Within North Carolina political circles, stories abound regarding the hard lessons doled out by the political enforcers of earlier governors.
Not too long ago, most governors understood that they needed a tough-as-nails enforcer to ensure that they got their way with legislators and policy-making boards. It was part and parcel of being a strong governor.
For Jim Hunt, the job was handed to his executive assistant, Raleigh businessman John A. Williams.
A few years ago, former Charlotte Observer columnist Jack Betts relayed a tale regarding “John A,” as he was known, and the flexing of his political muscle.
According to Betts’ story, based on the recollections of Raleigh lawyer Jack Nichols, a panel had been formed to figure out the state’s response to a lawsuit related to the treatment of mentally ill children.
After the head of the panel had asked that each of the 20 or so members introduce themselves, Williams chimed in, “And tell us whether or not your position is exempt.”
By exempt, Williams meant not subject to state personnel protections. The message was clear: For those in exempt positions, they would be voting how they were told to vote.
I’ve heard “John A” stories regarding Hunt’s push for gubernatorial succession that make the implied threat from that meeting look downright polite.
Jim Martin’s chief teeth-rattler was Brad Hayes.
It is easy to forget now that Republicans wielded some power at the legislature even before their current majorities and their four-year run in the 1990s as the majority in the state House.
In 1989, GOP House members were part of the coalition that ousted Democrat Liston Ramsey as House speaker. For the next two years, those Republican House members enjoyed more influence than they had in almost a century.
They also started to give their governor some problems, at least until Hayes called them to a meeting at the governor’s mansion.
According to someone who was there, Hayes pulled out a notebook. Each page included the name of the lawmaker present and a list of all the favors — appointments, road projects, jobs — that Martin had done for him or her.
Hayes read each page. When he finished, he set the notebook aside and said, “There are no more pages and I don’t have another notebook.”
The message was sent.
I suppose it could be argued that we live in a different time, that politics in the age of the Internet must be waged with more nuance.
But North Carolina, even after giving its governors veto power, has had two straight governors whom history will likely judge as relatively weak.
Now, another governor, Pat McCrory, moves down a similar track, with a legislative freight train continually bearing down on him.
That a former Charlotte mayor, unfamiliar with legislative politics, failed to understand that he needed to do some teeth-rattling of his own is not so surprising.
Failing to understand it after the last six months would be.
—Scott Mooneyham covers the state Legislature for the Capitol Press Association.