Insider Spotlight: Making Lawmaking a Family Business

Grace Rogers, who works as legislative assistant to Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, welcomes Girl Scouts from the North Carolina Coastal Pines council to her office in the North Carolina Legislative Building on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Rogers -- whose daughter is married to Lewis -- says she serves as sort of a "mother bear" for her son-in-law. "I just take care of David and his schedule and the people that come in to visit with him," she. (Clifton Dowell | NCInsider.com)

By Lauren Horsch, lhorsch@ncinsider.com

Grace Rogers, who works as legislative assistant to Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, welcomes Girl Scouts from the North Carolina Coastal Pines council to her office in the North Carolina Legislative Building on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Rogers — whose daughter is married to Lewis — says she serves as sort of a “mother bear” for her son-in-law. “I just take care of David and his schedule and the people that come in to visit with him,” she. (Clifton Dowell | NCInsider.com)

RALEIGH — Before anyone can stop in to see Rep. David Lewis, the state House’s influential Rules Committee chairman, they’ve got to visit with “Gramma” first.

Gramma is Grace Rogers, his legislative assistant, who does everything from keeping the office fridge stocked with homemade sweet tea to helping folks back home navigate Social Security claims.

“There is nobody that helps more people with it than Grace, as far as I know,” said Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.

And if folks stop by to chat and check out pictures of her grandkids, they’ll likely spot her boss’s familiar face in the photos too; because not only is Rogers his legislative assistant, she’s also his mother-in-law.

She’s not the only lawmaker’s relative working as an “LA.” According to an informal tally by the N.C. Insider, about a dozen lawmakers have a relative of some sort — in many cases a spouse or child — answering phones, researching legislation and helping constituents.

Lawmakers who tap relatives for work at the General Assembly say it’s helpful to have a trusted sounding board in an environment often filled with deadlines and stress.

Rep. Dennis Riddell, an Alamance County Republican, said he couldn’t imagine being in Raleigh without his wife, Polly, by his side.

“And I certainly wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t here,” Polly Riddell said.

General Assembly rules allow lawmakers to pick who works as their LA. They can either handpick someone from back home, or start an application process that involves multiple interviews. While LAs are in most cases considered “permanent” employees, their jobs aren’t 100 percent secure because if a lawmaker isn’t re-elected, his or her assistant could be out a job as well.

While hiring a spouse or other close relative for a state government position would normally be prohibited by state nepotism rules, there is an exception in state law that clears the way for members of the General Assembly to hire family members as their assistants.

A ‘mother bear’

Ralph Belk moved from Mecklenburg County to Durham about three years ago. During the 2016 election he worked on his mother’s campaign for the House. So when his mother — Rep. Mary Belk, a Mecklenburg County Democrat — won her election, he volunteered to join her at the legislature.

“He’s got a good political instinct, and he loves it,” Mary Belk said of her son. “I was so grateful, because I knew it was going to be a burden because he was going to take a pay cut … I was very excited, because we work together well.”

Ralph Belk studied politics in college, but had only experienced campaigns and elections until joining his mother on Jones Street.

“I’ve always been very interested in policy and the actual governing and the compromises you have to come up with when you’re actually governing and the way decisions are a little bit different when you’re in office instead of when you’re running for office,” he said. “I think that’s been the most interesting thing, to be able to implement my political science training.”

By contrast, Rogers hadn’t prepared for her role in the legislative building. She came to Raleigh after Lewis’ previous legislative assistant left, but can’t say she didn’t know what she was getting into. Rogers had seen the work Lewis was doing.

Before he became chairman of the House Rules Committee, she was Lewis’ only aide. “I was very much aware of the fact that he is very busy. And gets phone calls all weekend and someone will bother him at restaurants and at church and when he’s mowing his lawn,” she said.

Even today, when Lewis has a few more staff on hand helping him manage the flow of legislation through the General Assembly, Rogers said people in Raleigh and at home know she’s there to make sure he can do the job and still have time for life at home.

“They know I’m the protector of David too,” she said. “So they know I’m kind of like a mother bear.”

Ties back home help

For many lawmakers, it helps to have someone who understands their district with them in Raleigh.

Rogers “will frequently meet with constituents that may have difficulty getting to Raleigh,” Lewis said. “She’ll meet with them in the district. The fact that she lives there is a huge plus.”

The Riddells have the same advantage. They’ve been living in Alamance County for nearly 30 years of their 35 years as a married couple.

“It’s wonderful having her here,” Dennis Riddell said of his wife. “She knows the people of the district, she knows the schools, the pastors, the business people. So when somebody calls from the district she’s likely to know who they are,” he said.

While legislative assistants do a lot of the same core work — scheduling, answering constituent calls, responding to questions and emails — each one takes a different role in helping their respective lawmaker when it comes to policy.

And sometimes they help make long days — the state House held floor sessions that ran past 10 p.m. three nights in a row recently — a little more bearable. Rogers, for example, keeps Lewis’ refrigerator stocked with sweet tea specially brewed by Michael “Pa” Rogers — her husband.

Personal, professional

When they’re in Raleigh, the two Belks try to collaborate on their legislative work.

“He knows me well enough, and I trust him enough, and I trust his judgment for us to talk and to go back and forth to discuss issues and help make decisions that way,” Mary Belk said.

But sometimes the mother-son dynamic creeps into their professional relationship.

“I think every once in a while we fall back into the mom-son thing,” Ralph Belk said. “I think it’s probably one of those things, where people wouldn’t necessarily choose a relative for this job they didn’t have a good relative relationship (with).”

The Riddells, too, say they aren’t immune to mixing the personal and professional.

“You know, sometimes just in the rush here you have the tensions of being short with one another, just careless, not paying attention, but we always get back on track,” Dennis Riddell said. “I think it’d be like that no matter who we worked with. The little aggravations, they come and go.”

It also helps if you bring some humor to the job.

“You’ve got to laugh,” Dennis Riddell said. “To survive here you have to be able to laugh at yourself.”

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Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch