Martin biography reminds us what could have been

by Jeff Sykes

Jim Martin biography by John Hood to be released in October.

Before I was reformed I used to admire Republican politicians like Warren Rudman, Jack Kemp, and North Carolina’s very own Jim Martin. Then again, maybe it was the Republican Party that left me.

I was a giddy teenager when Martin became North Carolina’s governor following his election in 1984.

The closest I ever came to Martin was when he visited my church’s massive Fourth of July festival at Tanglewood Park the next summer. I remember heckling the governor as he pitched horseshoes, hiding behind my 6’7″ father and popping out to yell “don’t miss” when Martin went to pitch. That was until my dad told me to pipe down or risk gaining the attention of the surly looking guys in suits with walkietalkie ear buds.

State politics didn’t interest me much then, what with the Soviet Union to worry about. Global politics suited my interests, and later as I studied European History I likely knew more about the Spartacus Bund than I did Martin’s famous press conference melt down in February 1990.

I gradually developed more of an interest in local and state affairs and never quite understood why Martin didn’t run for senate in 1992. Veteran Raleigh reporter Rob Christensen penned an excellent primer on North Carolina state politics a few years back entitled The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. It’s a fine book that glossed over Martin’s 1990 presser in a few paragraphs.

So when an advance proof of John Hood’s much anticipated biography of Martin appeared on my desk last week, the press conference scene was one of the first I looked up.

It wasn’t difficult to understand Martin’s upset at the brutality with which his personal integrity was questioned in a dust up over political activity by a member of his gubernatorial research office. Martin took to the podium despite having a throat infection and rambled to the press corps even as staffers handed him notes to cut it short. Realizing just how bad his performance looked on television, Martin hustled over to the News and Observer offices in Raleigh and handed the editor a letter that confirmed he would not seek the senate seat held at the time by Terry Sanford.

“I’ve lost interest in any other political office,” Martin wrote. “It’s too brutal for me.”

So about all I knew of Jim Martin is that he was a handsome, easy to admire politician during my youth who all but disappeared while I was a college student. Between that and his political beginnings was a void in my understanding.

Hood has done an excellent job in this concisely written book of showing those of us with little knowledge of Martin’s background in Mecklenburg County politics, and later as a six-term member of Congress, the methods that made the man.

Martin comes across in those early years as warm and having a good sense of humor, with a wit that would time and again serve up just the right phrase on the campaign trail.

Hood begins with an anecdote of the newly elected Governor Martin attending a strategy session in 1985 with governors from Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, three men that would all later serve in the first Bush administration. The Republicans wanted to find a way to bring the electoral gains at the federal level down to the state and local level.

The group would later form the Southern Republican Exchange, growing to include new members such as a young congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich.

The book then goes back to Martin’s roots as a chemistry professor at Davidson College. Wealthy alumni felt the college was a hotbed of liberalism in the late 1960s and so when Martin expressed interest in running for county commissioner as a Republican, administrators gave the green light in hopes it would mollify the critics.

The timing was perfect for the young chemistry professor, and he was elected as part of a new Republican majority to the Mecklenburg County commission in 1966. Martin worked on service consolidation between the county and Charlotte, in addition to attempting to reign in spending and property taxes.

Hood leads readers through six years of county service in an engaging and detailed narrative about Martin’s early years as an elected leader. Some of the most compelling stories involve Martin attending a memorial service following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and how he stood up for fairness in housing at a time when integration was the law in our state, but not yet the practice.

Martin’s years of service in Mecklenburg County propelled him to Congress in 1972. He ran close to Richard Nixon, and then hedged on impeachment up until the last moment when he reviewed transcript notes over a weekend and came out in favor of impeachment the following Monday. Hood later recounts how Martin walked a fine line between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in the 1976 GOP presidential campaign, how he served to distinguish himself on regulatory issues during the Carter administration, and later formed a bond with emerging supply side conservatives in the late 1970s.

It’s compelling to watch the pre- Reagan era posturing on fiscal policy evolve during the stagflation of the late 1970s. It’s also a bit sad for those of us who believe in good government to consider the gap between the fiscal conservatism of late 1970s necessity and the contemptuous brand of Republican politics we find ourselves saddled with today. !