Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers voted 71-28 Thursday to make the Rev. Billy Graham the state's next representative in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, replacing a statue of former Gov. Charles Aycock.
But the debate over the honor was divisive and acrimonious at times, with Republicans accusing Democrats of not liking Graham. Meanwhile, Democrats argued Republicans had refused to consider other candidates and had subverted the committee process to avoid debate on the matter.
Sponsor Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said he had the idea for the bill while walking through Statuary Hall last year, thinking that Aycock should be replaced. Aycock was once honored for his commitment to public education but has fallen out of favor in recent years due to views many now consider racist.
Asked how he had chosen Graham and whether he had considered other potential candidates for the honor, Jeter shot back, "I considered the entire population of North Carolina."
"Yeah, I chose Billy Graham because I thought he was the best person," he said. "Could there always be a better way of doing things? Certainly. I decided that I thought Billy Graham was the best choice."
Jeter noted that federal rules don't allow a statue of a living person in the hall but said the legislation would allow for a committee to be appointed to select the sculptor and begin to raise money for the statue. He said he had discussed it with the Graham family.
The bill, House Resolution 540, was in the House Rules Committee, but it was moved to the House floor for a vote Thursday without ever having had a committee hearing – a marked departure from the standard legislative process.
Democrats tried to have the bill sent back to committee for a hearing and debate, but Jeter accused them of not wanting to honor Graham.
"The only debate on this bill is the individual. This is an attempt to slow down the process. This is not about the process. This is about Billy Graham," he said.
"This is just a ploy to debate this forever," chimed in House Majority Leader Mike Hager. "Let’s just have a vote."
"Yes, this is a ploy on our part," retorted Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake. "It’s a secret attempt to actually give the bill a hearing in a House committee."
In a committee setting, other nominees for the honor could have been considered, either instead of or in addition to Graham.
But House Speaker Tim Moore ruled such attempts out of order, including an amendment to replace Graham's name in the bill with that of civil rights pioneer Julius Chamber.
Democrats took offense at Jeter's accusation.
"I am a proud Southern Baptist, and I resent the implication that I don’t hold Rev. Graham in high regard. I do," said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange. "But this bill should be debated in committee."
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, pointed out that she spoke on the floor when the House honored the Graham family recently. She said a decision of such significance should have had more public input, perhaps even a selection committee to choose the honoree from a list of nominees.
"It’s clear that this body is not united on this bill. It’s not our place to create this kind of division within our state," Carney said. "I don’t think the Graham family will feel honored by having a divisive debate like this around Rev. Graham."
Republicans seemed surprised by the Democrats' protests, noting that Graham has been on Gallup's annual list of the most admired people 58 times and has counseled every American president since Harry Truman.
"What more could you want out of someone to represent our state in the U.S. Capitol?" asked Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford. "This is a man who’s made a difference critically in millions and millions of peoples' lives."