RALEIGH — Politics can be a brutal, bruising enterprise.
If you said that you found the current political climate in Raleigh and Washington to be frustrating, dispiriting, and often juvenile, I’d second that emotion. But if you said it was unprecedented, I’d have to disagree – politely, of course!
Political history is replete with examples of rigid partisanship, dirty tricks, wild accusations, and personal grudges. You’ll find such examples in ancient Greece and Rome. You’ll find them in the early days of representative government in Britain and America. And you’ll certainly find them with even a cursory reading of North Carolina history.
For example, if not for two stubborn political grudges by two stubborn politicians, Republican Jim Martin might never have won the 1984 governor’s race.
The first grudge belonged to Democrat Jimmy Green. He spent 16 years in the N.C. House, including a term as speaker, before being elected lieutenant governor in 1976. After a primary scare in 1980, he was reelected in the fall and then began planning a gubernatorial campaign for the 1984 cycle.
But in 1981, a bid-rigging scandal in the Department of Transportation netted a Fayetteville contractor close to Green. The lieutenant governor admitted that the contractor had given Green early $5,000 in cash and $10,000 worth of free paving for one of Green’s tobacco warehouses. Prosecutors in then-Attorney General Rufus Edmisten’s office found no evidence of a quid pro quo and declined to press any charges.
But the following year, one of Green’s employees was arrested as part of an undercover FBI investigation known as ColCor (for Columbus corruption). Although he made a number of allegations about Green, such as burning down warehouses for insurance money, the state actually tried Green in 1983 on charges that he accepted a bribe. The jury saw insufficient evidence for the charges and acquitted Green. Still, the political damage was done. During the 1984 primary for governor, Green repeatedly referred to the state’s prosecution as the turning point in the race. “It has been said to me every day of the campaign that ‘Jimmy, had you not experienced that ordeal, there’s would have been half of the people in the race,’” he told one reporter. “‘You’d have had it in the bag months ago and there would’ve been no contest.’” True or not, Green believed it — and blamed, among others, Attorney General Rufus Edmisten.
Both men filed for governor in 1984. So did Eddie Knox, a former state senator and Charlotte mayor who had chaired Gov. Jim Hunt’s Advisory Budget Commission. Knox and Hunt had been friends such their college days together at N.C. State, while Hunt wasn’t close to either Green or Edmisten. Knox expected Hunt, or at least elements of the Hunt organization, to support him in the Democratic primary for governor. Hunt had other ideas. Preoccupied with his upcoming Senate race against Jesse Helms, Hunt declared his neutrality and ordered his Cabinet secretaries and top aides not to campaign for any of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
Hunt never attempted to impose his neutrality policy on all his appointees, however. One of them, ABC board chairman Marvin Speight, was a prominent fundraiser for Edmisten. Knox saw a double-standard. During most of the primary campaign, the polls had him leading the field, so he kept his grievance to himself. When Democratic votes went to the polls on May 8, however, it was Edmisten who topped the list at 31 percent with Knox at 26 percent.
At least two Hunt Cabinet secretaries who had privately favored other candidates in the first primary now told Knox they favored him. But because of Hunt’s neutrality pledge, they couldn’t assist his campaign. Knox’s frustration turned into anger. After Edmisten bested Knox in the June 5 runoff, his anger turned into rage. While Knox never formally endorsed Jesse Helms over Jim Hunt or Jim Martin over Rufus Edmisten in 1984, he might as well have. His wife and brothers endorsed Helms and Martin, while Eddie Knox himself became national co-chairman of the Democrats for Ronald Reagan organization.
Jim Martin and his political team moved deftly to capitalize on the rifts within the state Democratic Party. Both sides understood the stakes. “My trouble up to the last day of my campaign for governor,” Edmisten later admitted, “was that I was still trying to woo over Eddie Knox supporters and Jimmy Green supporters.”
He didn’t woo enough of them.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.