Rob Christensen

Flashback: When conservative Democrats ruled in NC

The passing this month of former state Sen. Harold Hardison of Deep Run at age 92 is a reminder that the ideological battles fought in the legislature historically did not fall along party lines.

When I started covering the legislature in the 1970s, Hardison was one of the powerful old bulls of the state Senate. In fact, he was nicknamed “Bull” or “Sarge” and he was one of the enforcers for Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green, a crusty conservative tobacco warehouseman. Hardison would make Republican Sen. Tom Apodoca, the current enforcer, look like a liberal wimp.

When people talk about the state’s long Democratic rule, they should also understand that North Carolina, like much of the South, was a one-party state for a very long time. Which meant that liberals, conservatives and moderates fought their battles under the Democratic flag. All you need to know is that Jesse Helms was a Democrat most of his life.

Under Democratic control, the legislature was often a conservative body. It is one reason why North Carolina passed the Jim Crow laws, why it has long been a right-to-work state, why most of its policies are pro-business, and why getting funding for education or social programs has always been an uphill battle that requires sustained political will.

Hardison was no outlier. He was like many Democrats who served in the legislature during the past century. He was a small-town businessman who was a fiscal and social conservative.

Hardison was best known for offering the Hardison Amendments, provisions to the budget bills in 1973, 1975 and 1979 which said that state environmental regulations covering air and water quality and hazardous waste could be no more restrictive than federal regulations. At the time, the environmental movement was just taking wing and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had just been created under Republican President Richard Nixon. Democratic lawmakers wanted to make sure that state environmental laws would be business friendly.

But there was a change of thinking among some North Carolinians during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, when the federal government began to relax some of the environmental enforcement. There was a push in North Carolina to repeal the Hardison Amendments. Republican Gov. Jim Martin was among those who campaigned for repeal, but the effort was blocked by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans in 1985.

In 1991, the Hardison Amendments were repealed by a Democratic-led legislature. There the matter rested until the Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010. In 2011, the GOP legislature, with the backing of farm and business groups, reinstalled the Hardison Amendments.

The conservative Republican lawmakers in 2011 had returned environmental regulation back to where conservative Democrats had it in the 1970s.

‘Stop Him’

Hardison tried to move up politically, seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1988. But by then, there had been a shift in the party, with many conservatives moving to the Republican Party.

Hardison was an anathema to urban progressives who were becoming more important to the Democrats. The Independent, a liberal Triangle Weekly, ran a cover story featuring a large photograph of Hardison with the headline “Stop Him.” But newspaper copies suddenly disappeared from the racks, and it was later disclosed during court proceedings that the Hardison staff had stolen 10,000 copies.

During the campaign, Hardison received $100,000 in illegal contributions from hog industry magnate Wendell Murphy and another $100,000 in illegal contributions from Marvin Johnson, the head of the House of Raeford, one of the largest turkey processors. The legal limit was $4,000 for the primary. But the disclosures came after the campaign, and after Wake County’s district attorney said the statute of limitations had expired.

Hardison had sponsored or co-sponsored bills to eliminate sales taxes on hog and poultry houses in 1986 and on related equipment in 1987.

Hardison lost that ’88 Democratic primary to state Sen. Tony Rand, a more progressive Democrat, by a 42.7 percent to 25.8 percent margin. But that fall, voters elected Jim Gardner as the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor.

So, by 1988, there was an ideological re-alignment going on with the rise of the Republican Party. But for much of the Democratic Party’s tenure, it meant rule by the Bull Hardisons of the legislature.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen, @oldpolhack