Hendersonville, N.C. – The “part grizzly bear, part teddy bear” Senate Rules Chairman who has been a fixture of state government, a relentless advocate for Western North Carolina, and a master of memorable retorts and one-liners announced Monday that the current term – his seventh – will be his last.
Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson), a successful entrepreneur and bail bondsman from Hendersonville, was first elected to the state Senate in 2002. After serving one term getting battered in the minority, Apodaca decided to dedicate much of his early legislative career to building the Republican Senate political machinery into an organization that could compete with the Democrats’ nationally-recognized caucus operation.
Apodaca was often the Senate’s closer in candidate recruitment, goading prospective candidates into running with one-liners like: “You can’t win if you don’t run” and dispensing political advice always followed by a reminder that he’d never lost an election.
Apodaca guided the political operation during the 2010 election, when Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in 140 years. In the majority, he rose to the Senate’s second most powerful post, Chairman of the Rules Committee, where he controls the flow of legislation and steers the caucus agenda.
“All good things must come to an end,” Apodaca said. “It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve the people of Western North Carolina in the state Senate. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my constituents, my wonderful wife, my two sons, and countless legislative colleagues and friends.
“The fact that a mountain bail bondsman with the last name of ‘Apodaca’ rose to become a legislative leader is proof that anything is possible in America. I’m proud that the conservative reforms we’ve passed have set North Carolina on a more fiscally responsible path. That was my goal all along.”
Using his business acumen, devilish good looks, and a blunt but jovial personality, Apodaca cut through an often ponderous and bureaucratic legislative process to deliver for the Western North Carolina counties he believed were long ignored by state lawmakers. He was instrumental in securing Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s eastern national headquarters to Henderson County, famously telling the company’s founder, “It seems like we’ve been courting and dating. If we’re going to start changing state law, we need to get engaged and get married.”
It was Apodaca, rated the Senate’s second most effective legislator the past two sessions, who initiated the conversion of a Duke Energy coal plant at Lake Julian to natural gas, and led the negotiations on the nation’s first comprehensive response to leaking coal ash ponds.
He protected funding and helped establish new programs at Western Carolina and UNC-Asheville, helped create hundreds of new mountain jobs with approval of live table gaming in Cherokee, and worked to safeguard scenic mountain forests and parkland.
“Tom is not only one of my closest friends in the legislature, he’s one of my closest friends – period,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). “Tom was a steadying influence when we made big decisions, and someone the caucus could always count on to solve big problems. I can’t overstate how instrumental he has been to the Senate Republican Caucus’s electoral and legislative success.”
A proud Western Carolina alumnus, Apodaca last year received one of the university’s highest honors – the WCU Trustee award. The chair of the trustees, commenting on Apodaca’s departure from the board to run for the Senate in 2002, said “the record shows that Western Carolina’s loss was a tremendous gain for Western North Carolina and the entire state. Sen. Apodaca… has earned a reputation as a highly effective legislator who is unwavering in his determination to stand up for the interests of his constituents and all of Western North Carolina.”
Known in the legislature for his generosity, Apodaca for years has been one of the Henderson County Boys and Girls Club’s most generous supporters. The group honored him in 2013 with a “Local Hero” award, presented by two of Apodaca’s closest friends: Hendersonville City Councilman Jeff Miller and renowned golf course architect Tom Fazio.
A June Charlotte Observer profile detailed Apodaca’s unlikely road to business success and political power, a road that included chasing bail jumpers and staring down the barrel of a shotgun. And it quoted a content Apodaca closing the book on his public service:
“The reality is, this is the job I always wanted. People say, ‘What are your political aspirations?’ I say I’ve already met ’em.”