posted on April 02, 2009 09:01
The North Carolina House vote for a (revised) public-smoking ban conjures up memories of Jimmy Green.
When the chain-smoking Green was Speaker of the House in the 70s, he had a regular routine that passed for high comedy in the legislature. Every day, he would recognize a member who would move to suspend the House rule against smoking. Green would call for the ayes and nays, the members would laughingly shout nay and Green would slam down his gavel and rule that the motion had passed. Then he and the members would light up.
Green – and anybody else in politics in those days – could not have imagined the day would come in North Carolina when the legislature would even think of banning smoking anywhere.
The late Bob Scott was the first politician with enough guts to take on King Tobacco. He proposed the first tax on tobacco to pay for schools and kindergartens. Scott paid a price when he ran against Jim Hunt in 1980; we pounded him on his tax in rural North Carolina. And Hunt won all 100 counties in the primary.
Then-Senators Jesse Helms and John East voted for a federal tobacco tax in the early 1980s, under heavy pressure from a Reagan White House trying to balance the budget. We got the Democratic Party to run ads attacking them as “The Tobacco Tax Twins.”
Jim Hunt never smoked, but he was always tobacco’s friend. He grew up on a tobacco farm. As a grad student at State, he wrote a prize-winning thesis on the tobacco price-support program. As governor, he defended tobacco as the key to the survival of small farmers, because they could make so much more money on an acre of tobacco than any other crop.
In the 90s, during his second stint as governor, Hunt appointed his old friend – and tobacco-farm owner – Phil Carlton to help then-AG Mike Easley negotiate an end to the multi-state lawsuit against tobacco.
That suit put an end to North Carolina’s short life as a battleground state in presidential races. We were one of Bill Clinton’s top 10 target states in 1992. He lost by a hair, the only target state he lost. Then Clinton and Hillary – at Dick Morris’ behest – took on Big Tobacco. In 1996, North Carolina was never in play.
The changing politics of tobacco reflect the deep, fundamental and remarkable transformation that took place in North Carolina at the end of the 20th Century. We went from a poor, rural, segregated state to a prosperous, urbanizing and increasingly sophisticated state.
Everybody used to smoke. I remember going to family gatherings as a boy and gagging on the smoke. Now, anyone who smokes is looked upon as a weak-willed, unhealthy pariah.
Ironically, there may be as much tobacco grown in North Carolina today as ever before, now that production isn’t limited by the federal government.
But, politically, the King is dead.
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