Like a lot of people interested in politics, some retired lawmakers across the state tuned into C-SPAN last week to watch as the U.S. House strained to elect a speaker. Even after 14 attempts over four days, California Republican Kevin McCarthy didn’t have enough votes to become speaker.
For the former legislators watching, it was a chance to reminisce about the revolutionary deal they secretly put together to assemble a bipartisan coalition that ran the state House in 1989 and 1990—and to wonder whether anyone in the U.S. House could mount something similar.
“It’s deja vu all over again,” former state Rep. Sam Hunt, a Burlington Democrat, told The Assembly.
Hunt was one of 20 Democrats who broke from a larger bloc of state House Democrats in January 1989 and joined forces with Republicans, who were the minority party, to elect Joe Mavretic, a reform Democrat, as speaker.
In doing so, they ended the historic four-term speakership of Liston Ramsey, an old-school, New Deal Democrat from Madison County whose top lieutenant ran the House with an iron fist.
Among the 20 breakaway Democrats was a young representative from Nash County named Roy Cooper, who went on to serve four terms as state attorney general and is now serving his second term as governor.
When former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican and former member of the U.S. House, weighed in on the speaker gridlock last week, he urged members to do something like what happened in North Carolina 34 years ago.
“Wouldn’t it be great for America if a block of Republicans and Democrats work together to pick a Speaker to run a coalition-style government?” he tweeted. “A coalition allows the House to create policy from the middle out rather than the extremes in.”
In the end, that didn’t happen. Republicans elected McCarthy speaker early Saturday morning on the 15th ballot with no votes from Democrats, missing the opportunity for collaboration that Kasich sought.
Warming the Bench
Democrats dominated the North Carolina General Assembly for most of the 20th century. Even when Republicans won the governorship three times in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Democratic rule of the legislature was unchallenged.
In the 1988 election, Democrats won 74 seats in the state House and Republicans took 46. But some rank-and-file Democrats were unhappy with how the state House was run. Hunt was one of them. The businessman was elected to his first full term in 1986, but felt shut out of the process of legislating.
A handful of House Democrats assembled the state budget, which could be several hundred pages, and then would give the other representatives only an hour or two to review it before voting. Differences between the House and Senate were negotiated, usually privately, by the “Gang of Eight”—eight white male Democrats, four from each chamber.
“You felt like a benchwarmer,” said Hunt, who was co-captain of his high school football team. “I looked down the bench, and there were 50 others there.”
Many House Democrats, including Hunt, thought highly of Ramsey. By tradition, North Carolina speakers had served one two-year term. Ramsey’s predecessor broke with tradition and served two terms as speaker. Ramsey doubled that.
In January 1989, he was seeking his fifth term. In many ways, he was the most powerful politician in the state—a savvy lawmaker who had consolidated power and knew how to use it. His influence in that era could be compared to the power that Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the state Senate, wields now.
Ramsey’s top lieutenant was Rep. Billy Watkins, a cocksure bantam of a lawyer from Granville County who could have used a charm-school lesson or two. Every leader needs an enforcer, and Watkins was Ramsey’s. He was maybe a little too good at his job, running roughshod over whoever was in his way.
By 1989, many House Democrats were sick of Watkins—and they were on the same team. Watkins treated Republicans even worse. He used local appropriations, often called “pork barrel,” to reward some legislators and punish others, especially Republicans who indicated they would vote against the budget.
When it came to confrontation, Mavretic, a Democrat from Edgecombe County, was no slouch himself. The former Marine fighter pilot relished a dogfight.
After the 1988 elections, Mavretic visited Ramsey in the speaker’s office on the second floor of the Legislative Building, just a few paces from the rear door to the House chamber.
“You got to do something about Billy Watkins because he’s killing us,” Mavretic said he told Ramsey.
Ramsey showed him the door.
“We had to get rid of Watkins. Liston wouldn’t do that,” Mavretic, who is 88 years old and lives in Raleigh, told The Assembly.
Ramsey didn’t know it, but his days as speaker were numbered. In trying to hold tighter and tighter to power, his grip became weaker and weaker.
Watkins ascribed to Niccolo Machiavelli’s admonition that, “A prince who wishes to maintain his power ought therefore to learn that he should not always be good, and must use that knowledge as circumstances and the exigencies of his own affairs may seem to require.” In The Prince, his treatise on power, Machiavelli advocated manipulation and cruelty when needed.
Dacher Keltner, a prominent psychologist and author of the book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, says Machiavelli was wrong.
“The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power,” Keltner wrote.
Keltner urges vigilance to guard against the blinding influence of power: “Instead of succumbing to the Machiavellian worldview—which unfortunately leads us to select Machiavellian leaders—we must promote a different model of power, one rooted in social intelligence, responsibility, and cooperation.”
That was the model the reformers wanted. “I wasn’t a rabble rouser, just an idealist,” David Diamont, one of the dissident Democrats, wrote in a text. “Our rebellion was about most of us being left out of all the decisions and the Gang of 8 putting together the budget.”
Revenge of the Nerds
Mavretic left Ramsey’s office after their meeting determined to push for change. Soon after, Republicans elected Johnathan Rhyne, then a 33-year-old lawyer from Lincoln County, as their House leader. Mavretic said he and other like-minded Democrats trusted Rhyne and thought they could work with him.
They began talking privately with Rhyne about joining forces to elect a reform speaker who would open up the House and give all members a chance to contribute. The Democrats promised Republicans that their bills would receive a fair hearing and that they’d get better representation on committees.
“We found out we had a lot of commonality,” Rhyne told The Assembly.
Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican who’d just won a second term by a large margin, facilitated the discussions, sometimes at the Executive Mansion.
Eventually, news surfaced that the 20 renegade Democrats were prepared to join forces with Republicans, topple the most powerful man in state government, and reorganize the House. It would be the legislative version of the 1980s movie Revenge of the Nerds: The people who had been pushed outside would now be on the inside.
Ramsey loyalists across North Carolina fought hard to give him another term. Some accused the rebellious Democrats of being traitors.
On the first day of the new session in January 1989, the Legislative Building hummed with anticipatory energy. No one knew for sure if the coalition would hold.
It was the best show in town. The granite-and-marble edifice on West Jones Street, opened in 1963 with a colonnade of square columns on each of its four sides, felt like a crowded arena before a big game or concert.
With a packed gallery above the House chamber, the 20 Democrats joined with 45 Republicans to elect Mavretic speaker.
The coalition held for a single, two-year term. In 1991, Democrats kept their large House majority. With the support of the breakaway Democrats, Dan Blue of Raleigh was elected the state’s first Black speaker. (Watkins died in August 1989, seven months after losing his leadership post; Ramsey died in 2001.)
Rhyne said the coalition was good for North Carolina. The rebellious Democrats said the coalition was about process, not policy.
Rhyne agreed, but added: “It had undertones of policy. When you exclude one party and their perspectives, it has an effect on policy.”
Rhyne remains proud of that session’s biggest legislative achievements: the creation of the Highway Trust Fund, which improved secondary roads and highways across the state, and closing a $2 billion budget gap through a compromise of revenue increases and budget cuts. The House passed both measures with strongly bipartisan votes.
The alliance didn’t seem to hurt most of the Democrats who participated, despite threats made against them at the time. Harry Payne was elected state labor commissioner. Walter Jones Jr. was elected to the U.S. House (although as a Republican). Hunt became state transportation secretary.
And Cooper has never lost an election, prompting some national political reporters to speculate that he could run for president in 2024 if Joe Biden does not seek reelection.
In the U.S. House, a group of 20 conservative Republicans declined to support McCarthy for several days, depriving him of the majority he needed.
Democrats in the U.S. House stuck with their new leader, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and consistently delivered him 212 votes. Republicans have 222 votes. A candidate needs a majority of those voting to be elected speaker.
As the House scrambled last week, some commentators and politicians noted that Democrats could have joined with Republicans to elect a less conservative Republican as speaker. Steve Benen, an MSNBC political contributor and blogger, mentioned former Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, as a possible compromise candidate who could win Democratic support. (The speaker does not have to be a current House member.)
“What’s to stop the retired congressman from striking a deal with House Democrats—a deal that could include, among other things, an agreement on raising the debt ceiling in a sane way—and finding a half-dozen GOP House members who might want to end the drama and back a mainstream Republican they know and admire?” Benen wrote.
It was unlikely, he said, but not impossible. He pointed out that Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska, has said he’d be willing to work with Democrats to elect a leader for the chamber if McCarthy did not have enough votes.
Bacon confirmed last week that he had talked with Democrats about a possible deal.
The Assembly asked Gov. Cooper last week if he thought Democrats in Washington should join forces with Republicans to elect a speaker, as he did in 1989.
A spokesman said Cooper “believes lawmakers serve the public best when they work to find common ground,” as happened last year in Raleigh and Washington with bills signed by Cooper and President Joe Biden. “It’s disappointing to see the country held hostage by dysfunctional congressional Republicans catering to extreme members who seem intent on stopping government from functioning.”
The other former state legislators interviewed by The Assembly last week said they doubted congressional Democrats would join forces with Republicans. Mavretic said the differences between the two parties are too stark.
Hunt agreed the political climate was not right for that kind of deal: “It’s just so doggone mean.” Any Republican who joined forces with Democrats would likely be “primaried” in 2024. “You never heard of that back then,” he said.
Rhyne also noted how politics has changed. Social media didn’t exist in 1989, and politicians and their representatives weren’t trolling each other every day, looking to pick a new fight.
“There was no stigma to working across the aisle, or certainly, less of a stigma,” he said. “I’m not sure the fringes of either party would allow that to happen today.”
But, Rhyne added, “It would probably be good for the country if it could.”
John Drescher, The Assembly’s contributing editor, is former executive editor of The News & Observer and a former editor at The Washington Post. Follow him @john_drescher. Reach him at email@example.com.