Top Republican state senator retires, says everything's been accomplished

Tom Apodaca (North Carolina General Assembly)

Sen. Tom Apodaca, one of the most powerful figures in the North Carolina General Assembly over the past five years, added his name Monday to the list of veteran Republican lawmakers not seeking re-election next year.

Apodaca, chairman of Senate Rules Committee and Senate leader Phil Berger's closest ally, announced his decision before the 2016 candidate filing period begins Tuesday. He will return for the budget-adjusting session that begins next April.

Involved in crafting and negotiating most key pieces of GOP-penned legislation in the past three legislative sessions, Apodaca extends the upcoming GOP leadership vacuum with his departure. Senate tax-law writer Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, won't run for re-election. Neither will longtime Reps. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, and Roger West, R-Cherokee.

"I think it's time to let some of the younger ones going up" govern, Apodaca said in an interview. "We've got some smart ones."

Apodaca, 58, of Hendersonville, said he decided his seventh Senate term will be his last primarily because his Republican colleagues have accomplished their goal to bring about a conservative shift in state government.

"The main reason is I if feel like we've done what we said that we're going to do," he said.

Apodaca joined the legislature in 2003 as Democrats still held their decades-long control of the Senate. He became a top chamber leader when Republicans took over in 2011. Apodaca oversaw the Senate GOP's campaign operations for the 2010 elections.

"Tom was a steadying influence when we made big decisions, and someone the caucus could always count on to solve big problems," Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a written statement. "I can't overstate how instrumental he has been to the Senate Republican Caucus's electoral and legislative success."

As the Senate's rules enforcer, Apodaca controls the flow of legislation through committees and onto the floor. Apodaca used that power to bottle up hundreds of bills he opposed or fast-track others.

Mindful of the environment's importance to the western North Carolina economy, Apodaca said he considered last year's coal ash cleanup legislation among his most important accomplishments, along with controlling annual spending.

"What we've done overall for the fiscal responsibility of the state - it's not sexy, but it's helped North Carolina," he said.

Critics argue the Republican agenda has harmed public education, cut tax rates to disproportionately benefit the wealthy and slanted social policy to the right.

Apodaca "represents an ultraconservative policy from the North Carolina Senate," said Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg. But Ford said Apodaca was willing to listen to his differing viewpoint and backed some of his amendments. Ford said he respects and admirs Apodaca's decision to leave while he's on top.

"It says a lot about a person who had that much power, but is willing to walk away," Ford said.

Apodaca considered former Democratic Sen. Tony Rand a mentor on rules chairman matters. Like Rand, Apodaca mixed humor on the Senate floor with scathing and sarcastic critiques of the minority party. Both were stalwart supporters of the University of North Carolina system.

Apodaca said he considered retiring in 2014 but agreed to one more term.

A bail bondsman by trade and the legislature's only Hispanic member, Apodaca said he expects to-focus on his broader businesses interests. He added that politics has never been his only priority.

"The fact that a mountain bail bondsman with the last name of 'Apodaca' rose to become a legislative leader is proof that anything is possible in America," he said in a release.

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