South Park Magazine

Jim Martin: A half century of public life

12/22/05:  Jim Martin, the former two-term governor,  is heading up a new committee to develop a school-construction financing plan. CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD -
12/22/05: Jim Martin, the former two-term governor, is heading up a new committee to develop a school-construction financing plan. CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD - Observer file photo

It’s been almost 50 years since former Gov. Jim Martin ran for his first public office – and got beaten.

He was teaching organic chemistry at Davidson College in 1965, and he mistakenly bought into the college town’s low-key mystique. “You understand that, in Davidson, we don’t campaign overtly,” he was advised by an incumbent on the town Board of Commissioners that he was trying to join.

So he went through the phone book, found names of 200 people who’d probably vote for him, and sat back to let them do it.

“I came in sixth,” he laughs now over a cup of coffee at a local hotel.

He never made the same mistake again. “If you’re going to campaign, campaign,” he says.

The Republican son of a Presbyterian minister, now 75 and living at Lake Norman, never lost another election. He won three terms on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, six terms as the U.S. House member from North Carolina’s 9th District, and two terms as governor of the state from 1985 to 1993.

Now, though he calls himself semi-retired, he’s keeping active on the local scene, from serving as a consultant at McGuire Woods to bringing his passion for science to the Charlotte Area Science Network and his passion for music to his work as chairman of the board of the Charlotte Symphony (for whom he’s been known to pick up a tuba).

As an elected officeholder, he was known for bringing a scientific presence, a cool eye, and a willingness to act in bipartisan fashion. While in the House, he was given the American Chemical Society’s Charles Lathrop Parsons award for outstanding public service by an American chemist.

“One of my great achievements was saving saccharin,” he says now as he tosses a packet of artificial sweetener from its bowl onto the table.

Congress had passed the Delaney clause on food safety before he arrived. It mandated zero tolerance in the food supply for any substance that caused cancer in humans or animals.

Then, “somebody managed to develop bladder tumors in rats with saccharin,” he says. Never mind that humans would have to drink 800 cans of saccharin-containing soda daily to get the same amount. And that they couldn’t do it. “The first 50 will drown you.”

Preaching the concept of relative risk rather than zero tolerance, Martin went on the national trail and debated one of Ralph Nader’s associates. The rule was changed.

A few years later, during his stint in the state’s highest office, Martin became known as North Carolina’s’ “cerebral governor.” “Sometimes that was not really meant as a compliment,” he chuckles.

Reporters wanted quick sound bites, he says, but the Davidson grad with the Princeton doctorate approached them as if teaching a class. “If I deliver the entire explanation,” he figured, “they can pick up what they want to.”

Martin, known for his support of education, transportation, and business, worked with officeholders on the Democratic side of the political fence to establish the first building and build up the staff for the N.C. Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. The innovative center lures biotech companies with educational resources, advises them on patents and helps them get grants and loans. “It caused North Carolina to move quickly into the top five states in biotechnology research and commerce,” he says.

After leaving the governorship in 1993, he started a 15-year career with Carolinas HealthCare System, first as director of Cannon Research Center and then vice president of government relations.

One of the most far-reaching efforts undertaken during his tenure there was participation in regenerative medicine research led by Harvard University and M.I.T. It successfully used a patient’s own cells to grow replacement body parts lost to injury or disease. “It’s not science fiction,” Martin says. The technology gave rise to patents, and, “They (medical experts) are doing skin grafts and bladder repair now.” Other applications will follow, he predicts.

In a move close to Martin’s heart, he and his late brother, Joe Martin, established the Carolinas Neuromuscular/ALS Center at Carolinas Medical Center, part of Carolinas HealthCare.

Joe Martin, a highly respected banker, writer and community activist, suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) before his death in 2006. Unlike the protagonist in the popular book, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” his brother wasn’t interested in learning how to die with ALS, Jim Martin says. “He wanted to live with ALS.”

The center helps 300 neuromuscular-impaired patients do just that, he says, by teaching them everything from “how to replace buttons with Velcro,” to providing access “to every known clinical trial.”

These days, Martin goes every other week to the Charlotte office of lobbying firm McGuireWoods Consulting to serve as advisor on health care and government relations.

He chairs the advisory panel to UNC’s Nutrition Research Institute at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. He’s also chairman of the Charlotte Area Science Network and on the advisory committee for the Greater Charlotte region of the N.C. Biotechnology Center. Once a longtime Duke Energy board member, he now serves as a director of Matthews-based retailing giant Family Dollar Stores.

At the Nutrition Institute, one of his interests is Dr. Steven Zeisel’s attempt to correlate test subjects’ nutritional needs with their DNA.

Blurbs on the back of food cans tell what percentage of a person’s need for, say, calcium, is being met. But estimates are based on broad averages, Martin explains, with some people needing more or less.

If variation in need can be tied to specific variations in DNA and those results are published, “that can be extremely valuable,” Martin says.

The Charlotte Area Science Network that he heads is a local scientists’ association that supports scientific education in the schools and educates the public through lectures and seminars. They try to present all sides of a subject where differences exist, says Martin, like global warming and stem cell research. They also sponsor monthly Science Cafes at Discovery Place, informal meetings where scientists and members of the public meet together to quiz experts and socialize.

Science – and then some

Martin is lecturing and writing a book about science and religion and his view that one doesn’t cancel out the other. Life’s mysteries, things for which science has no answer, are not to be viewed as absolute proof of God, he believes, because in science, new answers come along all the time. He prefers to think of them as “evidences” or indications of God’s existence. From there, faith takes over, he says.

He gave the invocation on the opening day of the N.C. House this year, introducing himself as an “unregistered lobbyist to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

On a lighter note, he oom-pah-pahed his way through a festival on The Square on a borrowed Salvation Army tuba to call attention to the Charlotte Symphony’s $25 million endowment drive. A former tuba player with the symphony, he now chairs its board.

And last football season, he joined the symphony on the national anthem at Bank of America stadium. “I played second tuba before the Panthers-Chicago Bears game. Pretty cool.”

Martin’s reason for becoming a Republican in a Democratic stronghold in 1960 is simple. “I thought we needed a two-party system.” An early picture of him and his wife Dottie shows them on either side of their station wagon. He was near the bumper sticker that said “Goldwater” while she, then a Democrat, was near the one that read “LBJ.”

She switched her registration so she could vote for him. But when their three grown children, Jim Jr. and Ben of Charlotte and Emily Richey of Winston-Salem, and their spouses and children get together, the political sentiment “is kind of mixed.”

That’s OK, he says. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion.”

More information:

Science Cafes

Discovery Place and the Charlotte Area Science Network hold monthly coffee and conversations with experts about topics in contemporary science. They take a summer hiatus and resume in the fall. Events are held 5-6:30 p.m. with special presenters. 704-372-6261 x 300;