State Rep. Dan Blue has become the leading candidate for House speaker because of his ability to relate to the many different factions within the Democratic Party, fellow legislators say.
``I think you'll have the freedom to be yourself under Dan,' said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Alamance, a dissident Democrat who helped make Joe Mavretic speaker two years ago and who is now joining Mavretic in backing Blue. ``The man spent his own life trying to be a proponent of inclusion in the political process.'As a liberal and a black representing one of the state's major cities, the Wake County Democrat might appear to have little in common with others in a legislature that is predominantly white, conservative and traditionally dominated by lawmakers from rural areas.
But his supporters say he has demonstrated an ability to find common ground with other legislators. When asked about being a liberal, he says it is neither liberal nor conservative to care about good education. When asked about representing an urban district in Raleigh, he recalls his childhood on a farm in rural Robeson County. When asked about being black, he says the issues facing the state concern blacks and whites.
Democratic Rep. Edward Bowen, a retired farmer from Sampson County, is one of Blue's strongest backers for speaker. That's despite the fact - as Bowen says of himself - that he looks ``like a redneck.' Blue can relate to people plowing fields in Eastern North Carolina as well as to corporate executives in Research Triangle Park, Bowen said.
``Dan Blue can come as near holding an umbrella that will cover everybody in the state as any man I know,' he said.
Blue said he has been working 18- and 20-hour days this week trying to nail down support from fellow lawmakers. When he got the endorsement of Mavretic's group this week, that appeared to give Blue the edge over his main rival, Rep. Bob Hunter, D-McDowell. But Hunter says he has the support to win.
The Democratic Caucus will nominate a speaker when it meets next month. Because the Democrats control more than two-thirds of the House seats, the nominee is expected to be a shoe-in when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 30.
The speaker appoints committees, controls the flow of legislation and sets the House's agenda. It's one of the most powerful jobs in state government.
If elected, Blue would become the first black House speaker in North Carolina and only the third to achieve such a position in the nation.
Blue, a Raleigh lawyer, was first attracted to the House in 1981, in a class that included Mavretic, Hunter, Majority Leader Dennis Wicker, D-Lee and Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange. Blue was judiciary chairman under former House Speaker Liston Ramsey, D-Madison.
He majored in mathematics at N.C. Central University in Durham and got his law degree from Duke University.