Verla Insko began serving in the North Carolina state House when Jim Hunt was governor and Democrats were king.
Now the Orange County Democrat, the longest serving Democrat currently in the House, has announced that this term – her 13th – will be her last. Twenty six years in a supposedly part-time job is a long run, especially when the last decade has been spent in the minority, where her experience and ideas have less effect.
“It’s time,” Insko told me. “People don’t know how old I am.”
She’s 85 and has packed into those years several lives in politics and plans another. Insko served on the Orange County Board of Commissioners for four years and eight years on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education before winning election to the General Assembly in 1996. Now she plans to undertake a new role by traveling the state to help other Democrats get elected.
An Arkansas native who grew up in Modesto, Calif., Insko started out as a Republican. In 1960 John F. Kennedy’s run for president moved her to switch. She’s followed Kennedy’s call to public service ever since.
“You don’t do it for yourself,” she said. “You don’t run for office to get your picture in the paper. You do it because it’s a challenge and there are really significant opportunities to make things better for everybody.”
In the legislature, Insko focused on mental health, the environment, education and election law, areas that haven’t fared well under the current Republican leadership. For one who aspires to do much, being unable to get things done is frustrating. “It’s changed a lot,” she said, “It seems like every year Democrats have less power, less access to information.”
There’s only one way for Democrats to change that, she said, “We need to concentrate on gaining seats and getting back to where we have a place at the table.”
For all her years in the political trenches, Insko is not a political warrior. She leans toward cooperation and mutual respect. Her parting advice to lawmakers on both sides is to follow that approach.
“We ought to be working together to make the world better for everyone. Our differences are there, but they are just differences,” she said. “We don’t need to go to war with each other personally or as a party. We need to stop attacking each other and deal with the issues.”
And those who would follow her in seeking elective office should know that truly serving in the legislature is not about giving speeches and partisan posturing. “I’ve cautioned people that it is real work,” she said. “There’s a lot of research, a lot of negotiating you need to do. You have to be willing to give and take.”
Sometimes Insko has glimpsed the possibility of a politics of common effort. On legislation that helps disabled people, for instance, she said partisan differences melt away. And she senses that some members of the Republican caucus are more moderate, but they follow the lead of their more conservative leaders, or get drawn into voting for issues pushed by national conservative groups.
The cure for take-no-prisoners partisanship, she said, is more representatives who see their goal not as winning but as solving.
“We have good people coming along in the Democratic Party and in the Republican Party, too,” she said. “I hope we can negotiate things out.”
As her long career in public service nears its end, she’s discouraged by the role outside money plays in elections and how partisanship blocks cooperation. But the one-time young Republican who became a Democratic veteran still has faith in the give and take that makes democracy work. Whether she’s in or out of the majority, she said, “I still believe in politics.”
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com