Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The unsinkable Floyd Lupton

Who was Floyd Lupton and why is a ferry named for him?
The news media have had a field day with the recent reports how the State Ports Authority and the Department of Transportation ran up bills exceeding $30,000 while giving a special July 4 weekend cruise to the tall ships festival to government bigwigs, muckety-mucks and honchos aboard the state ferry Floyd Lupton.
Gov. Mike Easley was especially steamed about misuse of the ferry. The Floyd Lupton is a river-class ferry that runs across the lower Neuse River from Minnesott Beach to Cherry Branch. It’s a free ferry and makes the run over and back all day long. When the ports authority and transportation department took the ferry out of its regular run for several days to paint up, fix up and drive the anointed around Beaufort and Morehead City July 1, they also took one of the bigger ferries out of service. The Floyd Lupton was replaced with a smaller ferry for a few days that could handle fewer cars on a busy holiday weekend. Reports say that dozens or cars had to wait because of delays due to the smaller vessel’s substitution.
It was a big mess, not the least because the honored guests got to sip wine and beer and eat scallops and shrimp, to the tune of a steel band, while a lot of ordinary folks had to stand in the heat and wait – some of them futilely – for an up-close inspection of the tall ships. As fiascoes go, the state may have wasted more money and caused bigger problems with other public relations disasters, but this one was a doozie.
If the state had handled this in a different way, it might have come up with a perfectly defensible cruise at little or no cost to taxpayers. But itwould have required the considerable talents of the man for whom the ferry was named – the late Floyd Lupton of Belhaven.
Lupton, who died a year ago, was one of the most effective politicians I’ve ever known. He was administrative assistant to the late U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Sr. for more than a quarter of a century. And as my colleague at the Observer, Associate Editor Mary Schulken, will tell you, Lupton pretty much ran the First Congressional District for more than two decades. Many folks thought Lupton was the congressman, she says; it was Lupton who always showed up at community meetings or church in that part of the state, where she worked for years for the Daily Reflector in Greenville.
I met Lupton in the early 1970s when I was a green-as-grass Washington correspondent for the Greensboro Daily News. Lupton had already been in Washington for years and knew where the levers of power were and which ones to pull. Some of my stories appeared in the Norfolk Virginian Pilot, which covered northeastern North Carolina and was owned by the same small group that owned the Daily News. And Lupton went out of his way to make sure the Pilot knew what Jones was doing.
Usually it was getting something done. Jones was chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and wielded some power. Behind the scenes, though, Lupton ran things.
Here’s what Lupton might have done if he’d been asked how to provide a free cruise: In an earlier day, he might have arranged for a Coast Guard cutter for the cruise, but by the late 1990s he would have spotted the public relations nightmare in using a government vessel at such a public event.
He’d have said a plain old steel ferry wasn’t right. He’d have picked up the phone and gotten the folks at Hatteras Yachts in New Bern to loan one of their biggest, gold-plated motor yachts and provide captain, crew and fuel. He’d have called his contacts in the hospitality industry to provide free catering and waiters and supply live entertainment. Shoot, he’d probably have called newspaper publishers and TV anchors to come along so they’d get a good view.
And dared them to complain about it.
When Jones died in 1992, Lupton toyed with running for the seat. So did Jones’ son, Walter Jr., who by then had switched parties and become a Republican. But Lupton was a lifelong Democrat and he told Jones Jr. he couldn’t support a Republican.
Jones Jr. later had the last laugh, winning the First District seat and holding it still. He and Lupton remained good friends, and Jones sponsored a bill signed by President Bush renaming the post office in Belhaven for Floyd Lupton. As someone from one of the Down East newspapers has written, not many folks get a post office and a ferry named for them.

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