When state Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, returns to the General Assembly today, he will arrive as a member of the minority party in a Legislature now filled with Republicans, but the senior leader from Sampson doesn’t see it as an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, he says he’s looking forward to working with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and new Gov. Pat McCrory to better the state of all North Carolina’s citizens.
It is the task at hand that is important, Bell stresses, and not a person’s politcal affiliation. The focus, he reiterates, should be on what’s best for North Carolina and not a particular person’s agenda.
“If we can keep that focus,” Bell said during an interview last week, “then we will be OK. We aren’t going to agree on everything, none of us do, even in the same party, but if we keep our eye on what’s important, then we can make a real difference.”
Bell will be sworn in for his seventh term today as the regular session of the 2013-14 biennium convenes. The sole purpose of the day will be to elect officers, adopt rules and otherwise organize the session which will then be adjourned to reconvene on Jan. 30.
Now Sampson’s senior legislator with 14 years under his belt, Bell joins Republican senator Brent Jackson and fellow representative William Brisson, D-Bladen, as the three-man team in Raleigh.
Although the General Assembly will be totally controlled by the Republicans, Bell isn’t dismayed by the change. In fact, he believes the majority of those serving in the legislature aren’t any more conservative than he is, himself.
“You know, I’m not a hard-core liberal, and others know that, too. I try to do what is in the best interest of the people. In fact, I think I am conservative on many issues. If you were born in Sampson County, you can only be so liberal,” Bell acknowledges, laughing at the thought.
“It’s all about your upbringing, really. And being brought up here in Sampson County, well, let’s just say it wasn’t a liberal upbringing at all.”
His views, he said, have proved helpful to him over the years as he’s tried to work with lawmakers from both parties to accomplish many things for the state and, in particular, Sampson County.
He classifies his working relationship with many of the lawmakers in Raleigh as a good one, and he doesn’t really see that changing.
“I was fortunate enough to travel to Taiwan with a Republican delegation not all that long ago, and I was able to get to know a lot of those folks. I got to see them in a different light, and they got to know me in the same way. It forges relationships that help you. I really believe that makes a huge difference when you go to talk to a colleague about a particular issue. They understand you better and know where you are coming from.”
His long career in education, too, has helped him, giving him added insight that others have sought out during decision-making times, and it has, in turn, helped him to keep his eye focused on the ball.
“When I was a teacher, coach, principal and superintendent, I tried to treat all the students fairly. They were my kids and it just didn’t matter what race they were or who their parents were. I’ve tried hard to do the same thing here in Raleigh. I don’t look at everything here as a black/white issue. It is simply a right/wrong issue to me.”
Treating people fairly, he said, has always been a motto he’s lived by, and the testament to his efforts comes when he hears former students talk about his willingness to treat everyone the same.
While he expects a good session when the General Assembly begins its business, he does see some “hot button” issues that are likely to draw attention, issues that give him pause and some concern.
One of them is charter schools.
“This one bothers me the most,” said the long-time educator. “Don’t misunderstand, I am not opposed to charter schools. I’m just opposed to seeing everything heavily weighted toward charter schools, so much so that we forget about traditional schools.”
Bell sat on the Blue Ribbon committee for Charter Schools and believes in their original purpose of being what he called “out of the box” educational opportunities that would allow traditional schools to learn from them, making all students better because of it.
“As a former superintendent, I would have loved the authority to do things outside of the box more often. But I simply believe that charter schools need to be under the authority of local Boards of Education rather than have its own board and such. That makes it more of a private school than a charter school, and I don’t think the state needs to be in the private school business.”
He worries that there will be a purchase to advance the charter school movement, including funding for brick and mortar projects, something he doesn’t believe should happen.
“I’m afraid there will be lawmakers who will want to use some of the lottery proceeds for this. I don’t think we need to be in the business of building charter schools.”
Instead, he points to vacant schools in Sampson as the example. “If you have a building in your county, like Charles E. Perry or the old Midway, they could be charter-like designed for things like a summer institute where doctors, lawyers could come in and teach specific subjects without having to have all the required credentials of those teaching in a regular classroom setting.
Another great fear, Bell said, is that education won’t be funded at its current level, something he believes will be a grave mistake. “Regardless of what comes up, the percentage we spend on education should not be negotiable. A quality education is important to every other aspect of this state’s progress and we shouldn’t ever short-change it.”
The university and community college systems are other areas he hopes will remain a priority of the state, again educational pieces that he believes the state’s progress and success hinge upon.
“Across the state, we need to be concerned about the dropout rate in college and look at ways we can help students, particularly scholarship students, maintain the grades they need to be successful. That includes taking a look at the required course hours. Too often students are taking way more classes than they need. If they were offered in a more sequestered order, I think it would help.”
Bottom line, he asserted, is that education, on all levels, needs to remain a top priority.
Of course, revenue will be the biggest issue to tackle. “It’s been that way every year lately, and we are starting out behind and it will take a lot to catch up.”
But contrary to what some may think, Bell stressed, he doesn’t think cutting spending is the sole answer. “You can cut and cut, but you won’t be successful at reaching the goals we want to achieve. There has to be some give and take.”
Although he admittedly doesn’t know a great deal about it, Bell believes fracking will be front and center during the upcoming session.
While he sees some good in the process, he firmly believes that if it is to be accessed it must be done in a way that doesn’t put lives in jeopardy and protect the environment.
“I’m concerned about this, for certain. I still don’t know enough about it to make a solid judgement, but there are a lot of questions that need to be answered on this one for me. I see some good in it, but I just want to make sure it doesn’t come at such a great cost to the people of our state, particularly those that would be directly impacted by it.”
The issues he said will be vast, but his greatest hope as lawmakers return to Raleigh is that everyone will strive to work together in a bi-partisan manner, something he believes new Gov. Pat McCrory is going to work toward.
“I met with him a few weeks back as part of the Black Caucus, and I was impressed with what he had to say. I really feel pretty good about his ideas. If he continues in that mindset, I believe we will see some good things.”
As for his friends across the aisle, Bell believes most will work for the best interest of all the people in N.C. “If we can keep that focus, and not on individual and special interests, it’ll be OK.”
Bell expects to work well with his colleagues in both parties and while he knows there are a handful that he expects to be working with “outside influences” as their guide, he believes most will lead based on their own convictions.
“It’s those outside influences you have to worry about, but everyone I know here are very intelligent, hard-working men and women who can lead. I expect to work alongside them on many issues.”