Born to run

 In 2015-10

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I’ve just spent much of the last two years completing a biography of former Gov. Jim Martin that relates how a Davidson College chemistry professor became an improbable political force in Mecklenburg County, Congress and North Carolina. He remains the only Republican to serve two terms as governor.

Most of my book, Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans, covers his tenure in Raleigh during the 1980s and early 1990s. But some of the most compelling stories I heard about him — from family members, aides, political allies and political adversaries — describe his earlier days as a local leader in Charlotte during the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. One tale, in particular, illustrates the importance of doing what you think is right, even if it appears to be against your immediate interests.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Jim Martin was serving the first of three two-year terms on Mecklenburg’s county commission. Part of the first-ever GOP majority on the commission, he was then chairman. Right after the assassination, Martin sought to calm tensions by stressing the need for local action to address racial disparities. In particular, he criticized discrimination in the housing market and proposed that local officials act on the issue. For some residents of the segregated South, it was a bridge too far. Even many whose racial attitudes were more enlightened worried that a local ordinance might lead to excessive regulation of real-estate and banking firms.

In 1972, Martin filed his candidacy for Congress to replace U.S. Rep. Charlie Jonas, who was retiring from his 9th District seat after two decades. One day early in the campaign, Martin got word that Philip Van Every, the CEO of snack-food giant Lance Inc., wanted to see him. Martin assumed the conservative business leader and former Charlotte mayor was doing him a courtesy by informing him that Van Every and other Lance executives would be supporting the likely Democratic nominee, Jim Beatty, a state legislator who a decade earlier became an international celebrity as the first to run a mile on an indoor track in less than four minutes.

After a brief meeting involving the company’s entire senior management, Van Every excused everyone else, stood up, and towered over Martin, seated on a sofa. “Don’t I remember that you came out for open housing?” he asked. “Yes, sir,” Martin responded. “You still feel that way?” he pressed. “Yes, sir,” Martin again replied, assuming the interview was about to end badly for him.

Van Every looked him in the eye. “Well, I’m going to support you,” he told a surprised Martin. “I’m going to support you, and my family is going to support you, and everybody I do business with is going to support you.” Van Every explained that he was tired of seeing politicians say and do anything just to get elected. “If you are going up to Washington, and if you had caved in to the little bit of pressure I just put on you, I would worry about you,” he said. “I won’t agree with you all the time, but it won’t matter. I trust you.”

Van Every was as good as his word. He and his business contacts formed Martin’s largest block of donors. The episode validated his successful congressional campaign and reinforced the lesson that it is more important to do what you think is right than to do what might be politically expedient. After all, things don’t always turn out the way you expect. This was not an argument against being prudent or taking public opinion into account. Throughout his career, Martin was a gradualist who believed in setting long-term goals that could be achieved incrementally by building consensus. What his Van Every interview demonstrated to Martin, however, was that those long-term goals ought to be ambitious and consistent with one’s fundamental principles.

The episode had a fascinating coda a couple of years later when Martin was serving in Congress. A lobbyist came to see him about legislation that would exempt fig paste from import duties. It would have had the effect of reducing production costs for snack-food companies. When Martin said he’d study the details of the bill, the lobbyist interjected, “You don’t need to worry about it. You remember Lance is in your district, and they make fig bars.” Martin insisted that he’d need to vet the issue more thoroughly, and the lobbyist insisted that there was nothing more to study. With the lobbyist in the room, Martin called Lance and asked to speak to Van Every, who in turn asked to speak to the lobbyist. After saying “Yes, Mr. Van Every” several times, the man hung up the phone and left without saying another word. The tariff reduction ended up passing easily, with Martin voting for it because he thought it was good policy — not because he felt obligated to do so.

Philip Van Every had chosen well.

 

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