Christensen

Christensen: Good ol' boys still around

Staff WriterFebruary 26, 2012 

Republicans have been having a high old time in recent days proclaiming North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, as "the dumbest governor in America."

Short of giving an IQ test to all 50 governors, this is an assertion that is difficult to prove.

What we can say is that Perdue is one of only two governors, along with Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, who holds a doctorate.

Perdue can be inarticulate and gaffe prone - a fact that has been well documented in this newspaper.

But that doesn't necessarily mean she is unintelligent. The other North Carolina governor to hold a doctorate, Republican Jim Martin, also had his moments.

He once appointed his son's father-in-law to investigate charges of nepotism in his administration.

Martin, who was governor from 1985 to 1993, also held one of the most bizarre news conferences in North Carolina history to answer critics who charged he was using his research office for political purposes. It was a 90-minute, incoherent rant, during which he ignored his staff's pleas to leave the podium and said he was waiting for the Democratic attorney general to come and take him away in handcuffs.

Martin is an intelligent man and history will likely judge him a successful governor. But he had bad days.

Martin was cut some slack, because he was a guy. People were waiting for Perdue to fall on her keister the minute she took office, because she was the first woman to join the men's club.

Good ol' boy sexism has long been part of North Carolina's political DNA, regardless of which party was in power.

When a bill was first introduced in the legislature in 1897 to give women the right to vote, it was assigned to the Committee on Insane Asylums.

In 1920, North Carolina had the opportunity to become the decisive state to pass the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. It voted against it. In a symbolic gesture, the legislature extended the right to vote to women in 1971.

In the 1970s, North Carolina had the chance again to become the decisive state to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Once again the legislature opposed it, and the amendment failed nationally.

When the late Sen. Craig Lawing of Charlotte, a floor leader for ERA, was accused by an ERA opponent of being gay because he was pushing the amendment, Lawing sputtered: "I can name you 100 women who can testify otherwise." That should give you some idea of the testosterone levels on Jones Street.

In each instance, the Democrats were in control.

North Carolina was also one of the last states in the country to elect a woman to a high-profile, statewide political office. It wasn't until 2002 that it elected Elizabeth Dole to the U.S. Senate. And in that case, Dole had to have overwhelming credentials - two Cabinet posts, a Harvard law degree, former president of the American Red Cross, former presidential candidate, married to a former presidential candidate.

She lasted only one term. She was defeated, in part, by a sneakily sexist TV commercial. The Democrats ran a commercial featuring two old gents in rocking chairs arguing whether Dole was 92 or 93. The joke was that old guys were talking about her effectiveness rating and the percentage of times she voted with President George W. Bush. But they also were making fun of the fact she was 72.

It is doubtful the Democrats would have made fun of her age if she had been a man.

During the legislative redistricting last year, the Republican legislature went after a lot of Democratic lawmakers. But Democrats say they particularly targeted women - women in authority and those who dared speak their minds. In other words, uppity women.

There are 38 women serving in the 170-member legislature, down from 43 in 2007 (slightly below the national average). At least 10 have said they will not seek re-election this year.

The Democrats at least pretended to include women in the legislative leadership. The Republicans don't even bother.

The Republican legislative leadership is male dominated in a way we have not seen in Raleigh in recent years. Is there a chromosomal dimension to their bitter feud with a female governor, their targeting of female legislators, their war against a female-dominated teachers association and their effort to restrict the reproductive freedoms of women?

Ever since Perdue took office, the criticism of her has had a sexist, condescending tone. The Internet has been filled with criticisms of "Governor Dumplin'" - a nickname once put on her by her Democratic ally, Marc Basnight.

That the dumbest-governor-in-America quote actually came from a woman is irrelevant. Women in Tar Heel politics learned long ago that the way to get ahead was to pretend to be one of the guys.

In many ways, today's Republicans are just borrowing a page from the state's old-timey Democrats.

As one prominent North Carolina politician told me a few years ago, "Politics is a man's game."

rchristensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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