RALEIGH — Zeb Alley, who rose from a storytelling mountain populist to become a legendary lobbyist, died Thursday. His reputation was such that people said he not only knew where the bodies were buried, but probably supplied the shovel.
Alley, who was 84, died at Rex Hospital after several months of failing health. He was such a Raleigh institution that House Speaker Thom Tillis announced his death from the podium, and the Senate adjourned in his honor. These were Republicans, and Alley was a Yellow Dog Democrat.
Perhaps no man knew North Carolina’s legislature like Alley, who served as a state senator, worked as legislative liaison for Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, and was a lobbyist for many of North Carolina’s big corporations.
There are tentative plans for a celebration of his life Tuesday in Raleigh with internment July 20 in Waynesville.
Alley was a throwback to a more rural, folksier era in Tar Heel politics when he could sit in the apartment of powerful House Speaker Liston Ramsey and sip industrial-grade moonshine out of a mason jar while discussing the upcoming legislative agenda.
“Zeb Alley was one of a kind,” Hunt said Thursday. “I credit his success to the fact that he was so honest, and he was himself. He never tried to put on airs or fool people. He was just Zeb Alley. But that Zeb Alley was a funny joke to tell, and (he) was very personal in working with people in both parties and all philosophies. He was very, very effective in helping me get my programs through.”
Alley was the happy warrior of politics. An extrovert, he always had a story, a joke or an imitation of a fellow politician. He remembered everyone’s name and had a rare gift for friendship.
“What I will always remember about Zeb is how much he loved life and how much he enjoyed every single day that he had,” said Jack Cozort, a lobbyist and former N.C. Court of Appeals Judge. “Part of that is he almost died in the Korean War.”
Alley was awarded a Bronze Star with V for valor and the Purple Heart for his military service.
From Waynesville to Raleigh
Alley grew up in Waynesville and practiced law there for 20 years. He came to Raleigh in 1970 to serve in the state Senate, and stayed. During his one term, he campaigned for better conditions for migrant workers. Like Ramsey, his friend and fellow mountaineer, he was a New Deal Democrat who believed government had a role in helping the little guy.
“He was a mountain populist of the highest category,” said former state Rep. George Miller of Durham, who was friends with Alley since law school in Chapel Hill. “He was espousing the Lyndon Johnson/John Kennedy/New Deal kind of service to the country.”
Hunt hired Alley to be his chief lobbyist in 1981 to help push his agenda through the legislature. It was an unusual duo – the strait-laced Hunt and the good-time Alley, who enjoyed partying past midnight with lawmakers and fellow lobbyists.
“I’ve tried to think of a time when I’ve seen Zeb when he wasn’t laughing and telling a joke, and I can’t remember,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant.
After leaving Hunt’s office, Alley set up shop as a lobbyist and almost immediately began lining up blue-chip clients.
In one of his first victories in 1985, the automobile industry hired him to help make North Carolina the first state in the South to pass a law requiring passengers to wear seat belts.
Soon such corporations as Progress Energy, Duke Energy, Cigna, First Union, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, General Motors and Sprint were hiring Alley. It was rumored that some companies kept him on retainer just to make sure that their opposition didn’t hire him.
He always did pro bono work as well, particularly for veterans groups.
But behind the façade of the hail-fellow-well-met, friends and colleagues say, was a sharp mind and a strong work ethic that enabled him keep track of hundreds of bills, know the quirks of dozens of legislators, and thoroughly understand the process. He was known as a man who would both keep his word, and keep a secret.
He was ranked the legislature’s most effective lobbyist for eight consecutive legislative sessions, or 16 years, by the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy and Research.
Many of today’s lobbyists learned their trade from Alley.
“He had a respect for the legislature and the institution and the process that was just a pleasure to behold,” Cozort said.
Even as he cut back hours and clients, he never retired, still lobbying at 84. “This was his life,” Miller said.
Several weeks ago, Cozort said, Alley ran across a lobbyist who was having a rough session and walking around downcast.
“Zeb pulled him aside and said, ‘You don’t need to go around looking like that,’ ” Cozort recalled. “ ‘You need to smile. It’s a privilege to work here. It’s a privilege to get to do what you do. Nobody wins every day here. You need to hold your head and get about your business.’
“It turned him around in five minutes,” Cozort said