RALEIGH — The election night tally back in 1988 showed that Jim Martin was the first Republican to win re-election as governor of North Carolina in the 20th century. That fact alone merits a closer look at Martin’s record, but it’s far from the only reason that John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood has written the new political biography titled Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans. Hood discussed the book with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: Catalyst: the story of Jim Martin and his political rise. Why tell this in a new book?
Hood: Well, no one has told Jim Martin’s story in the context of North Carolina politics. If you think about the last three decades of the 20th century, which was the time that North Carolina became no longer a Democratic state — with a big D — but instead, a competitive two-party state in politics, that really happened in the last three decades of the 20th century. And there were three individuals that were the sort of political titans of the day. Two of them, Jesse Helms, the longtime U.S. senator, and Jim Hunt, who was a four-term governor of North Carolina, a Democrat — those two have had their stories told — in some cases, multiple times.
But the third of those political titans is Jim Martin. He actually served in office longer than either Jim Hunt or Jesse Helms. And certainly when it comes to building the Republican Party in North Carolina into a competitive force at the state and local levels, Jim Martin’s role was primary.
So I told his story because of that reason, primarily, but also because it’s just a fascinating, almost Zelig-like way to look at the changes in North Carolina over time. Developments in local government when Martin was in local office in Charlotte-Mecklenburg in the late ’60s and early ’70s — that was a very interesting and tumultuous time. Remember that you had the Swann decision: the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ordered busing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools to address long-time racial segregation. Jim Martin was chairman of the Mecklenburg County Commission at that time and was very much involved in the debates about school desegregation and about a variety of other issues in the local area.
He was elected to Congress in 1972 after serving six years on the county commission. He went on to serve 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. This was during the ’70s and early ’80s — a very interesting time on Capitol Hill. You had the Watergate scandal, which happened shortly after Martin arrived in Washington. He had been closely linked to Richard Nixon. He had run as a ticket basically with Nixon in ’72.
He even went as far as to hold up two fingers and say a vote for Jim Martin is like two votes for Richard Nixon, because he was pledging to do lots of the things that Nixon wanted to do. Well, if you tie yourself closely to a politician who then goes down in flames, what happens?
Well, Martin struggled with that, but he ultimately came out in favor of insisting that Richard Nixon resign the presidency or impeaching him for various offenses. He got some criticism at the time: “Why didn’t you come out sooner?” And Jim Martin’s answer as a young member of Congress was, as a member of the House that’s essentially like the grand jury of an impeachment process, he wanted to read all the evidence.
And so once all the evidence came in in the summer of ’74, he actually took the evidence out on his boat at the Potomac River, sat and read it, said, “I finally have read all the evidence. I’m not sure I can digest it.” And he came out against Richard Nixon.
Similarly, the Reagan tax cuts, which were enacted in 1981, Jim Martin was on the House Ways and Means Committee. He was involved in drafting the early versions of what became the Kemp-Roth tax cut proposal, which then became the centerpiece of the Reagan tax proposal. So his career in Congress is also interesting and coincided with some major events in Washington. And then he became governor.
Kokai: As you talk about his accomplishments as governor, one of the things you said earlier was that he was one of the titans of late 20th-century North Carolina politics. And I think some listeners will hear that, and even hear what you just said about him and say, “You know, I didn’t really think about him as a titan alongside of Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt.” But based on what you’ve just said about his previous service and what he did as governor, he really does come across as one of the titans, doesn’t he?
Hood: He does. People may wonder why I use the term “catalyst” to name the book. Well, for one thing, Jim Martin is a Ph.D. chemist from Princeton University, and his early career was spent as a chemistry professor at Davidson. So there’s a chemistry angle.
But he was also a catalyst in changing policy and politics in North Carolina, and those two things — his chemistry background, his scientific background, and his political career — are linked in some interesting ways.
And I conclude the book by arguing that if you look at Jesse Helms, Jim Hunt, and Jim Martin, Jesse Helms was originally a TV personality, an entertainer. He was a TV personality as a senator, if you think about it. That’s the way he did his job.
Jim Hunt started out as a lawyer and eventually became a lobbyist. That’s what he did as governor. He was constantly twisting arms to get things, get packages put together and pass bills. That was not Jesse Helms; he was trying to define issues for the public. Sort of like if you were a TV commentator.
Well, what was Jim Martin? He was fundamentally a teacher. He spent a lot of time convincing people of the merits of his positions as if he was teaching them a class on economics. Now sometimes that didn’t go well. People didn’t always cotton to the idea of being a student in Professor Martin’s class. But when it worked, it worked very well.
And many of the issues that were contentious during his time — eight years as governor of North Carolina, which was spent with a Democratic legislature — many of the issues where he championed it, either during his eight years or afterward, his view prevailed. That’s because he was, ultimately, a good teacher.
Kokai: People will have to read the book to get the details of all of this, but in the time we have remaining, what is the major accomplishment or style or trend of Jim Martin that people should know?
Hood: He was very competitive, but he rarely made politics personal. He could be prickly when his personal ethics were challenged, but, in general, he did try to persuade, not just overwhelm or attack.
The other thing that Jim Martin did is he changed the paradigm in many ways on education reform in North Carolina and on transportation, where he pushed through a large tax increase that funded a large road-building program. He had to get bipartisan support for what was a difficult lift. Whatever you think of that proposal, it was quite amazing that it got done in 1989 and became the centerpiece of transportation policy in North Carolina.
Kokai: And one of the things that he described as his single biggest achievement was getting this Highway Trust Fund. That still lives on, doesn’t it?
Hood: It does, indeed. And even today, we’re basically doing iterations off of that original 1989 Highway Trust Fund bill.
Kokai: Well, it’s a very interesting story. To learn much more about Jim Martin and his role in the rise of North Carolina Republicans, you’ll have to buy and read a copy of the book, Catalyst.