North Carolina has been blessed with good Republican governors.
There was Daniel Russell (1897-1901), a Teddy Roosevelt-style progressive; Jim Holshouser (1973-77), a champion of education, health and the environment; and Jim Martin (1985-1993) the state’s first two-term governor.
The report card is still incomplete for the current chief executive, Pat McCrory.
When Republicans bemoan their years in the wilderness, they overlook that three of North Carolina’s six most recent governors have been Republican.
Martin, the longest serving Republican governor, is the subject of an exhibit in the N.C. Museum of History that will run through Jan. 4.
Martin was a political rarity – a scientist/politician with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton who held four patents and, in his spare time, composed classical music and played tuba in the Charlotte Symphony.
The exhibit includes his tuba, his Ph.D. dissertation, “Stereochemistry of the Diels-Alder Reaction,” and one of his musical compositions, “Jude Benediction.”
Despite his smarts, Martin was an effective campaigner. He lost a race for the Davidson town board, and then never lost another election – climbing steadily from the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners to the U.S. House of Representatives and then to governor.
He was an economic conservative in Congress, enthusiastically backing Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics. But his role changed in Raleigh, from a lawmaker seeking to tame a fast-growing federal government to an executive charged with providing basic services.
His center/right pragmatism was also dictated in part by having to deal with a Democratic legislature.
Accomplishments were many
Under Martin – a college professor by vocation – spending on public education nearly doubled from $1.8 billion in 1984-85 to $3.3 billion in 1991-92. He was a strong supporter of expanding the teaching of foreign languages. But his efforts to start a career ladder – a system of merit pay to keep talented teachers in the classroom – failed to get legislative approval.
Martin fulfilled his promise to finish Interstate 40 from Raleigh to Wilmington. He also backed a motor fuels tax hike to step up road construction, and championed more than $1 billion in bond issues for school construction and road improvements. He also restarted rail service from Raleigh to Charlotte.
Martin loved trains so well that he conducted one of the last whistle-stop campaign tours – 22 stops in 1984, beginning in Asheville and ending in New Bern.
As a scientist, he brought a balanced view to the environment. He issued an executive order in 1989 that led to unprecedented restrictions on 80 percent of unregulated air pollutants. His administration levied more fines against polluters than any previous governor. And yet he was not afraid of nuclear power and fought unsuccessfully to locate a nuclear waste site in the state, viewing it as the responsible thing to do.
He reduced the number of state employees subject to political firings from 1,500 to 875. He also advocated for more transparent government and opened up to the public meetings of the Council of the State and other key bodies.
He launched a major campaign to reduce the state’s high infant mortality rate and all but eliminated state-funded abortions. He reduced business taxes and launched an effort to make government more efficient. He aggressively courted Hollywood.
Those were good years – part of the Reagan economy – and North Carolina created 471,000 net new jobs. Per capita personal income grew from 37th nationally to 34th.
While campaigning for governor, Martin carried around a Rubik’s Cube that he would solve while giving his speech. He would then tell audiences that he would fix the “messed up” economy just like he solved the puzzle.
The Rubik’s Cube is part of the exhibit. The question is whether moderate Republicans have become museum pieces.