The speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives is set to make history next year. As he marks an impressive milestone, he would be wise to learn some valuable lessons from those who preceded him.
If all goes as expected, Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, will bang his gavel on opening day of the 2021 legislative session. It will mark his seventh year in that position. He will start his fourth consecutive term as the state House’s top officer.
That achievement will extend Moore’s record among Republican speakers. Predecessors Harold Brubaker (1995-1998) and Thom Tillis (2011-2014) served two terms apiece in the House’s top job. Moore moved into uncharted territory for Republican N.C. speakers when he started his third term in 2019.
Now Moore is on track to match the overall record for House leadership. “Only two previous Speakers of the House in North Carolina were elected to four terms — Speaker Liston Ramsey in the 1980s and Speaker Jim Black in the late 1990s and 2000s,” Moore reminded readers in a Nov. 16 news release.
Moore’s decision to highlight both Ramsey and Black, both Democrats, struck this observer as noteworthy. Both men left the state House’s top job with some degree of controversy after serving a fourth term.
Multiterm speakerships mark a relatively new phenomenon in state House history. During decades of Democratic dominance in the 20th century, the speaker’s job rotated from one man to another from term to term.
The tradition ended with the first modern-day two-term speaker in the 1970s. Then came Ramsey, the Madison County Democrat who ran the House from 1981 to 1988. A fierce advocate of western mountain counties, Ramsey helped transform the speaker’s job into a larger base of political power.
Too much power, in the view of some colleagues.
Ramsey started 1989 with a significant Democratic majority over Republicans, 74-46, and the expectation that he could win a fifth consecutive speaker’s term. Instead he faced a revolt.
Convinced that the speaker had concentrated too much power into too few hands, 20 Democrats broke from Ramsey and joined Republicans to elect a new speaker.
Thus ended the leadership of a man who had earned the nickname “Boss Hogg” from one high-profile critic. Ramsey served another 10 years in the House but never again touched the speaker’s gavel.
As a student of state political history, Moore is likely to realize that a top-down, autocratic approach is unlikely to work for him in the long term. His allies could turn on him if they see him downplaying or ignoring their top issues year after year.
While Moore takes steps to avoid a potential palace coup, he also should remember the fate of North Carolina’s other four-term speaker.
Jim Black of Mecklenburg County first won the speaker’s gavel in 1999, when Democrats took back control of the House after four years in the minority. Enjoying much smaller working majorities than Ramsey, Black’s four terms as House leader featured more heated partisan battles. He also faced two years of co-speakership with a Republican. That unique arrangement in 2003-04 resulted when Democrats and Republicans both held 60 House seats.
Black won re-election to the House in 2006, but ongoing scandals blocked his attempt to seek a record-breaking fifth term in the speaker’s chair. His final years in office featured multiple ethical charges, including accusations that he paid off a Republican to switch parties before the 2003 legislative session. That party switch had guaranteed the 60-60 House split that gave Black a chance to maintain power.
The embattled speaker also played a leading role in scandals involving campaign finance and the dubious process that enacted a state lottery. In February 2007, he pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge. He was sentenced to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine. A state judge later added another $1 million fine.
Black’s advocates argued that his misdeeds did not enrich him personally. But no one could dispute that his illegal actions bolstered his pursuit of continued power for himself and his political party.
Moore had a front-row seat for Black’s third and fourth terms as speaker. As a 30-something newcomer to the General Assembly, Moore witnessed the shocking fall of one of the state’s most powerful political figures. Moore watched as Black traded his speaker’s gavel for handcuffs.
One suspects that the current speaker strives to avoid a similar fate.
No one should fault Moore for touting his feat of matching Ramsey and Black as North Carolina’s longest-serving House speakers. If he can avoid internal revolts and corruption scandals, Moore stands a chance to serve as an even better example for future N.C. political leaders.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.