw, never mind.” A visit from ChaseFoster, lobbyist for NC Voters for Clean Elections, was similarlybrief. “Let’s set up an appointment,” Vaughan said. “I’m allfor you.” The first day of business also included a lesson from stafferOliver Carter on how to check his Senate e-mail account. Vaughanestimated that he was already getting 100- 250 e-mails a day. Cartersaid the senator has received 6-10 e-mails in favor of a bill toregulate the euthanasia of animals. At least three e-mails were fromconstituents pleading for the restoration of the protest petition inGreensboro. The following day Vaughan and his fellow GuilfordCounty Democrat, Katie Dorsett, would file a bill in the Senate, whileReps. Pricey Harrison, Maggie Jeffus, Alma Adams and Laura Wileyintroduced legislation in the House. “Having representedseveral neighborhoods on rezoning cases, I believe the protest petitionis a tool people should have,” Vaughan said. The Greensboro councilmembers wrangled last month over the threshold for the number ofadjacent neighbors required to trigger the protest petition, andinstructed the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress to negotiate acompromise with TREBIC. Vaughan said he didn’t think a compromiserecommendation expected from the city council would sway statelawmakers, who have the final say over the matter. In additionto the protest petition, Vaughan was planning to introduce a bill thatwould impose a mandatory sentence of a night in jail for motorists thatblow more than .20 on a Breathalyzer — or two and a half times over thelegal limit of intoxication — as well as legislation that would placesignage at the foot of interstate on-ramps to notify motorists of thespeed limit. Rep. Laura Wiley, a Republican from High Point,visited Vaughan’s office to run through a laundry list of bills forwhich she hoped to enlist Vaughan’s support. One would clarifythe jurisdictional lines for arrests made in High Point, GuilfordCounty’s second largest city, which bleeds into Davidson County.Another would streamline child-support payments. Over thecourse of the day, Vaughan called Sen. Peter Brunstetter, a ForsythCounty Republican, to inform him of his plans to support Brunstetter’sbill to increase penalties against offenders who assault pregnantwomen, e-mailed a bill relating to funeral services to Al Lineberry Jr.of Hanes Lineberry Funeral Homes in Greensboro — a $150 donor — andresponded to a request for clemency for a constituent whose autoinsurance rate went up after an accident for which the driver contendshe was not at fault. The most important matter before theGeneral Assembly this session will undoubtedly be balancing the budgetin a time of dire economic conditions. “You’re getting ahandout about our state budget picture,” said Sen. Linda Garrou, theWinston-Salem Democrat who cochairs the appropriations committee. “Mostof you know it’s not a pretty picture, but we’re gonna look at itanyway.” Indeed it was not: Fiscal research analyst Evan Rodewald saidthe state faces a $2.1 billion gap between projected spending andrevenues, representing 10 percent of the total projected budget.Meanwhile, Medicaid demand is expected to rise even as revenue sourcesdry up. And the state employee health fund needs an infusion of $300million by the end of March just to keep paying out benefits for thecurrent fiscal year. Financial analysts expect the state to receivesome relief from the federal stimulus package, but no one knows howmuch. “Back in May we thought maybe we would not be in recession-likeconditions at this point,” said Rodewald’s colleague, Barry Boardman.“All’s I can say is, ‘Boy were we wrong. Recession-like conditions arehere.’” He added later: “Projections suggest this will be atwenty-month recession — the longest since the Great Depression. We’rewell into it, and we still have a long way to go with it. The earliestindications are that we’ll come out of this as a nation by the secondquarter of 2009; some projections suggest by the third quarter.” “Well,that was sure gloomy,” Vaughan said, coming out of the briefing. Hestepped into the elevator and pivoted to position himself at the door,where took the opportunity to shake hands with colleagues. “Youcan always tell these damn freshman,” said Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr., anAsheville Democrat. “They always stand right next to the door.” Beforethe NC Chamber reception, Vaughan headed back to his condominium at NewBern Place to catch up on his law practice and chat with his wife anddaughter back in Greensboro by video teleconference. On the way, he bumped into Rep. John Blust, a GreensboroRepublican who held Vaughan’s state Senate seat before Kay Hagandefeated him in 1998. Vaughan and Blust commiserated about an ethicsorientation required for all members of the General Assembly. “God,it’s confusing,” Vaughan said. “I’ve read all the stuff. I’ve been tothe sessions. I still don’t completely understand it.” Blust gave ithis best shot. “There were some problems a couple years ago,” he said.“It was abused by big business, mostly through campaign finance. It wasreally designed for the lawmakers, but it gets complicated withadministration. They throw the book at the small stuff. Like you can’tget a free Tshirt because it might influence your vote. But video pokercan still give the speaker of the House $100,000. And we pat ourselveson the back and call it reform.”

‘We werewondering if we could bring in a big flat-screen TV and put it on thewall here. That probably wouldn’t go very well with the ethics. Aw,never mind.’ — Time Warner Cable lobbyist

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NC Sen. Don Vaughan (left) relaxes with a pair of lobbyists at a reception hosted by the NC Chamber business advocacy group after a day at the General Assembly. (photo by Jordan Green)

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