RALEIGH — When the General Assembly convenes next week, it will do so without one of its most effective lawmakers.
State Sen. Bill Purcell is returning to his native Laurinburg as a private citizen.
In January 2011, after seven reelections and more than 14 years in the state legislature, Purcell announced his intention not to run for an eighth full term.
“I think it’s time for a change,” Purcell said while clearing out his Senate office this week. “I don’t want to be the oldest in the Senate, which I would have been if I’d run again. I’ve enjoyed it; it’s been a real challenging experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
He will be 82 in February.
Commanding the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike, Purcell was one of two physicians in the N.C. Senate during its most recent session, and one of very few pediatricians serving in state legislature throughout the U.S. During his years in the Senate, his committee memberships included the Commerce, Education and Higher Education, and Health Care committees. As the District 25 senator, Purcell represented Scotland, Richmond, Anson, and Stanly counties.
In its biennial rankings of state legislators, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research placed Purcell among the top 15 most effective Senate members from 2003 to 2009, placing him 28th in 2011 following the majority shift to the Republican Party.
“Sen. Purcell was a friend to all; he was able to work across the aisle to get legislation passed,” said state Rep. Garland Pierce, who has represented Scotland County in the state House of Representatives since 2004. “He was well-respected by the House and the Senate, and on a personal note he’s always been there for me. He’ll go down as one of the greatest senators in the time in which we’ve served.”
In July 1997, Purcell was appointed to the state Senate by Gov. James B. Hunt to fill the vacated seat of Sen. Richard Conder. He retired from his pediatric practice and resigned after 10 years as mayor of Laurinburg in order to accept the seat. A Laurinburg native and Democrat, he had also served for six years as a city council member.
“I was appointed on a Tuesday, on Tuesday night I resigned as mayor of Laurinburg, and Wednesday morning I was sworn into the Senate,” Purcell said. “I’ve always had an interest in doing this, but politics is a lot about being in the right place at the right time. If Richard Conder was in here, there’s no way I would have run against him.”
Doctor in Senate
Purcell counts among his greatest achievements the laws dovetailing with his interests in medicine and the welfare of children, including a piece of legislature sponsored by him and termed Kaitlyn’s Law. Signed into law in 2003, the law prohibits the administration of medication to children in childcare facilities without the express permission of a parent or legal guardian. It also allows felony charges for violations that cause injury to a child.
“I walked out of a very busy pediatric practice that I started back in the 1960s,” said Purcell. “I think I’ve had the opportunity to influence health care and health-related issues in a much broader sense than I could in a pediatric practice. What we do in health care up here influences the lives of over 9 million people, and I just could not do that in a private practice.”
Also a member of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, Purcell was involved in legislating usage of bicycle helmets and age restrictions on ATV operation. Last year, he was the co-sponsor of a bill placing the burden of paying for Medicaid and uninsured patients’ hospital treatment on the state and federal government rather than on county governments.
In 2009, Purcell was the primary Senate sponsor of legislation banning smoking in North Carolina’s restaurants and bars. The House companion bill was introduced by State Rep. Hugh Holliman, a lung cancer survivor. Efforts galvanized by a 2006 surgeon general’s report on the dangers of secondhand smoke began with eradicating smoking in the N.C. Legislative Building and legislative offices and culminated in the statewide restaurant ban.
“When I walked onto the Senate floor for the first time there was an ashtray at my desk,” Purcell said. “I looked around and there was an ashtray at every senator’s desk.”
Opposition to anti-smoking legislation and similar initiatives came as a surprise to Purcell, who initially presumed that scientific evidence could serve effectively as a means of persuasion.
“I was naive,” he said. “As a physician, I thought if you had scientific evidence about things, that you could get things done, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
The bill ultimately passed after Purcell agreed to exclude country clubs from smoking prohibitions, a move which persuaded two opposing Democrats to support it and convinced Purcell of the power a single senator can wield.
“Nothing is done by an individual up here,” said Purcell. “But we needed two votes to pass that smoking ban bill and two Democrats were going to vote against it… The incidence of emergency room admissions for acute heart attacks has dropped dramatically since that happened. A lot of people with asthma and things now can go to restaurants that couldn’t before.”
Less interested in reelection than in fulfilling the responsibility of his office, Purcell said he ignored interest groups’ threats to his political career and, while not a proponent of tax increases, maintained the state’s right to them.
“I’m not proposing tax increases; I’m just not willing to give that responsibility away in case it has to be done,” he said. “If you do that, then you give away authority that people elected you to. I think you’ve got to pay attention to what people in your district want. But I think you’ve still got to stick to what you believe is right. You make some enemies that way, but you vote the way you think is right for the future of the state.”
As he returned to Laurinburg last week for the last time as a senator, Purcell left a cadre of devoted staff members behind in Raleigh.
“He has been a delight to work with,” said Becky Hedspeth, Purcell’s legislative assistant of 10 years. “We have had a wonderful ride up here. He is very smart and he did such a fantastic job. I never would have left if he had run again and been re-elected; I would have stayed with him.”
His favorite retirement gift was given to him by Tamara Lliso, a housekeeper in the legislative offices. A pen box inscribed with a verse from Proverbs, it reads: “The man of integrity walks securely.”
“The nicest retirement gift that I’ve received, and I didn’t expect to receive anything, was given to me by a lady here who works for housekeeping,” said Purcell. “She’s a Honduran native who got her citizenship this year and voted for the first time. I’ll always cherish that.”
Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin, elected in 2012 to fill Purcell’s seat, will be sworn in at 2 p.m. on Friday at the Rockingham City Hall. Purcell voiced confidence in McLaurin, with whom he has worked in the past. However, he feels the abilities of McLaurin and other Democrats may be limited somewhat by the Republican majority as partisanship in Washington is reflected on the state level.
“I won’t say that the Democrats didn’t really control things, but I think we did it with more civility and we allowed people to speak,” said Purcell. “As a matter of fact, we had some Republican co-chairs of committees, but I don’t think we have any Democrat co-chairs right now. It’s a change - you see less civility in Washington and you see it here.”