James Martin: Installments

Part 1: From Davidson to D.C.

Part one of the three-part Biographical Conversations with James G. Martin, journeys from the future governor’s childhood in South Carolina to his first election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972.

Born in Savannah in 1935, James Grubbs Martin grew up in Winnsboro, South Carolina, a small town where all the neighbors, Governor Martin says, "had spanking privileges." In truth, the future governor and his three brothers got most of the discipline they needed at home. Martin’s mother, Mary, was a homemaker with strict standards that all four Martin brothers were expected to uphold. Her husband, Arthur Morrison Martin, a progressive Presbyterian minister who preached racial equality in the heart of the Jim Crow south, instilled in all of his sons a profound sense of social justice.

As a high school student at Winnsboro's Mount Zion institute, Martin was a bit of a renaissance pupil; a standout on the school basketball and football teams, the future governor also played the tuba, and--perhaps most important--developed a life-long love for chemistry. "It was a mysterious thing, "the governor says of the science, "You could see the liquids. You could see the solids, the crystals, the powders, the colors. And yet the secret of chemistry is not what you can see, but at the molecular and atomic level that you can’t see."

After graduating from Mount Zion in 1953, Martin went to Davidson College, where he majored in chemistry. Home for a weekend during his sophomore year, Martin met a Dorothy Ann McCauley, and by the end of the summer, the two had become close friends. That Fall, Dottie McAulay enrolled at Queens College in nearby Charlotte; two years later, right after Jim Martin graduated from Davidson in the Spring of 1957, the couple married.

Shortly after the wedding, the Martins moved to New Jersey, where the future governor pursued a doctoral degree at Princeton. At Princeton the couple welcomed their first child, James Grubbs Martin Jr., in December 1959. The following year, PhD in hand, Martin accepted a job as a chemistry professor at his alma mater, and the family moved back to Davidson. It was during these professorial years that Martin first became interested in politics. In 1961, Martin registered as a Republican, not as a reflection of a specific philosophical view, but because "The Democratic Party had held sway, had been totally dominant for a century or more." Martin believed that "the south had been held back by being totally controlled and dominated by one party. And I thought that there was a need to inject some degree of competition, though I had no idea that I’d ever be a part of helping to make that come about. I was just going to register with the Republicans in the interest of two-party politics."

But in fact, Martin would play a key-role in turning North Carolina into a two-party state. Although he lost his first bid for election when he vied for a city council post in 1963, three years later he won the post of county commissioner, and his political career was up and running. By this time a new member had joined the Martin family; Emily Wood Martin was born in June 1962. Ten years later, in February 1972, the Martin’s third child, Arthur Benson Martin, was born.
Also in 1972, Martin decided to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The first episode of this three-part series concludes with a discussion of Martin’s successful congressional campaign, which culminated in January 1973, when the Martin family moved to Washington, DC, for what would be a twelve-year stay.

Part 2: Tale of Two Governments

In episode two of Biographical Conversations with James G. Martin, Governor Martin discusses his six terms as a U.S. Representative, as well as his successful campaign for, and first term as, governor as North Carolina.

Martin won his first congressional term in November 1972--the year that Republican President Richard Nixon won a landslide reelection victory over Senator George McGovern. Even so, Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress. "I sort of had a career of being in the minority party," Martin says with a rueful grin. But Martin also explains that during his terms in Congress, members of rival parties treated one another politely and amicably. "Back then, you had friends not only in your state and neighboring states, but friends from both parties, you'd get to be friends with others on your committee from the other party."

During Martin's first term in the House, he served under the leadership of Gerald Ford, who was House minority leader until he was tapped to be Nixon's vice president in October 1973. The two Republicans formed a close working relationship during this time, and Martin retained a great deal of respect for Ford when he became president after Nixon's resignation in August 1974.

Martin also served in Congress under President Jimmy Carter, from 1977 to 1980. He remembers Carter as a "thoughtful and very open and very friendly," if not "a strong leader." President Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, is described as "a man who had very clear ideas about a few things that were very important."

After remaining in the House during Reagan's first presidential term, Martin decided to leave Washington, DC, at the end of his sixth term, in order to run for governor of North Carolina in 1984. Martin campaigned throughout the state, emulating Reagan's strategy of stressing a small number of priorities in a clear manner. "I was able to get across as a message, it even became a slogan after a while, that I was for better schools, better roads and better jobs." It proved to be a successful slogan; Martin was elected governor in November 1984.

But serving as a Republican governor in the Democratic-controlled Raleigh legislature proved to be a much less collegial situation for Martin, who came to realize that getting the legislature to agree to his proposals would be a challenge." I did not understand until I was elected and saw the steps that they took to try to, to minimize my ability, my effectiveness, my authority, and to usurp appointed power, that we were in for a real struggle."

Martin found his first term a constant battle, as he worked to find common ground with his often-adversarial legislature. But the governor did manage to remain popular with the people of North Carolina, who elected him--by a solid margin--to a second term in November 1988.

Part 3: Stretching the Road

Governor Martin begins episode three of Biographical Conversations with James G. Martin by discussing his second term as Governor of North Carolina. Intent on improving relations with the Democratic-controlled legislature, Martin stressed goals to unify the state government, His second inaugural address spoke of plans to improve education by bolstering the community college system and other institutes of higher learning.

Martin also announced plans to raise teacher pay--another goal everyone agreed upon. However, Martin’s strategy to achieve this--through a program called the career ladder plan, which awarded teachers according to merit--polarized the legislature. The North Carolina Association of Educators disapproved of any strategy that changed their rules and regulations, and democrats in the state government did not want to risk alienating the NCAE by agreeing with the governor.

But while the career ladder plan did not pass the legislature, other measures Governor Martin proposed, such as expanding the state prison system, lifting statewide high school achievement scores, and completing I-40 in the eastern part of the state, did succeed. Martin also strived to reach a compromise involving safe strategies to store nuclear waste in North Carolina, but faced opposition from environmental activists as well as other political figures.

In 1990, rumors surfaced that Martin might be interested in vying for incumbent Terry Sanford’s seat in 1992; that same year, state attorney general Lacy Thornburg announced that his office would launch an investigation into the Martin administration's behavior during the 1988 election. Appalled by the news, Martin called a news conference not only to deny allegations and denounce the investigation, but also to announce that he would not be seeking further political office, either in North Carolina or on the national scene.

Martin finished his second term by coping admirably with a statewide recession, and left the governor's mansion to his successor--Jim Hunt, beginning what would be the third of his unprecedented four gubernatorial terms--and returned to Davidson. He turned his entrepreneurial talent and spirit to his new job as head of the research program at Charlotte's Carolinas Medical Center.

This new position would become much more personal for Martin in 1994, when his brother, Joe Martin, was diagnosed with ALS. Joe Martin faced this disease with a determination not only to die with dignity, but to live life to its fullest. "He didn't want it to be presented as a fatal diagnosis," Martin said of his brother's attitude, "but as something you could continue to live with and to be a part of the family."

Inspired by his brother, who died in 2006, Martin raised money to start the Joe Martin ALS Foundation. He also was instrumental in opening the Carolina ALS Center at the Carolinas Medical Center.
At the conclusion of this final episode, Governor Martin remembers his gubernatorial years fondly, "That job was the best job in politics,” he says of his years in the Governor’s Mansion, "so I hope history will show that I did a reasonably good job most of the time."