Legislative newsroom becomes hideout for lawmakers
Three months after Republican legislative leaders booted the State Capitol press corps from its longtime quarters in the Legislative Building, the purpose has become clear – to create a private, members-only lounge where lawmakers can take refuge from the press, constituents and lobbyists.
The room’s official opening was Monday, though an electronic lock on the unmarked door ensures only a member’s security badge can open it.
Partitions block the room from the view of people outside in the hall. Inside, chairs, sofas and cushions emblazoned with state symbols complete the retreat, while the walls feature giant photos from the state parks system.
The change was directed by Legislative Services Director Paul Coble, who also has a key to the room. Coble did not respond to a request for an interview, and House Speaker Tim Moore’s office didn’t respond, either.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger spokesman Pat Ryan confirmed that Berger “was aware of the plan for the space.”
“It’s our understanding that the Legislative Services Officer envisions the new space as a location for legislators, especially those with offices in the Legislative Office Building, to spend time together in between committee hearings and votes, instead of walking back and forth alone to their offices across the street,” Ryan said in a statement to WRAL News. “After all, the purpose of the Legislative Building is to facilitate the work of elected representatives.”
“Reporters in the new press room are much closer to the chambers than the majority of legislators, who have offices across the street,” Ryan added, referring to the smaller space in a distant corner of the basement where the press corps is now located.
Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, sees it differently. He’s trying to talk Republican leaders into restoring the press room.
He escorted WRAL News inside the private lounge to see the transformed space.
“To have removed the press from the center of activity, I think, was a poor decision, and sticking them down in the back basement of the building, away from where the traffic is [and] easy access for their equipment,” Woodard said.
Woodard noted the irony of kicking out the press to create a press-free zone.
“To turn this – their former space – into a lounge,” Woodard said, “I don’t get it. It’s not like I think I’m going to hang out here a lot. So, nobody’s explained the rationale for the move and what this space is intended to be.”
“It raises a question of whether there’s a pattern of controlling access,” he said, citing recent changes including new security gates, removal of seating in hallways where constituents could wait for lawmakers, the banning of displays in the Legislative Building courtyards, the relocation of the press room and now the creation of a space where lawmakers can hide from people who want to talk to them.
“It puts up an obstacle,” he said. “I think we owe it to the people we represent to let them see what we’re doing as much as we can.”