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A Force Awakens 

by Scott Mooneyham, League Advocacy Communications Strategist

Jason Saine has something of a reputation as a technology geek around the Legislative Building. That penchant for tinkering with information technology and for trading in social media saw him appointed chair of the House Appropriations Committee on Information Technology in 2013, less than two years after his appointment to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Johnathan Rhyne. With one chairmanship leading to another, this one as co-chair of the powerful House Finance Committee, Saine’s passion for all things IT has paid big dividends.

Push him toward the subject of websites, and he may mention "search optimization." Ask about search engines and site visits, and he might start talking algorithms, the formulas that allow Google to interpret where to send you on your next search. It wasn’t always that way, though. "I was a guy who absolutely could not stand a computer," Saine said recently while taking a brief break from the mid-September hubbub of budget negotiations. Then, in 1996, he began working for the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robin Hayes. The Hayes campaign employed something relatively novel for the time – a campaign website. Saine’s mother, Beth, was running for Lincoln County commissioner that same year, and surely what was good for the Hayes campaign would be good for her campaign. "Because your mother asks, you find out and see if you can do it. I learned direct HTML programming and built her a website. I don’t know whether it had any hits at all for her campaign in 1996, but that sparked my interest," Saine said.

Before long, he was crafting email newsletters for office-holders and political candidates, writing and running social media accounts for business and political clients, and delving into why people go where on the Internet. So it shouldn’t be surprising that those political and technological interests should merge, leading to a fairly meteoric rise in the leadership of the state House. During that interlude from the back-and-forth of budget negotiations, Saine took a few minutes to reflect on his time in office and the events that put him there.

You were appointed to the House initially. How did that happen?Representative Rhyne called me on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon to say he was resigning. I was serving as our (county) party chair. Of course, my role as party chair is to find the next representative. We started with our committee looking. I wasn’t a candidate initially, and we had several good folks who wanted to do it, but given the confines of our committee, no one could get a majority. And so, after a couple of days of searching, I had a couple of the members of the committee come to me and say, "Hey, would you consider it?" I thought about it a couple of days, but really once my wife came to me and said, "Hey, I’m really shocked you’re not a candidate anyway. You should do this thing." So, with her support, it made it a lot easier.

There have been some very effective legislators from Lincoln County. Johnathan Rhyne was House minority leader at one point. Former Rep. Joe Kiser was House Republican leader in the mid-2000s. Why do you think that is? Is there something in the water?

You mention Sheriff Kiser. I learned a lot from him. He was always real active in our party, active in the community, was a county commissioner, became our sheriff as an appointee. Our family history goes way back with him. Then Johnathan Rhyne was our family attorney, so I was always around Johnathan as well and knew his family. I’ve had some great predecessors to learn from, and (former) Representative (Dan) Barefoot, his wife was my French teacher in high school. He is a bit of a statesman and historian. Just being around them has been wonderful for me to learn. They took the role and the job very seriously, and were very well respected in the community. I think they didn’t make it into more than it is. They keep it pretty well grounded, understanding what the role here is.

This legislative session has been particularly long, and people often talk about how slow the process is. At the same time, there is there is the thought that important policies that affect people’s lives ought to take time. Is the slowness of the process good, bad or both?

This session is particularly long, but I don’t know if that is particularly bad. From the finance side, we have some real differences of opinion. We have some differences of opinion on how counties are going to be governed, cities are going to be governed, and what that is going to look like. Addressing rural verses urban, talk of two different North Carolinas. We are much more diverse than just two, but ultimately it is just one state, so trying to get all those forces together and craft policy that, when we finish, is one-size-fits-all, does take time.

Are the divisions between House and Senate, even when controlled by the same political party, surprising?

Really, as a student of the entire process, that has been the most fascinating – watching how the governor, the House and Senate operate, or don’t operate sometimes together, and where compromise can be found. The art of compromise, sometimes, I think has been lost. When it does work and you see things finally break through, you get a lot of enjoyment out of that, after a lot of exhaustion.

You’ve discussed not coming here with any grand plans to remain or to run for other offices. What do you see in Jason Saine’s political future?

It depends on which day you ask me. Ask me this late in the session and I am ready to get home. At some point, you realize why some people need to get out and make a living. I am fortunate because my wife, her employment (health care administration) can subsidize the political habit I have, and she is willing to do so for now. But at the same time, with a 7-year- old, my focus is making sure that he is well attended to. As I weigh those competing interests, at some point you realize that is going to have to change. There will probably be a point and time when I say, well, I have had my time at the legislature and it has been fun, or an election will tell me that – one or the other. People do decide these things.

I would be remiss if I did not ask about your well known affinity for the Star Wars movies, which you reference on social media and even during debate of bills. Where did that come from?

I have always been a Star Wars fan. But I had a professor in college (UNC-Charlotte), Dr. Marc Stier, now a good friend, as liberal as I am conservative. One of his classes was politics and film. So we covered Star Wars in a couple series of the class, and that was fascinating, to understand the deeper politics of it all. I’ve got the Imperial decal on my laptop here. That made it into the newspaper, and somebody commented about it being the dark side, which I loved. It is one of my favorite movies ever. Now I’ve got a 7-year-old waiting for Christmas and for the new film to come out. My dad took me as a 7-year-old.