A proposal to allow North Carolina governors to run for re-election has sparked a major political debate here, pitting the current governor against his lieutenant governor, and involving such disparate figures as New York Yankees baseball pitcher Jim (Catfish) Hunter, suspended Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, and former U.S. Sen. Sam J. Ervin Fr.
Voters in this state will go to the polls Nov. 8 to decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow the state's chief executives to run for a second consecutive four-year term.
North Carolina is one of only seven states in which a governor cannot succeed himself. Across the country, the trend during the last few decades has been twoard a stronger executive, with nine states amending their constitutions during the last 10 years to allow some form of gubernatorial succession.
Yet, the effort to allow two terms for North Carolina's governor has stirred sharp passions, particularly among "old guard" legislators and former lawmakers used to lording their political longevity over the executive branch of state government. Unlike the other 49 states, North Carolina also does not allow its governor to veto legislation passed by the General Assembly. Although some politicans contend that the governor makes up for his lack of institutional power through control over hundreds of appointments and other patronage, political scientists and other government analysts often view North Carolina's chief executive as the weakest among the 50 governors.
In addition to the clash betwen the executive and legislative branches of state government, the debate has taken on a distinctive historical color. Both sides agree that the lack of gubernatorial power stems from the colonial experience during the oppressive rule of King George III and the royal governors sent here from England to represent him.
The state's current governor, James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat who took office last January, made succession a major goal during the legislative session last spring, convincing legislators - either by arguing on the issues or by using patronage - to authorize the required public referendum.
Hunt, 40, an activist governor considered by many to have strong polititcal ambitions, would be able to succeed himself if voters approve the amendment next month. To try to insure a favorable vote, the governor and his political allies have mobolized their campaign organization, and the state Democratic Party, to work on behalf of the amendment.
But the state's second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. James C. Green, also a Democrat and a 16-year veteran of the General Assembly, opposes the succession amendment on philosophical grounds. But because he does not control the party's state apparatus, his allies are outnumbered by Hunts. Nevertheless, they are busy trying to drum up opposition to the amendment.
The pro-succession forces are using television ads featuring popular former residents like Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. North Carolinians, the commercials argue, have more right when it comes to electing president, whocan serve two consecutive terms in office, then when it comes to electing their own governors.
In addition, succession forces have lined up dozens of endorsements, including one from Catfish Hunter, who has never been active in North Carolina politics before, but who owns a farm in the eastern part of the state.
Opponents have come up with some celebrities of their own. Ervin, who capped a 20-year career in Washington by leading the Senate investigation into the Watergate scandals, recently told reporters he opposed succession because the governor who can succeed himself in office would devote his first term to running for re-election. Ervin is retired from Democratic Party politics, but his views on constitutional issues are still very much respected across the state.
Opponents also point to the state's history of relatively clean government, and offer two-term governors like Mandel as examples of what can happen in a governor's second term in office. "What do you tell your children about government when they ask why Gov. Mandel is going to jail," one succession opponent asked recently.