One Resolution and Three Remembrances

“Don’t write about Trump all the time.”

That’s the typically pithy advice I got from Frank Daniels Jr., former publisher of The News & Observer, after Donald Trump took office in 2017.

Frank was warning me not to do what many political analysts, bloggers and commentators did: set their hair on fire about Trump’s every tweet, insult or outrage.

Following his advice was hard, both when I was blogging at Talking About Politics with Carter Wrenn and after I started blogging and writing a weekly newspaper column here at New Day for NC in August 2019.

Even now, as Trump’s time winds down, he stays in our heads, on the tongues of talking heads and at the fingertips of political writers.

It’s time for us to stop.

He won’t. He’ll never stop invading our space. But we don’t have to let him own it.

My resolution for 2021 is to move on. Surely, I’ll write some about Trump and more about Trumpism. But he won’t own the debate here.

Instead, I begin the year by honoring three political leaders who died in December. Two were Democrats, one a Republican. Two were North Carolinians, one was from Mississippi.

All three represented the best of politics and public service.

Marc Basnight

When Marc died this week after a long struggle with ALS, the coverage and commentary focused on his record 18 years as Senate leader, his dogged and devoted service to the Outer Banks and his contributions to the state as a whole – to clean water, cancer research, public schools, and the university system.

Basnight surveys storm damage

All the plaudits are deserved. But I think more about what a unique character Marc was.

He had a high-school education, but he read widely and avidly studied history. He could talk easily to anybody, with his Hoi Toide accent. He also could relentlessly badger Governors and bully bureaucrats to get somebody a job, get a road fixed or get help for “the little guy.”

He was unpretentious. When he came to his first Board of Transportation meeting in 1977, he wore a colorful sweater, boat shoes and “Outer Banks Argyles” – no socks. He had to borrow a blazer for the board’s formal photo.

He was a powerful ally for Governor Jim Hunt from 1993-2000, especially in the four years when Republicans controlled the House.

Even when he was one of the most powerful men in the state, you’d find him at his restaurant on the causeway – Basnight’s Lone Cedar Café (the she-crab soup is awesome) – pouring iced tea and chatting with customers. Once he spent a long time talking with our son and daughter about their schools and the importance of a good education.

Marc took flak for getting better roads to OBX. Good for him. We live there part-time, and the drive that used to take five or six hours from Raleigh now takes three and some change.

Marc’s old district has gone hard right and is solidly Republican now. There was local flak when the new bridge over Oregon Inlet was named for him.

The Marc Basnight bridge sweeps out over the sound and soars into the sky. Naming it for Marc was right. It reminds us that seemingly ordinary people can rise to extraordinary heights – and lift up a lot of other people.

William Winter

Winter may not be familiar to North Carolinians. He was something hard to imagine today, a progressive Democratic Governor of Mississippi who championed education reform and racial fairness.

Winter fought ignorance and injustice from 1947, when he won a seat in the Mississippi House, until he died in December at age 97.

He ran for Governor twice before winning in 1979. Mississippi Governors could serve only one term; he dedicated his to sweeping reform of the state’s dismal public schools. Against the odds, he prevailed.

He lost a race for Senate in 1984. He never ran again for office, but also never stopped working for racial reconciliation – and for removing Confederate images from the state flag.

I remember Governor Winter from governors’ conferences when I worked for Governor Jim Hunt. He was a quiet man with an aura of dignity and decency.

He was one of an impressive cohort of progressive Southern Governors then – Hunt, South Carolina’s Dick Riley, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, Georgia’s George Busbee, Florida’s Lawton Childs and Reuben Askew, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and a young guy from Arkansas named Clinton.

They don’t make many Southern governors like them anymore. And even fewer leaders like William Winters.

David Flaherty

Flaherty was the Republican candidate for Governor against Jim Hunt in 1976. He had been Governor Jim Holshouser’s Secretary of Human Resources. That’s probably the toughest Cabinet department to manage.

Democrats in the legislature made it tougher. They didn’t like Republicans and they didn’t like Yankees. Flaherty was from Massachusetts and still had the accent.

I met him when I worked at the N&O, and I worked against him after I joined the Hunt campaign on January 1, 1976 – 45 years ago today. We ran into each other several times in the campaign. He was always friendly and affable – a happy warrior.

He lost badly. It was a bad year for Republicans, right after Watergate. They were split between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter carried North Carolina, the last time that happened until Barack Obama in 2008.

Flaherty later served as NC GOP party chair, including during the 1984 Hunt-Helms Senate race. He gave us hell, and he got a good measure of revenge.

Under Governor Jim Martin, Flaherty headed the Employment Security Commission and, again, the Department of Human Resources.

His path intersected Governor Hunt’s again in the 1990s, when Flaherty served as Caldwell County Manager. Republicans were resisting Hunt’s Smart Start program. But Flaherty liked Smart Start. He even testified in support of it, as I recall, in the legislature.

He was willing to set aside old battles on behalf of new ideas.

When he died in December, I praised him on Facebook as a good man and a dedicated public servant. A former Republican legislator added: “Back when there was sanity in politics.”

Maybe 2021 will bring back sanity in politics.

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