Christensen: Griffith was the Democrats' ace in the hole

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJuly 8, 2012 

Obit Andy Griffith

FILE - This March 6, 1987 file photo shows actor Andy Griffith in Toluca Lake, Calif. Griffith, whose homespun mix of humor and wisdom made "The Andy Griffith Show" an enduring TV favorite, died Tuesday, July 3, 2012. He was 86. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac, file)


When Andy Griffith helped rescue the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Easley in 2000, it was dubbed the “Mayberry Miracle.”

Griffith, who died last week, was Tar Heel Democrats’ political ace in the hole, helping them remain competitive in the state while most of the South went Republican.

Time and time again, Griffith, one of the most beloved figures in the state, would take to TV to endorse Democrats – appearing in political ads for Jim Hunt in his 1984 Senate race, for Easley in the 2000 and 2004 governor races, for Bev Perdue in the 2008 governor’s race, and for state Senate candidates in various years.

Normally an endorsement by a Hollywood star wouldn’t mean much in a state political race. But Griffith was different. He lived in Manteo, not Los Angeles. And his role as the wise small-town Southern sheriff was an image that many people in the state identified with.

Basnight friendship

The key to Griffith’s political involvement was former Senate leader Marc Basnight and Basnight’s nephew, Manteo businessman R.V. Owens.

Basnight family members have been longtime friends with Griffith going back to the days when he was a young actor in the outdoor drama, “The Lost Colony.”

That friendship deepened when late in his life, Griffith retired to Manteo. Basnight would perform small favors for his friend. For example, when the actor in 2000 wanted to find out whether environmental agencies would give him a permit to dredge a new privately financed channel to his dock at his Manteo home, Basnight made sure the regulators made a personal visit to Griffith.

It was Basnight and Owens who convinced Griffith to cut the commercials for the Democrats.

Some Democrats wanted Griffith to do even more. There was an effort to get Griffith to run against Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990. They even printed up bumper stickers that read “Run, Andy Run” But Griffith was not interested.

Republicans did their best to counter the Griffith effect. During the 1984 Senate campaign, Helms brought in the actor who played Moses, Charlton Heston, to appear in a TV commercial for him.

In 2004, Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine told voters that they should not confuse Andy Griffith with Andy Taylor.

“You can count on this,” Ballantine said in Kinston. “Sheriff Andy Taylor would be voting for Patrick Ballantine right now, yes, he would. Otis, the town drunk, might vote for Mike Easley.

“Andy Griffith,” Ballantine said, “is a liberal actor who played a conservative sheriff on TV. And Mike Easley is a liberal governor who plays a conservative on TV.”

Health care protest

When Griffith did a public service announcement on behalf of the new health care law, Republicans protested.

Five GOP senators, including Sen. Richard Burr of Winston-Salem, wrote a letter to human resources secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking that the ad be pulled. “Co-opting public funds during a recession, to make a political, poll-tested argument about the new law is wrong,” they wrote.

The closest thing Tar Heel Republicans had to a cultural icon was race car driver Richard Petty, who lost a race for secretary of state in 1996.

Evangelist Billy Graham, who is a registered Democrat, has steered clear of elective politics since his open support of GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968.

Former Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith campaigned for Democrats such as Erskine Bowles. But he also cut an ad for Republican Richard Vinroot, one of his former players.

Singer James Taylor, who grew up in North Carolina, has campaigned in the state for President Barack Obama.

But Griffith was in a category all his own. Only Andy could deliver a “Mayberry Miracle.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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