Politics & Government

Here's a switch: Trial lawyers hire GOP lobbying firm in N.Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. — Trial lawyers have long been regarded as close allies of the Democrats, but with the GOP about to take control of the state legislature, trial lawyers have been Republican-ing up.

Their professional group has hired Carter Wrenn, the longtime right-hand man for Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, as a strategist, and former Raleigh City Councilman Philip Isley, a veteran Republican, as a lobbyist.

"The new reality is we want the smartest, most effective thinkers about the Republican majority and what sort of messaging would appeal to them," said Dick Taylor, the CEO of the N.C. Advocates for Justice, the trial lawyers group.

With the first Republican legislative majority in more than a century about to take office on Jan. 26, there's been a domino effect on Raleigh's influence industry - the lobbying firms, trade associations, corporations, law firms, public relations companies, trade unions and others that have business before the legislature.

For decades, the most influential of those groups were those who had personal relationships with the leaders of the Democratic majority. But with many powerful Democrats such as Marc Basnight and Tony Rand gone and others seeing their influence sharply diminished, lobbyists with ties to the new Republican majority are in high demand.

Few have better connections than state GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer. Election night photographs showed Fetzer holding aloft the arms of the new Republican leaders of the legislature.

He was the subject of a recruiting war for his services by several of the state's major law firms. But instead he decided to start his own company, Fetzer Strategic Partners.

"The Democrats owned power in Raleigh and the Democratic lobbyists owned the business," said Fetzer, a former Raleigh mayor.

Culture is shifting

"I do think the culture is changing. I think once it changes it will stay changed. This is not a surprising phenomenon when you consider that basically one party has basically controlled the North Carolina legislature since the 1870s. I think the past election changed forever the relative un-competitiveness of politics in North Carolina."

Fetzer sees the changes as broader than just lobbying, reaching to a wide range of institutions including leadership in corporations, universities, trade associations and foundations that have traditionally been the power brokers.

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