RALEIGH — Former Gov. Jim Martin’s role in making the Republican Party an annual contender in elections is the focus of his new biography, and Martin is still urging voters to register with a political party – even if it is not the GOP. Martin told a crowd of about 200 at the N.C. History Museum Tuesday night that voters registering unaffiliated is one of the factors driving the polarization of the political landscape in America today.
“It used to be there was some overlap between Democrats and Republicans – there’s very little of that now. The reason is that people who are more centrist, more pragmatic or moderate, have abandoned both parties,” Martin said. “Get back in, and help to draw the attention of the leadership of the legislative, both state and national and local boards to pay attention to those of you in the middle.”
It is a safe bet that there were not many unaffiliated voters in the room to hear a conversation between Martin and John Hood, the author of “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.” But there were a handful of Democrats, including Rufus Edmisten, the man Martin beat to become only the second Republican governor in North Carolina since Reconstruction.
“If I had to be beaten by somebody, I couldn’t have asked for a better person than Jim Martin,” Edmisten said. “He never said an ugly word about me during the campaign, he never said an ugly word about me during his term as governor, when I served with him as secretary of state, and he should be a role model about how you conduct campaigns and you conduct yourself in this very wild world of character assassinations. I’ve often quipped to him that ‘If it hadn’t been for me, you wouldn’t be governor.’”
Edmisten said that during campaign forums, Martin would slip him notes “grading” him on his responses.
“Sometimes I got a B, sometimes I got a C, and sometimes a D,” Edmisten recalled.
Others remembered Martin as an effective governor, able to champion tax cuts, transportation reform and other priorities even when working with a Democratically controlled legislature that passed a series of “power-stripping bills” to take power from the executive branch. Bill Cobey served as Martin’s environment secretary and is currently chairman of the State Board of Education. Cobey said that even though Martin has an impressive intellect – he holds a PhD. In chemistry from Princeton and was a chemistry professor at Davidson College before getting into politics – he knew the key to being a good executive was to hire well and let people run their departments.
“He knew how to delegate authority and responsibility and give you his trust, and you just had to know when to inform him and check in, but he was not going to micromanage anything – he was just a terrific leader,” Cobey said.
In politics, being able to lead requires winning elections, and Martin was known for his quick wit on the campaign trail. In October 1984, a crowd of 30,000 attended a unity rally in Charlotte for Republican candidates. The crowd and the number of candidates present contrasted sharply with Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale’s August stop in Asheville, where Jim Hunt and Rufus Edmisten had declined to join the liberal Mondale.
“They had a unity rally, and no one came,” quipped Martin at the Charlotte rally.
Martin proved Tuesday evening that his wit is still with him at 79. When Rufus, whom Martin had called a “worthy opponent” earlier in the evening, said Martin graded him and that he never scored higher than a B, Martin did not miss a beat:
“Rufus, there are a lot of doctors in the state who never got above a B also.”