Former Gov. Jim Martin was sitting in his Lake Norman home a few weeks ago when his phone rang.
It was former Gov. Pat McCrory, a fellow Republican.
“We have to do something about this,” McCrory told Martin.
“This” referred to two constitutional amendments pushed by NC Republican leaders that would eviscerate the governor’s power to appoint people to important state boards and to appoint judges to vacancies.
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It was a breathtaking seizure of power from the executive branch. A story about it had been in the paper that day, and McCrory – who as governor had already fought and won separation-of-powers battles with this legislature – wanted it stopped. “You and I have to do something,” McCrory told Martin.
Shortly after that call, Martin’s phone rang again. It was former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat.
“You and I have to do something about this,” Hunt told Martin.
The light bulb came on for Martin right away: All five living former governors should unite against the amendments, regardless of party.
“I said, ‘Let me call the others,’” Martin told me last week.
“Hunt said, ‘Can you and I do it?’ I said, ‘No, it’d be better if we get everyone involved, that sends a much clearer signal. So I called (former Gov. Bev) Perdue and (former Gov. Mike) Easley and basically told them, ‘We gotta do something.’ They jumped on board real quick.”
Martin said he made 60 to 80 calls per day for the next two days nailing down the plan. The result was a remarkable collaboration bringing together every N.C. governor of the past 40 years – three Democrats and two Republicans. The group would hold a press conference the following Monday, Aug. 13. They would also enlist consultants to line up a committee to raise money to run an anti-amendments campaign through the fall.
Their efforts paid off: The legislature, probably in part thanks to the governors’ united front, rewrote the two amendments in question, as well as the language that will appear on the ballot.
But legislators didn’t go far enough. Martin told me that the five governors will continue to fight the amendments even with the changes. He said he’s “embarrassed” by his party’s “mischievous brilliance” of trying to put unconstitutional things in the state constitution to make them not unconstitutional anymore.
Martin said the governors will vigorously fight the judicial vacancies amendment because it limits the governor to choosing from two nominees named by a partisan legislature, and gives the governor only 10 days to vet them before legislators would name the judge themselves. “I guarantee you they won’t have done any vetting other than they know good ol’ Charlie,” Martin said.
The governors will also oppose the Board of Elections amendment. Even though legislators removed the part seizing the governor’s appointment power, it still gives all the elections appointments to legislators.
However the public votes on the amendments, it was refreshing in this age of polarization to see five governors of different parties unite on public policy.
“When people of both parties see something wrong,” Martin said, “you can get together and speak up and bring a united front to that particular cause.”