Hospital issue opens GOP rift

Published 1:41 am Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Staff Writers

Some political observers have argued that Republicans on the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners have never performed as a unified bloc, though recently they’ve tried to paper over the divisions.
Whatever the case, the debated fate of Beaufort County Medical Center has reopened old wounds within the board’s Republican contingent, pitting commissioner against commissioner in an already-divisive election year.
One side is represented by moderate Republican Commissioner Al Klemm, who argues that the hospital should affiliate with a larger entity to shore up its shaky finances.
On the other side is the more hard-core conservative Republican Commissioner Hood Richardson, who contends the hospital should remain under local control.
Klemm and Richardson have scrapped during recent commissioners meetings, leading Richardson to call for an unsuccessful — and private — caucus with Klemm.
Richardson reportedly tried to sway Klemm to see things from his perspective in that caucus outside a June 9 gathering of the board, but to no avail.
More recently, rumblings among some of Richardson’s supporters have telegraphed their unhappiness with Klemm, who, at Washington’s Summer Festival, told a reporter he was willing to sacrifice his political career to do what he considered right for county residents when it comes to the hospital.
“It’d be nice to be re-elected, but I’m not gonna compromise in any manner in not doing what’s best for the citizens of Beaufort County,” Klemm said Monday.
As for Richardson, “I could care less what the heck he says,” Klemm continued. “I absolutely could care less.”
Asked if he considered Richardson his political enemy, Klemm demurred, saying, “I think Hood has basically had a history of if you don’t agree with him on any issue, it doesn’t matter who you are, there can be a problem.”
He recalled that Richardson had used the bully pulpit of his commissioner’s seat to whip the hospital before, once asserting that the medical center could do away with its emergency room and contract out emergency-room services.
In October 2003, during a presentation on the hospital’s finances, Richardson said, “You don’t gotta have an emergency room. Some places, the hospital goes across the road and sets up a private facility that is run and owned by private doctors.”
This claim was made well before Klemm was elected to the board, but Klemm, no neophyte on the local political scene, recalled the ensuing controversy with clarity.
Richardson’s 2003 point was made after it was revealed the hospital was behind on payments to an employee pension fund because of financial problems. This revelation came to light during a long and largely inconclusive series of inquiries into the hospital by some Republican county board members, including Richardson.
“I’m not there to have political fights,” Klemm asserted Monday. “I’m there basically to do what I perceive is best for the citizens.”
In response to Klemm’s remarks, Richardson said politics and business are at the heart of governing the county, indicating that his more moderate colleague fails to understand the political reality of the situation at hand.
“Most of these guys, they get into politics and they want to be liked, and they don’t realize that running a county government is like running a business,” he said.
The commissioners can’t make policy decisions based on friendship, he said.
Asked whether his Republican allies are targeting Klemm for punishment in the Nov. 2 general election, Richardson declined to answer.
“I’ve got my own campaign to run,” he said.
He did note that local commissioner elections are based on limited voting, which pits one candidate’s demographic against another’s, meaning that Klemm has to go head to head with conservative Republican Cindy Baldwin, a novice commissioner candidate.
“Cindy Baldwin’s opponent is Al Klemm,” Richardson said, “because it’s pretty obvious there will be at least one Democrat elected, maybe two. Who knows?”
The election of a fourth Democrat would strip the board of its GOP majority, but Richardson added that he doesn’t believe that transition will come to pass this fall.
“Not really, as long as (the debate is) issue-based, because issues are what elections are about and what politics is about,” he said.
Richardson, who is not up for re-election this year, is challenging Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, for his long-held legislative post.
“I don’t want my Republican friends coming after me because I’m taking sides in an election,” he said.
Larry Britt, chairman of the Beaufort County Republican Party, doesn’t see this emerging tension as a problem poised to boil over at the ballot box.
“Well, no, not really, because I think if you look at it it’s the same conversation that’s been going on for many years here,” Britt said. “You’ve got two people that very much have different ideas on where the hospital should go, but ultimately they both agree it’s going to end up the same place. It’s just different ideas, and both people believe their ideas.”
GOP Commissioner Jay McRoy, who is more closely aligned with Klemm, and GOP Commissioner Stan Deatherage, who often sides with Richardson, both offered roughly the same assessment: the hospital debate isn’t political.
Yet, McRoy defined the differences between the GOP factions when he said the medical center’s chief obstacles are in revenues and lower-than-needed reimbursements for services to Medicaid patients.
“I guess everybody has got their own opinions,” McRoy observed.
On the flip side of the coin, Deatherage said the heart of the matter is mismanagement of the hospital.
“I think it’s more than a political issue, it is an issue of just finding a better way to do business in these difficult times in the medical community,” he said.
He added, “I never have thought of us as a Republican majority. I think people vote the way their constituents want them to vote.”