Opinion

Opinion

Column: Robert Morgan's legacy: A passion to make N.C. judiciary free of undue influence

Posted July 21

Former US Senator Robert Morgan

-- After a long career in public service, Robert Morgan continued by establishing the N.C. Center for Voter Education.
-- His efforts led to establishment of a statewide voter guide.
-- The N.C. program for public financing of judicial elections became a national model.

* * *

From the CBC Opinion Editor, Wednesday, July 13, 2016
The following is a column by Seth Effron, opinion editor for Capitol Broadcasting Company

Perhaps it is the closing acts in life, often overlooked amid long lists of experiences, milestones and achievements that best sum up a person’s contribution and legacy. Such may be the case with former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan, who passed away Saturday at his Harnett County home in Lillington.

Morgan, as a young man, quickly rose from the rural farmland where he grew up to positions of influence and power: serving in the N.C. Senate from 1955 to 1968; as state Attorney General from 1969 to 1974; as U.S. senator from 1975 through 1980 and head of the State Bureau of Investigation from 1985 through 1992. To some, his role leading the segregationist gubernatorial campaign of I. Beverly Lake and backing the infamous speaker ban law of 1963, define him. To others, it is the narrow upset 1980 U.S. Senate re-election loss to Republican John East that marks his career.

But, as Chris Heagarty, the first director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, points out, it might be more reasonable to look at the acts and actions later in life, to sum up all of those experiences. Morgan was the founder and president of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. He’d come to recognize and worry about the increasingly harsh influence big money was having on electoral politics.  He sought to address it.

Heagarty pointed out that Morgan, particularly during his time in Washington, developed working relationships that broke typical partisan bonds. In 2003, as the N.C. Center for Voter Education launched efforts to establish public financing of judicial elections, Morgan, a Democrat, convinced his friend, Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, to come to Raleigh to kick off the reform campaign. Later, Morgan got Bill Moyers, a sharp political contrast to McCain, to come to North Carolina and also aid the effort.

The initiative McCain and Moyers helped Morgan start led to the establishment of non-partisan appellate court elections and a system of public financing of judicial elections that became a national model. North Carolinians could voluntarily agree to designate, on their income tax return, $3 to go to the fund.

With money raised from a $3.00 income tax check-off and a $50 fee on lawyers, more than $1 million annually was raised to pay for a voter guide and a campaign fund for judicial candidates.

Eight of 16 candidates for judge in 2006 qualified for public campaign financing. Five of the six winners were from those who participated in the program.

“At tax time, we had governors Hunt (a Democrat) and Holshouser (a Republican), helping,” Heagarty said of public service TV spots the two made. “Robert Morgan knew how to build bridges.”

That program continued until 2013 when, as part of the massive election laws rewrite (that is currently embroiled in federal court challenges), the program ended.

Morgan’s experience in politics spanned a unique time – from days when it was retail: shaking hands, greeting voters face-to-face and making direct appeals – to high-tech multi-media campaign, where candidates are digital images on a screen and voters are touched by tweets, on Instagram and Facebook.

“He, more and more, saw a graying of the lines between money, politics and policy outcomes,” Heagarty said. He wanted to find a practical solution, beyond just complaining.”

As a result, North Carolina, for a decade at least, had a workable public campaign finance program that was a model emulated throughout the nation.

Such is the evolution of a legacy.

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