Mercedes Drove NC to Incentives

Once upon a time, North Carolina didn’t believe in big incentive deals to entice big companies here.

Then came Mercedes-Benz. Or, actually, didn’t come.

It was 1993. Mercedes was looking to put a $300 million, 1,500-jobs SUV manufacturing plant in the U.S. Thirty states put in bids. It came down to three finalists – North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama.

Governor Jim Hunt had just begun his third term. He had been a champion industry-hunter in his first terms, 1977-1985. When he ran again in 1992, he promised to put the state on top of the game again. He put on a full-court press for Mercedes.

The Governor thought North Carolina had an edge in workforce training and education. He convinced the legislature to enact limited incentives, like tax credits and local economic-development financing.

But he said in April, “We’re not going to give away the store. I’ve considered, and rejected, more sweeping measures that other states routinely offer, such as tax abatements and free land. I just don’t believe such measures are necessary at this point.”

He was optimistic. He flew to Detroit to meet Mercedes’s chairman. Hunt said the executive “didn’t want to talk about the cost of labor, free land, infrastructure or tax abatement. He wanted to talk about the quality of North Carolina’s workforce.”

Then, in September, Mercedes made its pick: Alabama.

Mercedes plant in Vance, Alabama

Alabama had offered a financial-incentive deal three to five times bigger than North Carolina’s $109 million. Mercedes got a 25-year corporate tax holiday and a tax break to help pay for the plant’s construction. And that was just part of the deal.

Some 28 years later, the auto industry is a major part of Alabama’s industrial base.  The state is a national industry leader, poised to play a key role in the expansion of electric-powered vehicle production.

After the 1993 decision, Governor Hunt put out a statement that began, “Well, you win some and you lose some.” He said, “we did not feel that North Carolina should offer those kind of tax abatements.”

He was more pointed privately: “Mercedes told us it wasn’t about the money. But, in fact, it was about the money.”

Legend has it that one of the state’s economic recruiters took a hammer and smashed a toy Mercedes car.

After Mercedes, Governor Hunt decided that North Carolina needed to be more aggressive with incentives if we wanted to out-recruit other states.

We got more aggressive, as the Apple announcement last month showed. Apple got the state’s biggest incentive deal ever, almost a billion dollars over 40 years.

Today, as in 1993, offering incentives is controversial. It’s one of those rare issues that unites critics on the right and left – and provides common ground for pragmatists.

I’ve always thought that critics of incentives should be prepared to say precisely which companies and which jobs they don’t want North Carolinians to have.

It’s easy to criticize incentives in theory. It’s hard to turn away good jobs that pay well and that offer families and communities a better future.


More on Apple: “Apple incentives are the largest in NC history. Here’s how the deal breaks down”:

More on the Alabama plant:

“Electric vehicles are important to Alabama’s auto industry.”

“Big Incentives Won Alabama A Piece of the Auto Industry.” Excerpt: “In 1993, Alabama persuaded Mercedes-Benz to build its first U.S. auto plant here by offering the luxury-car maker $253 million worth of incentives — $169,000 for every job Mercedes promised the state. Taxpayers considered the deal such a boondoggle that they voted Gov. Jim Folsom out of office long before the first Mercedes sport-utility vehicle rolled off the new assembly line in 1997. Today, the deal looks a little more like a bargain — suggesting that the controversial practice of spending millions of taxpayer dollars to lure big employers can sometimes have a big payoff.”







Apple Brings Good News – and Seeds of Hope

Apple brought Democrats and Republicans happily together – and maybe sowed the seeds for more bipartisan cooperation.

When the big Apple news was announced two weeks ago, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and Democratic legislative leaders stood beside Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore on the grounds of the Executive Mansion.

Everybody smiled. Everybody celebrated Apple’s plans to invest $1 billion in North Carolina over 10 years, including $552 million to establish a campus in Research Triangle Park with 3,000 jobs paying an average of $187,000 a year.

At his State of the State speech, Cooper said, “In yet another tremendous accomplishment for our state, today we stood together and announced that Apple has chosen North Carolina for its first new campus and engineering hub in the United States in more than 20 years.”

There were, to be sure, dueling narratives.

Senator Berger said it was “a testament to the success” of Republican fiscal policies like big cuts in corporate taxes.

Governor Cooper said Apple values “diversity and inclusion.” He said CEO Tim Cook told him that repeal of House Bill 2, the 2016 “bathroom bill,” was “important in their decision making.”

Berger said that “never came up” in his conversations with Apple.

He and Speaker Moore said it was just coincidence that they had both quashed bills targeting transgender individuals. And they didn’t kill them quietly. They went out of their way to do it publicly.

Berger maintained, “It had nothing to do with Apple.”

Whatever the reason, give Berger and Moore credit. They did the right thing.

Give Cooper credit. He could have hogged the stage. Instead, he shared it.

Give them all credit for working together and crafting an incentives package that brought in Apple. It amounts to $845.8 million over 39 years.

Three years ago, it looked like North Carolina had missed its bite at Apple. But the Cooper administration kept talking to the company. The administration and the legislature worked together to write the incentive package into law.

Staffers for both, usually sworn enemies, traded compliments at the end.

With Apple, we saw a picture you don’t see in other Southern states these days: The Governor and legislative leaders, Democrats and Republicans, Blacks and Whites – and Machelle Sanders, a former life-sciences executive who is the first Black Commerce Secretary – standing together

State Sen. Dan Blue called it a celebration of an “ecosystem” that has transformed the Triangle and North Carolina.

That ecosystem goes back to Archie Davis, who pushed the crazy idea of building a Research Triangle Park in the wooded wilderness bounded by Duke University, N.C. State and UNC.

Back to Governor Terry Sanford, who persuaded the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to put the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in RTP in the 1960s.

Back to Governor Jim Hunt, who created a state Biotechnology Center and a Microelectronics Center in the late 1970s and early 1980s so North Carolina could compete for the industries of the future.

North Carolina used to call itself “the vale of humility between two mountains of conceit,” Virginia and South Carolina. Then, in the latter part of the 20th Century, we surged ahead of the South and nation.

Since 2010, we’ve been locked in partisan, ideological warfare. Progressives feared the legislature was making us another South Carolina or Mississippi.

Maybe the Apple announcement – and the work behind it – will usher in new spirit of bipartisanship and progress.

Surely, that spirit will be tested soon. There’s redistricting, voter ID and the budget.

But it’s spring. And hope springs eternal.

Will NC Get Real on Climate Change?

When I think about climate change, I think about my brother-in-law Tillman.

Tillman spent his career with Big Oil. He travelled the world finding places to drill, baby, drill. He’s now comfortably retired in Dallas, Texas. And he’s a Republican.

You may suspect he’s a climate-change denier.


Tillman has a PhD in geology from UNC. He’s smart and studious. Some years back, he delved into a study of climate change.

Like most geologists, he concluded it’s real – so real he tells his eight grandchildren that the family’s vacation home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks may be gone when they’re his age. “Act now,” he writes, “to slow the change and preserve this wonderful place.”

The question is whether we – the world, the nation and North Carolina – will get real about fighting climate change.

In North Carolina, environmentalists want Governor Roy Cooper to join Virginia and 10 other states to our north in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, like “Reggie”). The other states are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Under RGGI, a power plant has to buy an allowance for each ton of carbon dioxide pollution it emits into the atmosphere. Allowances can be bought and sold in a regional auction, which helps to keep costs down. The number of available allowances is reduced over time to reduce pollution.

Duke Energy’s Roxboro plant

The goal: reducing carbon emissions from power plants 70% from 2005 levels by 2030.

Advocates say RGGI is North Carolina’s least expensive and most efficient option – and the only action the Governor can take without the legislature. They fear the legislature will let Duke Energy adopt a less ambitious carbon-reduction plan.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Clean Air Carolina and the North Carolina Coastal Federation, has petitioned the state Environmental Management Commission to adopt rules so North Carolina can join RGGI:

“The threat to North Carolina from global climate change is real, it is present, and it is getting worse…. Sea levels have risen and continue to rise. Extreme precipitation has become more common and will be even more common in the future. The intensity of hurricanes and the frequency of other severe storms will increase. Flooding will increase, but so too will droughts and wildfires. Each of these changes will hit our most vulnerable residents hardest. Unabated, climate change will exact substantial costs on our environment, our economy, and the lives of all North Carolinians.”

President Biden has set an ambitious national goal: an overall 50% reduction in emissions from power plants and transportation by 2030. Joining RGGI would jibe with Biden’s goal and allow North Carolina to do our part, environmentalists say.

The New York Times said Biden’s plan “would require rapid and sweeping changes to virtually every corner of the nation’s economy, transforming the way Americans drive to work, heat their homes and operate their factories.”

Polls show that Americans, especially young people, believe climate change is real and that real action is needed. Yet, there is a stubborn resistance, much like the resistance to masks and Covid vaccines.

Climate-change deniers rely on scare tactics, not science. They claimed Biden’s climate plan cuts “90% of red meat from our diets by 2030.”

No, it doesn’t.

Biden framed his plan not as cutbacks and restrictions, but as an economic engine. He said it would create “millions of good-paying, middle-class, union jobs” – building a resilient electrical grid, cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells and abandoned coal mines, building electric vehicles, installing charging stations and building clean-power plants.

And maybe saving the Outer Banks.


SELC’s full petition to the EMC and DEQ. Go to page 89 for an overview of how the climate crisis harms North Carolina.

Explainer video on RGGI:

Will Governor McCrory Become Senator McCrory?

Maybe you can’t stand Pat, but former Governor McCrory could be future Senator McCrory.

When McCrory announced he’ll run for the Senate next year, many of my fellow Democrats laughed – and pounced. So did Republicans.

Democrats dismissed him as the Governor who signed into law House Bill 2, the controversial transgender “bathroom bill,” and then became the first North Carolina governor to lose reelection.

Another Republican running for the Senate seat, former Congressman Mark Walker, attacked him saying: “With taking back the Senate majority hinging on our success in North Carolina, why would we gamble on Pat McCrory — a career politician who has lost more statewide races than he’s won?”

McCrory lost to Bev Perdue in the 2008 governor’s race, then soundly defeated Lt. Governor Walter Dalton in 2012 after Perdue decided – late in the campaign season – not to run again.

McCrory took shots from both parties because he interviewed for jobs in the Trump Administration after losing narrowly to Governor Roy Cooper in 2016, but didn’t get appointed.

Walker said, “If Pat wasn’t good enough for Trump’s administration, he’s not good enough for our state.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said McCrory “couldn’t even get hired by the Trump administration.”

But he could get elected Senator.

Election night 2016

He enters the race with an advantage in name recognition, as his own campaign’s poll boasted. A Republican primary opponent will need a lot of money to overcome that.

McCrory has been mayor of Charlotte and governor. He has automatic stature.

Critics scoffed when he called himself an “outsider,” but that’s smart positioning. His campaign cited “the strength McCrory has as someone who has not served in Congress but instead has made executive-level decisions as a proven conservative.”

In other words, he’s not a Washington swamp creature like Walker and another Congressman who might run, Ted Budd.

Lara Trump, Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law, also might run. But why would she give up New York, Palm Beach and a Fox News gig? Plus, does Donald Trump want to risk his brand before 2024?

McCrory had a media gig too. He hosted “The Pat McCrory Show” on WBT radio. His campaign says that was “the top-rated talk radio show in Charlotte.”

It’s not “The Apprentice,” but it’s a big media market, especially in a Republican primary.

And he’s been a regular on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

It’s noteworthy that McCrory’s announcement didn’t mention Trump. You have to dig deep in his campaign website to find a mention of Trump. The former President is obviously a plus in the primary, but may be poison with Independents in a general election.

Senator Richard Burr, who is vacating the seat, got censured by North Carolina Republicans when he voted to impeach Trump over the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

Paul Shumaker, an experienced Republican consultant who worked with both Senators Burr and Thom Tillis, is handling McCrory’s Senate race. Shumaker can provide the skilled professional hand that McCrory lost when Jack Hawke died after the 2012 election.

If McCrory wins the primary, history favors him. Republicans have won the last four Senate races in North Carolina and six of the last seven. Since the two-party era began in 1972, Republicans have won 13 Senate races and Democrats, only four.

The last North Carolinian to be elected both Governor (1960) and Senator (1986) was Terry Sanford.

Now, I knew Terry Sanford. Terry Sanford is a hero of mine. Pat McCrory is no Terry Sanford. But he could win Sanford’s old Senate seat next year – and be both a Governor and a Senator.


McCrory’s announcement statement:


McCrory’s campaign poll:

Roy and Phil’s Excellent School Adventure

Bipartisanship, like pollen, has been in the air in Raleigh lately. Both will be gone soon.

Democratic Governor Roy Cooper signed the “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” championed by Phil Berger, the Republican Senate president pro-tem. Democrats and Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the bill; it passed the Senate 48-0 and the House 113-5.

But when he signed the law, Governor Cooper said:

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading. But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

In other words, “I’m supporting your bill, but you’d better support my education budget.”

Cooper’s and Berger’s viewpoints will frame the education debate during the rest of the legislative session.

The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 builds on the Excellent Public Schools Acts of 2013 and 2019. Those acts established Read to Achieve, Berger’s signature education program, which aims to get students reading by the end of the third grade.

But the Associated Press reported that “a 2018 North Carolina State University study found no benefit on reading scores from ‘Read to Achieve.’ Key test results on fourth-grade reading in North Carolina have been flat in recent years.”

This year’s “Excellent” act mandates that teaching be based on the “Science of Reading,” defined as “evidence-based reading instruction practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.”

Berger, Cooper, Tim Moore

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican, put it this way when she endorsed Berger’s bill:

“The science is in. The science of reading won the reading war. Phonics won.”

Governor Cooper – and Democratic legislators – apparently accept her verdict. But Cooper is saying that “ultimate success” requires better pay for teachers and more money spent in classroom and schools.

He titled his proposed education budget, released in March, “Ensuring a Sound Basic Education for All Students.” It includes:

  • A 10% increase over two years in “average pay for existing educators.”
  • Hiring more teacher assistants to support early-grades literacy and math.
  • More money for disadvantaged and at-risk students, for children with disabilities and for Limited English Proficiency services.
  • Increased support for low-wealth school systems and more help for low-performing and high-poverty schools and districts.
  • Money to recruit, retain, and support teachers, including programs like Teaching Fellows, Principals Fellows and National Board Certification.
  • More support and mentoring for first-year teachers.
  • More nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers.
  • More money for early-childhood education.

Conservative groups like the John Locke Foundation dismiss this as “teachers unions” and Democrats “throwing money” at problems.

But I remember an earlier “Excellent Schools Act” that had bipartisan support in North Carolina.

That was Governor Jim Hunt’s education bill in 1997, which then-Republican Speaker Harold Brubaker endorsed. It passed, even though it had a billion-dollar-plus price tag.

It raised teacher pay to the national average; North Carolina went from 43rd among the states in teacher pay to the top 20.

The result? Average SAT scores rose 40 points. Our students made more gains in math and reading scores than any other state’s students. Then-President Bush’s National Education Goals Panel said North Carolina made more progress in education during the 1990s than any state.

This year, Democrats and Republicans say they want excellent public schools. Will they pay for excellence?

FDR to LBJ to Joe Biden

Joe Biden’s surprisingly progressive presidency looks more like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson than his more recent Democratic predecessors – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Now Biden has an opportunity to do something no Democrat since FDR has done: get Americans to believe their government can work for them.

Like FDR and LBJ, Biden began with a big bang. He’s spending big bucks to put money into people’s pockets and put people to work.

In his first 50 days, Biden pushed through his $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan.” It sends money to individuals, businesses, and state and local governments to deal with the coronavirus and help people in need.

Now he has proposed an “American Jobs Plan” that would inject $2 trillion-plus into infrastructure, green energy and addressing economic inequities.

The White House website says:

“This is no time to build back to the way things were. This is a moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is a historic investment that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. It will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race—positioning the United States to lead in infrastructure and innovation once again.”

This is not the Joe Biden who was viewed little more than a year ago as a cautious, moderate fuddy-duddy trapped in the bygone days of bipartisan amity in the Senate.

This is also not the kind of presidency we saw from Carter, Clinton and Obama. All three spent – some Democrats say wasted – months and even years trying to put together comprehensive but complicated policy initiatives and get Republicans in Congress to vote for them: energy in Carter’s case and healthcare in Clinton’s and Obama’s.

The goals were laudable. But the process was laborious. And the impact was hard for Americans to see and feel.

Roosevelt and Johnson, who was a Roosevelt protege, didn’t make that mistake. Their actions were big and bold, simple and sweeping. They directly affected people.

FDR’s New Deal provided support for farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly. He passed banking reforms and financial regulations. And he gave Americans Social Security.

LBJ built on that with Medicare and Medicaid. He passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. His long list of achievements includes – just to name a few – Head Start, Food Stamps, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act and the Highway Beautification Act.

LBJ, beside Harry Truman, signs Medicare into law

Notably, it’s two Senate veterans, Johnson and Biden, who passed the most sweeping legislation, not the Washington outsiders Carter, Clinton and Obama.

But LBJ’s success was short-lived. Republicans won big in the 1966 midterm elections. Vietnam and racial divisions doomed his Great Society and War on Poverty.

Neither Carter, Clinton nor Obama sustained momentum after their first two years. Carter had problems with the Ted Kennedy wing of his party. Clinton and Obama suffered big losses in their first midterm elections, in 1994 and 2010.

If Biden passes his program, if the country recovers from Covid, if the economy comes back and if Americans decide his program works – all big ifs – he might put an end to Ronald Reagan’s doctrine that government is the problem, not the solution. That philosophy has dominated politics for 40 years.

Biden would go down in history not as a transitional President, but as a transformational one.

Mischief and Mismatches at the Top

My blog/newspaper column this week about Governor Roy Cooper and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson raised a question: Why are our two top officials, unlike the President and Vice President, elected separately?

It’s the unintended consequence of three constitutional amendments – one after the Civil War and two that came a century later, in the 1970s.

Before the Civil War, North Carolina didn’t have a lieutenant governor. Somehow we got by.

The office was created by the state Constitutional Convention of 1868. North Carolina, like other Confederate states, was required to rewrite its constitution before being re-admitted to the Union.

The rewrite was modeled after the constitution of Ohio and other northern states. It abolished slavery and gave Blacks (men only, of course) the right to vote.

The revision provided for a lieutenant governor, to be popularly elected along with the governor every four years. The lieutenant governor was made president of the Senate and first in line to succeed the governor.

Over the years, many states moved away from the separate election of governor and lieutenant governor and put them on the same ticket. Today, 26 states do it that way; 17 (as best I can tell), do it like North Carolina, including several Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.

For many years, two things kept North Carolina’s governors and lieutenant governors from fighting: both could serve only one term, and the lieutenant governor was a parttime office, serving only during short (in those days) legislative sessions.

Then North Carolina rewrote its constitution in 1971. John V. Orth wrote in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina:

“The North Carolina Constitution of 1971 clarified the purpose and operations of state government. Ambiguities and sections seemingly in conflict with the U.S. Constitution were either dropped or rewritten. The document consolidated the governor’s duties and powers, expanded the Council of State, and increased the office’s budgetary authority. It required the General Assembly to reduce the more than 300 state administrative departments to 25 principal departments and authorized the governor to organize them subject to legislative approval. It provided that extra sessions of the legislature be convened by action of three-fifths of its members rather than by the governor alone. And it revised portions of the previous constitution dealing with state and local finance.”

The revision also made the lieutenant governor a full-time office, with a staff. The first person to take advantage was Jim Hunt, who was elected lieutenant governor in 1972.

That was the year North Carolina elected the first Republican governor of the 20th Century, Jim Holshouser. Hunt was not only the first fulltime lieutenant governor, but also the top elected Democrat.

Hunt and Holshouser generally got along, though. Holshouser was a moderate mountain Republican; he and Hunt both supported statewide kindergartens and teacher pay raises.

Governors Hunt and Holshouser and families, 1977 Inaugural

They worked together to stop Democratic legislators’ efforts to strip away the governor’s powers. Hunt, after all, had plans to use those powers himself in four years.

After Hunt was elected governor in 1976, he made the other constitutional change that changed the relationship between the two offices. He pushed through succession, a constitutional amendment allowing both governors and lieutenant governors to run for a second term.

That’s where we are today.

There have been efforts to jointly elect the governor and lieutenant governor; the most recent was in 2015. But the change requires a constitutional amendment, and the idea didn’t get the three-fifths majority necessary in the House.

“The lieutenant governor is a heartbeat away from the governor’s mansion,” said Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican from Reidsville who sponsored the bill. “Those two should be working together and they should be doing so in such a way that, Lord forbid, if something were to happen to the governor, the lieutenant governor makes a smooth transition into that office.”

But Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican from Concord, argued, “Part of the reason for having an independent lieutenant governor, even if they’re the same party, is to limit the power of the governor, the influence and the control that he might exercise over the Senate through someone who was maybe, for lack of a better word, his lackey.”

The way our ship of state is designed today, the lieutenant governor is more likely to be a loose cannon on deck than a lackey.


This article by Molly Osborne of Education NC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research traces the history of the lieutenant governor’s office:

John V. Orth’s account of the 1971 Constitution:

Lieutenant Governors Can Be Governors’ Nightmares

As a Black conservative Republican, Mark Robinson isn’t North Carolina’s traditional Lieutenant Governor. But he’s squarely in the tradition of Lieutenant Governors bedeviling Governors.

One reason Governor Roy Cooper won’t run for U.S. Senate next year, even though he believes he’d win, he said in an interview, is that “we have a Republican lieutenant governor and if you look at who he is and what he stands for, I’m not sure that North Carolina needs two years of that.”

“Two years of that” would be different from two years of Cooper.

Take public schools. Cooper has proposed an ambitious education budget, including 10% pay raises, funds to address inequities and a school-construction bond issue.

Robinson, meanwhile, set up a task force to look into “indoctrination” in public schools. He argued against new state social studies standards that he said are “political in nature” and unfairly portray America as “systemically racist.”

Robinson has a history of eye-catching rhetoric.

He said the movie “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew.” He said Muslims “are not ‘immigrants,’ they are INVADERS.” He called former President Obama “a worthless, anti-American atheist who wanted to bring this nation to its knees.”

He shot to fame with a passionate gun-rights speech to the Greensboro City Council in 2018. That led to a speech at the NRA’s national convention. With NRA support and 100,000 Facebook followers, he won the Republican primary for lieutenant governor with 32.5% of the vote; Senator Andy Wells was second with 14.5%.

In November, Robinson defeated Democratic Yvonne Lewis Holley, who is also Black, by 51.6-48.4%.

“You might not like my politics,” Robinson says, “but I made history in this state.”

History shows that governors and lieutenant governors in North Carolina often don’t like each other. We’re one of 17 states where the two are elected separately. They can be from different parties; they can have different philosophies, conflicting personalities and competing ambitions.

I saw that working for Governor Jim Hunt in his first two terms, 1977-1985. Lieutenant Governor Jimmy Green was a Democrat like Hunt, but he was more conservative, he didn’t like Hunt and he wanted to be governor instead of Hunt. They fought frequently.

Three different times since 1972, governors and lieutenant governors were from different parties: Hunt and Republican Governor Jim Holshouser (1973-1977), Republican Governor Jim Martin and Lieutenant Governor Bob Jordan (1985-1989), and Cooper and Republican Dan Forest (2017-2021).

Even when the two are from the same party, are friendly and have compatible philosophies, there can be tensions. Lieutenant governors inevitably want more power and responsibility; governors invariably resist. Staffers on both sides inevitably rub each other wrong.

All lieutenant governors want to run for governor. But that’s not a proven path in North Carolina.

Since 1972, only two lieutenant governors have gone on to be elected governor: Hunt (1976, 1980, 1992 and 1996) and Bev Perdue (2008). Six lost races for governor: Green (1984), Jordan (1988), Jim Gardner (1992), Dennis Wicker (2000), Walter Dalton (2012) and Forest (2016).

You have better odds as attorney general. Of the six between 1972 and 2016, two got elected governor: Cooper and Mike Easley (2000 and 2004). One, Robert Morgan, got elected Senator (1974). Two lost races for governor, Rufus Edmisten (1984) and Lacy Thornburg (1992). One had been appointed attorney general and lost reelection: Jim Carson (1974).

The current Attorney General, Democrat Josh Stein, is a likely candidate for governor in 2024. So is Mark Robinson.

That contest would offer a stark contrast in party, philosophy and personality.

The Movie That Shook Up Durham

Let’s take a break from politics. Baseball season is starting, and the best baseball movie ever, “Bull Durham,” was made in Durham. The movie, in turn, may have made Durham what it is today. Dan Barkin wrote this story in Business North Carolina about the movie, the baseball team and the city.

 By Dan Barkin 

There was a paragraph inside the Charlotte Observer on Oct. 4, 1987, one of those items in a roundup of state news.

“DURHAM — A production company making a baseball movie in Durham will spend about $15,000 to make changes at Durham Athletic Park and an area house. Shooting for ‘Bull Durham’ is expected to begin this month at the park and other locations around the state.”

Of course, we now know that “a baseball movie” would become the baseball movie, immortalizing Crash Davis, Annie Savoy and their summer project Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, a young pitcher possessed of a million-dollar arm and a 5-cent head.

The major league baseball regular season starts Thursday. That means two things every time March turns to April. I am uneasy about Red Sox pitching and I watch Bull Durham to get in game shape.

While I still enjoyed the movie for the 30th or so time, I realized last week they could not make it today in Durham. The movie shows a Durham of the 1980s before its economic revival.

Downtown Durham is a different place now. It has beautiful brick and glass buildings. Abandoned textile mills and the empty tobacco buildings – the town’s unhappy signature decades ago – have been transformed into offices, restaurants and homes.

Bull Durham movie field

In the movie and real life in the 1980s, the Bulls were riding buses in the Class A-Advanced Carolina League. The Durham team now is in the Triple-A – the highest level of the minors – where a bag stays packed for a sudden call-up to Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. A next-level promotion for a Bull in the 1980s would have put him in Greenville, S.C, in what was then the AA Southern League.

The current Bulls’ stadium, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which opened next to the Durham Freeway in 1995, is gorgeous. It is also miraculous.

Improbable things had to happen for it to replace the 1930s-era DAP. First of all, a visionary named Miles Wolff had to restart the Bulls franchise in 1980 – the team shut down after the 1971 season. Then a screenwriter-director named Ron Shelton, a one-time AAA ballplayer, and a Durham-native producer named Thom Mount had to decide to make a low-budget movie about life in baseball’s bush leagues.

Wolff’s Bulls were drawing well in the 1980s, but when the movie hit theaters in June 1988, the team’s popularity exploded, with merch selling nationally. The Bulls were primed for bigger things, a move up to Triple-A, but they needed a bigger, shinier venue. After county voters rejected a bond referendum for a new downtown stadium, Wolff sold the team to Jim Goodmon and Capitol Broadcasting. In 1992, at considerable political risk, the City Council approved a stadium funding plan that didn’t require citizen approval.

Maybe the next part would have happened anyway, but what followed was a burst of investment and energy in downtown Durham, as if all the attention from the movie gave investors and city officials confidence and ambition. The old blue-collar town started announcing its presence with authority, with a burst of growth that would double its population over the next three decades.

The empty, old buildings next to the ballpark became the American Tobacco Campus. The old Liggett & Myers buildings became West Village, with upscale residences, offices and retail. The old Golden Belt textile mill complex was renovated. The Durham Performing Arts Center was built near the ballpark, which was also ringed by the Diamond View office buildings. And these were just the marquee projects. Fancy hotels and restaurants popped up.

Since 2000 in downtown Durham, private investment has totaled nearly $1.5 billion, and the public investment has kicked in another $640-plus million.

Dan Barkin

I got these numbers from Nicole Thompson, CEO of Downtown Durham Inc. She told me that a couple years ago, on her organization’s 25th anniversary, they put together a presentation to show how much had changed since the early ‘90s.

“We were able to find pictures from back then, and then go and take a picture of what it looks like now. And it’s still startling to look at.”

When she travelled on business – pre-COVID, of course – she would mention in conversations on a plane that she was from Durham, and her seatmates would proceed to tell her how they were visiting Raleigh but just had to go to Durham to see the ballpark. (Occasionally they would remark how much it had changed, and she would tell them they had visited the new park, not the one on the north side of downtown that was Shelton’s set.)

So, I was watching the movie last week, and Crash has just been cut loose by the organization, his mission accomplished. Rosters expand in the last month of the major league season, and LaLoosh, finally having been mentored sufficiently and differently by Annie and Crash, was called up to the big club. Crash is walking at night in 1987 by cavernous brick buildings that are vestiges of a once-dominant Durham tobacco industry. He has the street to himself.

I thought as I watched, well that’s another thing. Today, he’d be walking through West Village and he wouldn’t be alone.

I consulted someone knowledgeable about both the movie and the town, veteran journalist Kip Coons, who worked for the Durham Morning Herald as a sports writer in the 1980s. I worked with Coons when he was at The News & Observer.  His expertise came not just from living and working in Durham before Bull Durham, but also because he was an extra in the movie.

You may remember him from his star turn early in the film when LaLoosh is being interviewed in the locker room. Coons is one of the sports writers.

Coons told me that wasn’t the real DAP locker room. That was too small for scenes like the manager’s lollygaggers speech in the showers. The locker room was a set built in a nearby Durham warehouse.

Coons wound up in the film because he brought his son to the casting call at a local hotel. The part, it turned out, was for the little boy who shuttled notes between Annie and players in the dugout. His son was too young for the role. But they quickly realized that Coons knew how to stand next to an athlete and take notes.

Coons had two observations when we talked the other day. First, he said the power of the movie was its authenticity. There was a scene in the film in which the manager has to release a player who is struggling at the plate. The player pleads for more time, but the manager says no. The emotional player angrily yanks a chair across the office and storms out.

Coons was at a special showing of the film for players the day it was released in June 1988, Bulls players and members of the Lynchburg Red Sox, who were in town.

“The players were all laughing and joking during the movie,” said Coons. “When the player got released, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. You would have thought we were in church. That place went quiet in a hurry, because all those guys knew, hey, that can be me tomorrow, next week. That’s when I knew he had captured it.”

Second, he spoke to the impact of the movie on Durham. “If Bull Durham doesn’t happen, the [new ballpark] is probably not built, and you wonder if the other stuff around it gets built.

“The DPAC and all the nice restaurants over there, American Tobacco – all that stuff. Without the movie, you wonder what happens as far as Durham’s renaissance,” he said. “Does it come about? There would be questions whether it works as smoothly and as successfully as it did.”

Some baseball movie.



Will Voting Rights Battles Come to NC – Again?

For 150 years, North Carolina has been a battleground over Black citizens’ voting rights. Get ready for another battle.

Governor Roy Cooper issued a warning this month:

“I expect Republican leadership in our North Carolina legislature to follow a lot of other state legislatures in using this ‘big lie’ of voter fraud as an excuse for laws that suppress the vote. Let’s just get real about it: These laws are intended to discourage people from voting.”

Legislators in 43 states have proposed more than 250 bills to suppress voting. Georgia just passed one that The New York Times says will have “an outsize impact on Black voters.”

Reporters in Raleigh have speculated that similar bills will be introduced this year – and rushed through the legislature to Governor Cooper’s desk.

Our state has been here before. Resistance began as soon as the Fifteenth Amendment gave Blacks the right to vote after the Civil War.

Blacks helped elect Governor William W. Holden, a Republican, in 1868. In 1870, the Ku Klux Klan used murder and intimidation to suppress Republican votes. Democrats regained control of the legislature. They impeached Holden and removed him from office.

Despite Jim Crow laws and the Klan, Blacks continued to hold elected office in North Carolina during the 19th Century. The last to serve in Congress was George Henry White (1897-1901).

Congressman George H. White

Then white supremacists took over. In 1898, white mobs murdered Black citizens and overthrew the legally elected government of Wilmington. The Democratic Party and The News & Observer, working together, imposed ruthless voter-suppression laws that disenfranchised Blacks for decades.

In the 1960s, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act despite filibusters by Southern Senators, including North Carolina’s Sam Ervin, a Democrat.

The two parties then reversed roles on race. The Democratic Party, once the party of white supremacy, embraced civil rights. Southern whites embraced the Republican Party, once the party of Lincoln.

The News & Observer became a strong voice for civil rights and racial equality.

Republican Senator Jesse Helms, elected in 1972, took up the Southern-resistance banner. He had won fame fulminating on WRAL-TV against the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He held his seat for 30 years; he never changed his views on race.

The U.S. Justice Department accused Helms’ 1990 campaign – against a Black opponent, Harvey Gantt – of intimidating Black voters. The campaign sent 125,000 postcards, mostly to Black voters, falsely claiming they were not eligible and could be prosecuted for voter fraud. Helms’ campaign later signed a consent decree to settle the complaint.

A former Democrat, Helms had been involved in one of the most racist campaigns in North Carolina’s history, Willis Smith’s victory over Frank Porter Graham in the 1950 Senate Democratic primary. Smith’s campaign passed out flyers that said: “White People Wake Up.”

Willis Smith campaign flyer, 1950

Despite Helms, North Carolina earned a reputation in the last decades of the 20th Century as a progressive state on racial issues.

Then, in 2010 – the first midterm after the election of Barack Obama, the first Black President – Republicans won majorities in the state House and Senate.

In 2013, they passed an election law that the Brennan Center for Justice called “possibly the most restrictive” in the nation. It required a photo ID, curtailed early voting, ended same-day registration and ended provisional voting.

A federal court said the law “disproportionately affected” Black voters, targeting them “with almost surgical precision.” Lawsuits tied up many of the law’s provisions.

Now – in the wake of the 2020 election and Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud – North Carolina may be in for another battle.