Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford's footnotes in N.C. political history

The late President Gerald Ford, who died at age 93 Tuesday, has several footnotes in North Carolina political history. His 1976 campaign for the presidency reflected the sharp divisions that had emerged in the state Republican Party. N.C. Gov. Jim Holshouser, a Republican moderate, backed Ford’s re-election and chaired his Southern states campaign. U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, then still in his first term as a staunchly conservative Republican, liked Ford personally but was backing former California Gov. Ronald Reagan for the White House.
In time, the Helms faction won, but not right away. Going into the N.C. Republican primary in the late winter of 1976, Reagan had fared poorly in other state primaries and a number of influential Republicans were urging him to quit the race. Ford invited 39 North Carolina reporters and editors to the White House in late March to talk about his campaign, and Ford insisted no one in his campaign had been authorized to urge Reagan to quit.
Ford met with the N.C. reporters and editors in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on March 18, 1976. Just before his arrival, his daughter Susan was walking the Fords’ two dogs though the White House hall and one of them – Liberty, I think – spotted Fayetteville Times editor Roy Parker and bounded into his lap.
In the interview, Ford said he believed Democrats would nominate another Midwesterner for president – Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. But he was wrong about that: Democrats nominated Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia, who would defeat Ford that fall for the presidency.
A few weeks after that interview, Ford lost the N.C. primary to Ronald Reagan in a stunning defeat. Reagan won in large measure because Helms’ key aides at the Congressional Club put together a persuasive television piece featuring Reagan and ran it extensively throughout the state before the primary. It showed the power of well-done television ads, anointed Helms and his political advisers as media-savvy, influential forces in American politics and polished Reagan’s reputation for a successful run for the presidency in 1980 and the defeat of President Carter after one term.
A footnote: Two days after that White House interview, Ford earned another, though minor, footnote in N.C. political history. He made a speech to the Future Homemakers of America in the Charlotte Civic Center that, I do believe, may have been one of the most unremarkable presidential utterances ever delivered. Among his observations: “I say – and say it with emphasis and conviction – that homemaking is good for America.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Orr for governor in '08?

Most of the speculation about Republican and Democratic candidates for governor in 2008 for most of this year focused on Sen. Fred Smith of Johnston County and lawyer Bill Graham of Salisbury for the GOP and Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and Treasurer Richard Moore for the Democrats.
But one candidate whose name keeps popping up lately is former Supreme Court Associate Justice Bob Orr, a Republican who won four out of five statewide races when he served on the N.C. Court of Appeals and then moved to the Supreme Court.
Orr toyed briefly with running as an independent or third-party candidate after last fall’s elections, when folks were looking for an alternative to the candidates the two largest parties would put up. But Orr said he realized the best way for him to run, if he chooses to do so, would be in the 2008 Republican primary for governor.
Orr retired from the N.C. Supreme Court in 2004 after gaining a reputation there as one of its brightest lights. He wrote the court’s landmark decision in the long-running Leandro schools case, outlining the state’s failure to provide a sound basic education to too many of its school students and questioning how many more classes would pass through the state’s schools without learning what they need to know. If you want to know his thinking on education and the state’s responsibility, that decision will tell you a lot.
For the past couple of years, Orr has been executive director and senior counsel for the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, set up in large measure by businessman Art Pope “to conduct research, educate and advise the general public, policy makers, and the Bar on the rights of citizens under the constitutions” of the United States and North Carolina. They’re the folks who challenged the constitutionality of tax incentives to recruit industry.
Orr says he’s “extremely encouraged” by the response to his potential candidacy and believes the race is still wide open at this point. It is – but money favors candidates who have it, and Orr isn’t personally wealthy and will need to raise a bundle to be competitive.
He would run, he says, with an emphasis on his ties to Western North Carolina. Folks in the Western counties believe political power has “shifted dramatically to the East, at the expense of the Western part of the state.” He grew up in Hendersonville, practiced law in Asheville and owns property and votes in Yancey County, though he has lived in Raleigh for years while serving on the courts and has stayed there since. He would be the first Western governor since Jim Holshouser, a Watauga County Republican who served from 1973-77, and before that Dan Moore, a Haywood County Democrat who served 1965-69.
Orr was appointed to the Court of Appeals the first time by Gov. Jim Martin in September 1986. Orr says Martin told him, “No Republican has won a statewide judicial race since 1896 so don’t sell your house yet.” It was good advice. Orr lost that first appellate court election to Judge Eddie Greene, with whom he remains good friends. Orr was reappointed to the bench and beat John Friday, brother of former UNC President Bill Friday,in the first of his four straight statewide election victories in the judicial branch.
Orr said he hadn’t asked Gov. Martin for the court appointment or any other job. “The only thing I ever asked him for was two tickets on opening night of the Smith Center (at his alma mater UNC Chapel Hill), and the governor delivered,” laughs Orr.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Term limits for legislative leaders?

In Raleigh, House members are preparing to elect their first new leader since 1999, when Speaker Jim Black won the first of his four terms in the speaker’s chair. (Of course, Republican Richard Morgan shared the speakership with Black in the 2003 session, but Black clearly was first among equals.)
House Democrats will have 68 seats in 2007 to the Reublicans’ 52 and, presumably, will put together a majority of votes to elect a new speaker. Already there’s talk that the speakership should be limited to two terms before making way for a new leader.
But the Senate, with 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans, is on its way to electing Democrat Marc Basnight of Dare County to a record eighth term as Senate president pro tempore. That would give him an unbroken stream of 16 years as the top dog in the Senate.
Is there any chance the House would voluntarily limit itself to two terms for the speaker while the Senate sees no benefit in limiting its leadership? Well, sure – about the same chance that UNC Asheville had against UNC Chapel Hill in men’s basketball the other day. They still had to play it out to see if Carolina really would win by 30 or so.
It’s worth remembering that for most of the General Assembly’s history, it changed leaders fairly regularly. The House picked a new speaker every two years until Gov. Jim Hunt persuaded the legislature, and voters, to approve a constitutional amendment in 1977 allowing governors and lieutenant governors to run for and serve a second, successive term in office. Lawmakers feared the concentration of power – and then decided to join in the fun.
The House immediately responded by giving Speaker Carl Stewart a second term in 1979 and Rep. Liston Ramsey for successive terms as speaker from 1981-89. Rep. Joe Mavretic, D-Edgecombe, had it one session, then Dan Blue, D-Wake, had it two terms. Republican Harold Brubaker held the speakership two terms, 1995-1999, when Black took the post.
The Senate made Sen. Craig Lawing, a Mecklenburg Democrat, its president pro tem in 1979 and kept him for three terms. He was followed by Sen. Monk Harrington, D-Bertie, for two terms and Sen. Henson Barnes, D-Wayne, for another two before Basnight got the job in 1993 and kept it ever since.
Should the House adopt term limits on how long a speaker can serve?
Should the Senate adopt limits on how long a president pro tem can hold the job?
Let me know what you think.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Gov. Easley's hot old time in Asheville

Gov. Mike Easley held a group interview with print reporters the other day in the Executive Mansion, followed by a separate group interview with broadcast reporters. It’s a way for the governor to save time because he doesn’t have to meet separately with every newspaper, radio station and TV station – and as he freely admits, “I don’t like meetings.”
Most of the talk was about state policy – taxes, the legislature, schools and the like. But one reporter got the governor telling stories, and it turns out he’s not only a bad race car driver – having wrecked one at the speedway and endured an excessive burnout in another in front of the mansion. He’s also dangerous around fire.
Reporter Kerra Bolton of the Asheville Citizen had asked him how often he used the Western Governor’s Residence in Asheville and tried to get him to tell some funny stories about the place. Easley wouldn’t tell a story about an old patrol car the staff keeps nearby to discourage mischief, but "It does run, I'll tell you that." Or at least did. There must be more to this story.
But Easley told one story about the time he lit an old gas grill that was just under the residence's garage roof. This may be an exaggeration, but it sounds as though he nearly set the place afire when the flames came rushing out of the top of the tank. He managed to finally turn it off after getting a wet towel to smother the flames, which must have been impressive.
“I had flames coming sky high,” the governor said to the enjoyment of the assembled scribes. “Singed all the hair off my right arm.”
Someone asked what were his security guards doing.
“My security people ran, I’ll admit that....They were ready to push the thing off the side of the mountain.” And they shouted some good advice as they ran, Easley said: “Be careful governor.... Get away from there.”
Perhaps they had seen him drive before.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Easley stays out of speaker's race

Gov. Mike Easley said Tuesday morning he’s staying out of the House speaker’s race in 2007 and wouldn’t say whether he believed Jim Black should be selected for a fifth term as speaker or replaced by another candidate. (Black resolved that issue Tuesday night when he announced he would not run for another term.)
Easley said, “I think it’s important for me to stay out of the speaker’s race and let them come to their own choice and their own conclusions as it relates to the current speaker.” His remarks came in a group interview with a dozen reporters Tuesday morning at the governor’s mansion.
This wasn't surprising. Easley has very little to gain from butting into the House’s choice of a speaker and potentially a lot to lose if he intervened and annoyed members of either party as the last biennial legislature of his two terms in office approaches.
Easley evidently is not about to do what one of his predecessors did in 1989. Then-Gov. Jim Martin helped bring about a Democrat-Republican coalition that toppled four-term Speaker Liston Ramsey – a mentor to Jim Black – and replace him with Rep. Joe Mavretic, a Democrat who included Republicans in House leadership posts for one term. Democrats took control back in 1991 for two terms with Dan Blue as speaker, then Republicans got the job in the 1995-97 sessions with Harold Brubaker. Black has held the post since 1999, but his assorted troubles over campaign contributions, his appointment of a lottery commissioner tied to a lottery vendor and various state and federal investigations likely mean he can’t be re-elected speaker again.
When former N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps was in trouble over a campaign contributions scandal, Easley called on her to resign. But Phipps was in the executive branch, and Easley evidently believes it’s not his call to say the same about a member of the legislative branch of government. He has refrained from criticizing Black so far and doesn’t seem likely to change that, or to comment on the investigations.
Black has been Easley’s most reliable ally in the House, helping him win passage of the governor’s proposals on education, economic development and particularly squeezing the state lottery through the House on a close vote in 2005. Easley certainly owes Black for getting the lottery through the legislature. It is, after all, the bill for which Easley will be most remembered, and perhaps Black, too.
While Easley was not interested in saying what he thinks the House should do, he did have one observation. "There’s an awful lot of talent" in the House, he said. He added, “I think I can work with all of them.”
Perhaps that’s the message he meant to send all along.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What if Kissell had gotten adult money?

National Democrats have probably been kicking themselves mentally ever since the Nov. 7 election, when Larry Kissell came within a few hundred votes of unseating Republican Robin Hayes in the 8th Congressional District race. Kissell, a former textile worker and teacher, lost by 327 votes, and a lot of Democrats think he might have unseated the four-term congressman if the national Democratic Party had given Kissell some adult money to run.
The state Democratic Party put out a news release the other day pointing out that Hayes spent about $2 million in the 2006 campaign and Kissell about $450,000. That works out to about $32.83 per vote for Hayes, compared to $7.43 for Kissell. The implication is that if Kissell had more serious money, he’d have overtaken Hayes. It was that close.
Well, maybe. After all, Democrat Mike Taylor ran well against Hayes in 1998 in a campaign that should have alerted Democrats to possibilities. These kinds of comparisons are always interesting “what-if” exercises, but two elections are rarely alike. Democrats also once pondered the “what-if” after the 1978 race for U.S. Senate.
That was the first re-election campaign for Sen. Jesse Helms, and probably was the best opportunity for Democrats to unseat him. Helms raised and spent about $8 million that year while the eventual Democratic nominee – then-Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, chosen after a tough primary runoff against banker Luther Hodges Jr. – spent about $264,000, according to one newspaper story. Helms got 619,151 votes and Ingram got 516,663. That worked out to about $12.92 per vote for Helms and about $1.96 per vote for Ingram – though Ingram got no closer than 45 percent of the vote. Still, because Ingram got so many votes with so little money, it set many to thinking that a well-financed candidate might be able to unseat Helms in 1984. Democrat Jim Hunt tried but didn’t.
No doubt Kissell, who has already announced he’ll run again in the 8th District, will draw a lot more campaign contributions in 2009. But he’ll have a hard time sneaking up on Hayes. And with Democrats in power in the House and Senate for two years at that point, he may not have the same voter unrest boosting his campaign.
In politics, money counts for a lot. The winner usually is the candidate who spends the most. But timing also counts. Ask John Ingram.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

George Tindall, Southern historian

North Carolina has been blessed by fine historians, particularly in the 20th century: John Hope Franklin of Duke, my old friend Harry Watson at UNC-CH, David Goldfield at UNC Charlotte and the incomparable William Powell, also of Chapel Hill. And there was the unforgettable Hugh T. Lefler, in whose N.C. History 101 I sat so long ago.
One of the state’s finest historians and most extraordinary persons was George Tindall, a bow-tied South Carolina native who came to Chapel Hill in 1958 and taught there until his retirement in 1990. He died at age 85 Saturday in Chapel Hill. His colleagues remember him as a great teacher, scholar and human being, a man who punctured revered myths about the Old South and wrote engagingly about the disfranchisement of black citizens after Reconstruction. UNC’s News services quoted Bill Ferris, with whom Tindall collaborated on the hefty Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, as saying, “His scholarship was extraordinary, but his personal warmth and generosity also were beyond measure.”
Here’s a link to the obituary UNC Chapel Hill put on its website.