Bigger role, bigger office
Two of Columbus County’s state legislators returned to Raleigh Wednesday to begin their second terms while a newly elected member accustomed to enforcing laws is now in a position to help write them.
Carson Smith of Hampstead served for 16 years as Pender County sheriff. Rather than seek re-election, Smith decided to run for N.C. House. In November, the Republican handily beat Democrat John Johnson to represent the newly redrawn House District 16, which includes Whiteville, eastern Columbus County and all of Pender County.
Rep Brenden Jones in his office after being sworn in for a second term to the N.C. House of Representatives
Wednesday morning as the lobby of the Legislative Building buzzed with activity ahead of swearing-in ceremonies, Smith posed in front of the grand carpeted red steps next to his wife Jennifer and his adult children: son Adam, daughter Natalie and stepson Quinton Juliano.
The representative said his House colleagues are eager to mine his experience as sheriff to inform legislation in a variety of areas, including criminal law, mental health and drug issues.
“They are very interested in my opinion as someone who has just come off the frontline of law enforcement,” Smith said.
House members haven’t been assigned to committees yet, but Smith anticipates potentially serving on the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee and one of the judiciary committees.
Although he has spent years in elected office, Smith said serving in the legislature will be different. As sheriff, “you’re the top dog and you’re the top man,” he explained. But in the House, he’ll have to work with the 119 other members to get anything done.
While Columbus County has one member of the House who is brand new, its returning member, Brenden Jones of Tabor City, is quickly ascending the ranks, entering his second term as deputy majority leader.
The Republican believes he is one of the first sophomores to hold the position, which places him as the fourth highest-ranking member in the House. Jones says the job will help him get things done for his district, which includes Tabor City, western Columbus County and portions of Robeson County.
“It gives us a real seat at the table,” he said. “We’re hand-in-hand with what the speaker and the majority leader are doing on a daily basis.”
The job entitled Jones to a larger office — four times the size of his previous one. He just moved into the larger space Tuesday and decorations were still a bit sparse on the legislature’s opening day. The wall behind his desk featured photos of each member of the House, the State Seal, a collage of Tabor City scenes and a clock, which he’ll need given a schedule that will intensify in his new role. As deputy majority leader, Jones will be an ex-officio member of every House committee.
Jones said the new session of the General Assembly should bring more hurricane recovery assistance to his constituents still dealing with the aftermath of Matthew and Florence. He is also working with House Speaker Tim Moore to ensure that a proposed school construction bond will benefit Columbus and Robeson counties.
During his first two years in the House, Jones would often appear in Columbus County side by side with Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, who also started his second term Wednesday.
Like Jones, Britt said Wednesday that hurricane recovery is on the top of his to-do list. He is also open to expanding government-funded health care for low-income people — but with caveats.
“We are looking at some ways to possibly extend Medicaid and increase Medicaid benefits to the folks who are considered the working poor — not an expansion as the Democrat party is seeking, but an expansion to some of those folks that are actually working jobs but simply can’t afford healthcare,” he said.
Britt stressed that he is not in favor of extending Medicaid benefits to “folks who are not working, folks that don’t have jobs.” But he has observed a great need for healthcare in his district, which includes Columbus and Robeson counties. For instance, he said, parents addicted to opioids are denied Medicaid coverage when their children are taken away, making it difficult for the adults to receive drug treatment to get their lives back on track.
“I don’t know where the (Republican) party as a whole is even on that expansion with a narrowed scope, but that’s where I am and that’s where I think communities like Robeson and Columbus counties can benefit…,” Britt said.
Rep Brenden Jones poses with his family after being sworn into office on January 9, 2019.
With Democrats picking up seats in November’s general election, Republicans lost their veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Britt anticipates the new makeup of the General Assembly leading to more compromise when the budget is written.
“I always kind of have seen myself as a middle-of-the-road elected official,” he said. “My district is very different than other districts. The needs in my district are very different than other districts.”
Wednesday’s session of the legislature was focused on senators and representatives taking their oaths of office and electing officers. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Raleigh on Jan. 30 to start the session in earnest.