It was February 2014, and state Senate leader Phil Berger wanted some answers.
Just days before, on Super Bowl Sunday, a security guard at Duke Energy’s retired power plant in Berger’s adopted hometown of Eden discovered a broken stormwater pipe that had released up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.
Berger, then as now perhaps the state’s most powerful politician, wanted to know how—and how fast—Duke was responding to the environmental threat to the Rockingham County town that branded itself “The Land of Two Rivers.”
A trio from the energy company, armed with briefcases filled with plans and pledges, made the trip to Berger’s law office.
Berger knew the two lobbyists seated at the table in his small conference room. But he had never met the third member of the group: Paul Newton, a lawyer who’d been president of Duke Energy in North Carolina for a year.
Berger told The Assembly he was impressed that Duke sent such a high-ranking executive. And then he found out during the meeting that Newton had spent much of his childhood in Eden. “So there was a connection there,” Berger said.
Finally, he liked the way Newton handled things, both at the sit-down in Eden and as he became Duke’s public face in the wake of the country’s third-largest coal ash spill.
“He was very interested in dealing with facts and in addressing people’s concerns,” Berger said. “Easy to communicate with and clearly somebody that did his homework.”
Nobody in the room knew it at the time, but that 2014 meeting in Berger’s law office turned out to be a kind of audition for Newton—and the launchpad for one of the fastest ascents in the recent annals of N.C. politics.
Just over a year later, Berger called Newton, then newly retired from the corporate world, and urged him to run for a state Senate seat in Cabarrus County that had suddenly come open. Newton won.
Then last November, just seven years into his political career, Newton was elected Senate majority leader—the No. 2 job among Republicans in the upper chamber.
“He’d hit the ground running right from the very beginning, and his leadership skills were very evident to me and I think all around,” said veteran Sen. Joyce Krawiec, who represents Forsyth and Stokes counties. “He’s a team player. … And you know if Paul Newton’s name is on a bill, there’s been a lot of thought put into it.”
Newton’s rapid rise hasn’t been without its challenges. At times, his lack of political experience has showed.
Both parties say he’s highly effective when it comes to policy. But when forced to take the lead in partisan fights over issues like whether to confirm one of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet secretaries, Newton can seem uncomfortable.
Still, the 63-year-old is a rising star. Before agreeing to run for majority leader, Newton checked with Berger, who gave his imprimatur.
Newton says he’s long been a registered Republican. But having a career, even a second one, in public office was never part of his plan.
His father worked as an executive vice president at Fieldcrest, the textile company then based in Eden. His mother was an artist.
Newton was 10 when they divorced. He first stayed with his mother and sisters in Greensboro, then Chapel Hill. But in the eighth grade, he announced: “I love you, Mom. I’m a boy. I feel like I should grow up with my dad.” So he returned to Eden.
Newton majored in business administration at UNC-Chapel Hill, but then thought he might want a career in the law. Several lawyers told him that every day brought a new challenge, which appealed to him.
Lester Nail, his UNC law school roommate and close friend, recounted a story that explains his surprise when Newton jumped into politics.
Newton would buy a copy of the Raleigh News & Observer every day from a rack near the law school, pull out the sports section, and toss the rest in the trash. Nail, now a retired attorney in Spartanburg, South Carolina, would retrieve the other sections and say, “Paul, would you at least read the headlines?”
Newton’s first job as an attorney was in New Mexico. He worked for a firm that mostly represented oil and gas companies, though as a rookie lawyer he spent most of his time representing plaintiffs in personal injury and other lawsuits.
He thought he’d stay out West for the rest of his life. But longtime friends wanted him to meet a woman, Melanie Monacell, who went to their church in Richmond, Virginia. They met, got married, and eventually had four kids—all of whom they homeschooled.
By then they had moved to North Carolina. Duke Power had hired Newton in 1990 to manage the company’s largest lawsuit up to that time, against Westinghouse Electric for the cracking of steam-generator tubing in the nuclear plants.
Westinghouse agreed to a big settlement with Duke just before the civil case was to go to trial. The amount was never publicly disclosed.
“He was handed a major case,” said Tom Williams, a longtime spokesman for the utility who worked with Newton. “And it was quietly viewed as a big success, but they couldn’t talk or brag about it.”
Over the next 25 years, Newton held several positions at the company—first as a lawyer, then on the business side.
In January 2013, he was named president of Duke Energy in North Carolina, leading the utility in its home state. In normal times, the state president would represent the company at, say, legislative hearings and meetings of the Utilities Commission. But just over a year into Newton’s term, the coal ash spill turned him into a crisis manager.
One of his first stops was in Danville, Virginia, downriver from the Eden plant, where he faced an angry crowd of residents worried about the safety of their drinking water.
“I want to start with probably the most important statement I’ll make today and that is: We apologize,” said Newton, who had cleared the message beforehand with Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good. “You have our complete, 100 percent commitment to make it right.”
Making it right meant cleaning up the mess. Duke ran TV ads featuring Newton strolling through a garden, telling viewers Duke wanted to be a good neighbor.
On May 14, 2015, Duke pleaded guilty in federal court to nine misdemeanor criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and was sentenced to pay $102 million.
The company asked Newton to go to court that day and be the one to enter the guilty plea. He refused.
“I was concerned that, because I was the state president of North Carolina, people would think I was personally responsible. And I was not,” Newton told The Assembly. After a long pause, he added that he found it “disheartening” and “disappointing” that Duke even asked him.
“I cleaned up the mess from a corporate image standpoint. I was happy to do that. But I was not going to be the person that appeared to be personally responsible for that pipe leak.”
Not long after that, Newton took his family on a vacation to Italy. While there, he called Duke to say he was retiring. It was his decision, which Duke Energy confirmed.
“Distinguished Duke Energy leader, Paul Newton, to retire in August,” read the headline atop the Duke press release.
After what Newton now calls “three glorious months of retirement,” his attention shifted to another criminal matter: the fate of longtime state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County, a Republican who was under investigation for misappropriating more than $200,000 in campaign funds. The charges later landed Hartsell in prison.
Newton had his eye on the seat. He discreetly told Duke Energy’s chief lobbyist that if Hartsell resigned and then-Gov. Pat McCrory was looking to fill the vacancy, “I would consider doing that.”
Hartsell filed to run for a 14th term but changed his mind at virtually the 11th hour, saying he needed to “refocus” his life.
That sent the GOP and the local business community into a panic. They needed a prime candidate, pronto.
That’s when Newton got the call from Berger, and one from then-Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. He also heard from then-Concord Mayor Scott Padgett, a Democrat who was calling on behalf of a small bipartisan group in Cabarrus hoping to find a candidate who would help boost job creation in their growing county near Charlotte. A former business executive would fit the bill.
Newton and his wife live on a farm in Mount Pleasant, where they started operating a wedding venue—Carolina Country Weddings—about the time he retired. But after focusing so much of his energy at Duke, he needed a core network of supporters in his home county.
“It didn’t take us long to understand that he was the right person we were hoping would run and fill the seat,” said Republican Diane Honeycutt, a former Cabarrus County commissioner. “It was divine intervention.”
Newton filed to run hours before the deadline, beat three other Republicans in the primary, and was elected from the solidly Republican county.
On the day he decided to be a candidate, Newton said he also did something else: sold his Duke Energy stock. “I didn’t have to,” he said. “But I didn’t want that hanging around as a question mark.”
Still, in Newton’s first race, Duke Energy’s political action committee gave his campaign $5,100. He got thousands of dollars more from Duke executives.
Newton received more than $10,000 in each of his three reelection campaigns from the Duke PAC. The utility also contributes to various Democratic legislators.
Doug Heyl, a former deputy secretary for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), said Newton was “bought and paid for” by Duke.
Heyl, who served in the Cooper administration, said that Newton is “anti-renewable energy” and that he pushed during negotiations for a bipartisan clean energy bill to allow for multiyear rather than annual rate-making requests for Duke. “That was Duke’s No. 1 priority,” Heyl said.
Newton pushes back on that characterization. He said the compromise clean energy bill he helped shape and pass will be less lucrative for Duke shareholders than the version that came over from the House. It sets goals of reducing carbon emissions by 70 percent in 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
On rate-making, Newton said the legislation left it up to the N.C. Utilities Commission whether to approve multiyear rates. “Duke has to ask for it,” he said, “and every rate case Duke undertakes costs at least $2 million to customers.”
On recyclables like solar and wind energy, Newton said he’s fine with North Carolina being an “all-of-the-above state,” but said solar, for example, is not as reliable in all kinds of weather as nuclear and natural gas.
A Few Bumps
Newton has his own theory about why he’s risen so fast. It’s a leadership model he said he learned during his time at Duke Energy: You help yourself when you help others on your team.
“As soon as someone realizes they’ve got a colleague that is focused on their success, an amazing leadership paradox happens: They want you to be successful, too,” said the lean, sometimes-bespectacled senator, who favors white shirts and dark business suits.
But Newton’s time at a Fortune 500 company may not have prepared him as well for partisan politics. His journey from C-suite to the halls of the legislature has hit a few bumps.
One behind-the-scenes example: Jim Blaine, Berger’s former chief of staff and now a GOP political consultant, recalled the day in 2021 when he got a visit from Newton. The senator said he had an idea.
“He basically presented me with this plan,” Blaine said, that Newton would run against Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in the 2024 Republican gubernatorial primary. Not to win but “to steel Robinson for the general election, to make sure he was battle-tested.”
And at the same time, candidate Newton would also “expose” the liberalism of Attorney General Josh Stein, who is expected to be the Democratic nominee for governor next year.
“And he wanted to know: What did I think of that?” Blaine recounted. “I said, ‘Paul, I have a fondness for martyrs in the religious sphere. I do not find that they have any utility in the political sphere. … Robinson will surely not see it as the way you described it.’”
“Even though [Newton] meant it,” Blaine added. “He’s that earnest and honest.”
Instead of short-circuiting his promising political career, Blaine advised Newton to “just stay in the Senate, and matriculate up.”
Newton confirmed Blaine’s account, though he said his main goal would have been to try to “do battle with Stein—at least indirectly—by exposing the partisan nature of his role as attorney general.”
Going after an ambitious politician from the other party simply for being partisan may seem quaint in this rough-and-tumble political era, but then Newton still recoils at the suggestion that he, too, is now a politician.
“I’m a problem solver,” he said, sounding more Wall Street than Jones Street. “I’m not a politician. Really.”
Asked how he thought Robinson might have reacted to the plan he laid out for Blaine, Newton again recalled the way he worked at Duke: “It was an idea. You never know. The important thing is to test ideas.”
Blaine, who calls himself “a Paul Newton fan,” said the senator’s “strong suit is policy and people. … He is not a political operator. Arguably, if he has a weakness, it’s his political instincts.”
Sandbars and Dragons
In Washington, D.C., and in some other states’ legislatures, Newton’s preference for policy over politics would have tanked his chances of getting elected Senate majority leader.
In those bodies, the job goes to the politically savvy senator who leads his or her party’s caucus and decides what legislation makes it to the floor for a vote.
Not so in North Carolina, where Berger is the unquestioned political powerhouse in the Senate.
Berger is officially president pro tem. Under the state Constitution, that means he presides over the Senate when the lieutenant governor is absent and can sign legislation and issue the oath of office for new members. But in Raleigh, it also effectively means that he’s the boss.
Berger leads Senate Republicans and decides who will chair committees. He plays a key role in crafting legislation and deciding its fate. And he runs the Republican Caucus meetings, where strategy is discussed, consensus is reached, and votes are counted.
Only when Berger is away does Newton chair caucus gatherings, which are closed to the press and public.
This setup means Newton, like his predecessors in the job, has been able to work with Berger and others to carve out his role.
A few givens: As Senate majority leader, Newton is expected to raise campaign cash and stump for his fellow Republican senators. Newton has also spent a good bit of his time schooling freshman GOP senators.
“He has a great mind and he’s been a good sounding board,” said Sen. Brad Overcash of Gaston County.
Senior senators, too, often find their way to Newton’s third-floor suite in the Legislative Office Building whenever they want to think through bills. “I’m always bouncing things off of him,” said Sen. Norman Sanderson of Minnesott Beach.
But Newton’s most important relationship is with Berger.
“Phil’s the captain of the ship,” said Sen. Jim Burgin of Harnett County. “Paul is that guy standing beside him, giving him wise counsel and warning about which sail might be swinging around and being on the lookout … for rocks and sandbars and dragons.”
Berger, often busy with strategy sessions and talking with reporters, looks to second mate Newton to not only “take the temperature” of the caucus, as Krawiec put it, but to help shape and shepherd the kind of legislation that makes news.
Some past Senate majority leaders have led the Appropriations Committee, which decides how and where to spend state money. Berger named Newton co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which takes the lead on taxes—including cutting them, one of Berger’s top priorities.
Even before Newton’s promotion, the pro-business Berger also traded on Newton’s experience in the private sector and his background on energy matters.
“I rely on [Newton] to help me to understand certain areas and to do some of the heavy lifting in those areas,” Berger said. “We talk on a fairly regular basis. … It’s a very cordial professional relationship. I mean, we don’t go out to dinner or anything like that.”
He credits Newton with helping all the parties involved—including Berger and Democratic Gov. Cooper—hammer together that bipartisan clean energy bill.
The bill was “a mess when it came over” from the House, Berger said. He asked himself who should work on it. “Of course, Paul’s was the first name that I felt needed to be there.”
Even the Senate’s top Democrat, Dan Blue of Wake County, has been impressed by Newton’s willingness to burrow into the intricacies of policy.
“He digs pretty deeply into issues and understands them,” said Blue. “I feel comfortable sitting down with him, trading ideas … on friendly terms.”
Sinking a Cooper Nominee
Still, Newton has infuriated other Senate Democrats and the Cooper administration on those occasions when it fell to the normally even-tempered legislator to stretch his political muscles and go “fiercely partisan,” in the words of a Senate Democrat.
The one that grabbed the most headlines: In 2021, Newton led the GOP charge to reject, on a party-line vote, Cooper’s nomination of Dionne Delli-Gatti to head the Department of Environmental Quality.
“It was all about sticking it to Cooper,” said Heyl, the former deputy secretary with DEQ.
Delli-Gatti, who had worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, was the department’s acting secretary when her fate came before the Senate.
Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat who has collaborated with Newton on several bills and calls him “whip-smart and a hard worker,” said it was unsettling to watch him torpedo the nomination. “I felt very blindsided,” Woodard said.
Newton explained that the Senate Republican Caucus had decided an environmental activist leading the DEQ would not be good for the state’s prosperity and its future energy needs.
“I didn’t enjoy that one bit,” Newton said about his aggressive interrogation of Delli-Gatti during her confirmation hearing, which focused on natural gas strategy and pipeline permits. “We gave the governor warning that we were not going to [confirm] her. And he was given the opportunity to withdraw her name—gracefully.”
Instead, within minutes after the Senate vote, Cooper appointed Delli-Gatti his clean energy director, which made her the administration’s point person in negotiations over that subsequent clean energy bill.
Newton also chairs the Senate’s Redistricting and Elections Committee, putting him in the thick of the partisan fight over mail-in ballots, voter ID, and gerrymandering.
Last week, Republicans introduced a broad package of changes to state election laws, including discarding mail-in ballots not received by the end of Election Day, instead of after the current three-day grace period.
Newton, one of the bill’s three main sponsors, told The Assembly that the mail-in ballot change and the other provisions were “designed to strengthen election integrity without constraining the freedom to vote. … With all that’s happened affecting perceptions, we need to give the voting public confidence.”
But Cooper tweeted: “Don’t be fooled. This isn’t about protecting elections. It’s about rigging them to help Republicans.”
Days after the 2020 election, which then-President Trump lost even as he carried North Carolina, Newton and the committee’s other two co-chairs wrote a provocative op-ed in which they suggested voters were justified in questioning the integrity of the election.
Among other things, they accused the Democratic-controlled N.C. Board of Elections of conspiring with a “super-lawyer” from the Democratic Party to change election rules after the voting had begun.
Two Democratic senators, including Woodard, hit back, saying Newton and the others were “exploiting unfounded paranoia.”
Now that the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court has given the legislature carte blanche on many issues related to elections, look for yet another partisan brawl later this year.
That’s when the GOP-controlled Senate and House are expected to draw new legislative and congressional maps for 2024 that could consolidate their party’s political dominance in North Carolina for years to come.
Newton will again play a role. And he’s ready with his answer to the Democrats’ complaints: a framed map hanging on the wall of his office. Squiggly lines form the boundaries of then-N.C. Sen. Roy Cooper’s district in 1992.
“That’s as gerrymandered as any district you will ever find,” said Newton.
The Prayer Caucus
As usual, coffee was brewing and there was a stack of McDonald’s breakfast biscuits, and eight state senators, all Republicans, sat around the long table in Newton’s conference room.
During this April 27 meeting of the Prayer Caucus, the legislators wanted to share not only meditations and Scripture readings but also feelings about how bruised and misunderstood they felt as they went about doing what they consider God’s will on the floor of the General Assembly.
Take their bills that would restrict transgender health care for minors, prohibit transgender girls from playing girls’ sports in middle and high school, and require public school teachers to alert parents if a child requests a change in their name or pronoun.
Critics of this legislation, including many doctors and Democrats, have charged that such laws could push some vulnerable young people into depression or even suicide.
Among those sitting at the conference table that morning in Newton’s office suite were the three primary sponsors of the bill restricting medical or surgical services for transgender youth: Sens. Burgin, Krawiec, and Kevin Corbin.
But it was Newton, the host of these weekly prayer breakfasts, who took the lead in airing their angst and promoting the Republican measures, which he claimed could rescue confused children from grave irreversible mistakes.
“We want [young people] to have the best that God has for them, and that’s the peace that passes understanding,” he told the group. “We’re portrayed as hating people. We don’t hate anybody.”
Newton’s career as a top executive at Duke Energy has branded him as the Senate Republicans’ point man on pro-business legislation focused on energy and taxes. But in the culture wars being fought in legislatures across the country, Newton is usually arm in arm with the Christian conservatives who now dominate the GOP. His biggest boosters may be members of the prayer breakfast group.
He calls himself an “absolutist” on the Second Amendment and said it’s past time for corporations to push back against what he considers bullying from LGBTQ groups and others seeking more inclusion. (Newton noted that same-sex couples get married at some of the 60-plus ceremonies a year held on his farm.)
Newton is a member of the nondenominational, evangelical Refuge Church in Kannapolis. He said he and his wife homeschooled their four now-grown children partly because it enabled them to “tailor to” the needs and interests of each child, but their motive was also religious.
Now that he’s a leader in the political world, Newton has begun to show a willingness to compromise a bit on issues that divide even members of his party. The most notable example: the recent decision by Republicans in the state Senate and House to pass legislation banning most abortions after 12 weeks. Newton voted for the legislation.
“I may believe that life begins at conception. And I do,” he said. “But I don’t represent me. I represent my constituents. I represent North Carolinians on the decision of where the law ought to land on the life of children and the right to an abortion.”
And polls, he said, indicate the majority of North Carolinians do not want a total ban on the procedure.
With another election year on the horizon, a more politically seasoned Newton finds himself in tune with his fellow GOP senators, with time to ponder his future.
Some of his longtime friends look at him and see a future governor.
A few Democrats in the legislature privately suggest Newton is pining to be the next Senate president pro tem. And though Berger has given no hint that he’s looking to retire anytime soon, he will turn 71 in August.
Newton’s Republican colleagues are skittish about speculating on the next president pro tem when the one they have is still popular with them. But they haven’t forgotten Newton’s mastery of the issues and how he’s helping them do their jobs in Raleigh.
Berger said that Newton would be a good candidate to succeed him as Senate leader when the time comes—as would several others. He said Newton carries a heavy workload, an indication he has the drive to succeed.
And the ambition to zoom even higher.
Ask Newton about his next move, and he insists he would be content if his political career ended tomorrow, that he just wants to help North Carolina. If another candidate could better represent his district, he said he’d even step aside.
But you could see ambition peeking out when he told The Assembly: “I think of life as filled with windows of opportunity that open and close very quickly.”
Tim Funk covered religion, politics, and other beats for The Charlotte Observer for 35 years.