Sunday, July 20, 2003 5:45AM EDT

GOP bulldog turns pliant as co-leader

Richard Morgan, Republican House speaker, replaces a gate at his 40-acre farm in Moore County with one of his prized Brangus bulls at his side. He also sells insurance in Pinehurst.
Staff Photos by Robert Willett

Richard Morgan, GOP House speaker, center, with Rep. Harold Brubaker, left, and Rep. William Culpepper .

By AMY GARDNER, Staff Writer

Driving a John Deere around his 40 acres in Moore County, Richard T. Morgan likes to recall the names he's given his Brangus beef cattle over the years.

Bru Boy the bull was named for Rep. Harold Brubaker, the former speaker, who remains Morgan's closest adviser in the legislature. Danny Mac was a bow to Danny McComas , the Wilmington Republican who nominated Morgan for speaker on the House floor last February. And Julianna was named for Rep. Julia Howard , another fellow Republican so taken with Morgan that, unable to attend his 51st birthday party last week, she sent a tape of herself singing "Happy Birthday" instead.

"To me, loyalty is more important than competence even," Morgan said on a recent Sunday as he gazed from his study across Morgan Farms. "They're either your friend or they're not."

Morgan has more friends than ever nearly six months after he and Democrat Jim Black became the first joint speakers in North Carolina history.

So far, the partnership has hummed along efficiently, because Morgan and Black share a deliberative style and also because they trust each other. They pushed out a budget quickly and avoided much of the acrimony that detractors predicted when the union formed Feb. 5 . And they pledged to work together despite their political differences. It was the only way, they said, to release the partisan hold that has gripped the evenly divided state House for years.

"It could not have gone any smoother," Black said.

Still, Morgan turned his back on many Republicans when he shook hands with Black. He grabbed hold of the speakership with initial support from just four allies. Hanging on will be difficult beyond the 2004 elections, when either party could win back the single seat needed to take control of the 120-person chamber.

Morgan's challenge now, even he agrees, is to be more than a footnote in history.


Morgan is a large man whose boyishly blond hair and round cheeks belie a slow, serious style . An insurance broker in Pinehurst when he's not politicking in Raleigh or farming, Morgan also has a 30-year resume of GOP credentials that makes him one of the last Republican lawmakers one might have expected to partner with a Democrat.

A self-described conservative, Morgan entered politics in the early 1970s with a stint in the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser. He has worked on political campaigns with former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms' political organization, the Congressional Club, and ran unsuccessfully for the legislature in 1976, and ran unsuccessfully for insurance commissioner in 1984.

In the shadow of Democrats for eight of his 12 years in the House, Morgan has often expressed his conservatism with a "no" vote. Since his election in 1990, Morgan has opposed a ban on spanking in day cares and a prohibition on blocking abortion clinics. He also voted against the establishment of the Global TransPark, the struggling air-cargo center in Kinston that defenders promised would attract thousands of jobs to Eastern North Carolina.

But Morgan has also maintained a keen eye for political strategy. He forged a lasting relationship with Brubaker, and early in his tenure headed the powerful House Rules Committee. When Republicans lost their brief control of the House in 1999, he became House minority leader.

Now, strategy has dictated that Morgan leave his nay-saying days in the minority behind. He talks by phone more regularly to Gov. Mike Easley than he does to many Republicans. He and Black speak every day. Among his biggest fans is Marc Basnight, the Democratic Senate leader.

Morgan makes decisions as slowly as his bear of a frame lumbers down the hall, usually with a Diet Coke in his hand. But he decided quickly back in February that he would work closely with Black, Basnight and Easley. He believes it is what voters -- even Republican ones -- want from government.

Morgan had no trouble, for example, supporting the expansion of Easley's two main education priorities: a prekindergarten for struggling 4-year-olds and smaller elementary class sizes.

"There are members of my caucus who wanted to fight that," Morgan said. "But this is the governor of North Carolina. You've got an $8.4 million expansion item in a $15 billion budget. Why would you take that on?"

Morgan also made a pact with Black: They would never betray one another, even if they would sometimes disagree. And they would build a coalition large enough to ignore the bomb-throwers of both parties, yielding unprecedented harmony and results.

"It's neutralized the extremes on each side," said Rep. Don Munford , a first-term Raleigh Republican and a member of a growing group of lawmakers living in Morgan's good graces.

An able compromiser

Most agree that the quick approval of a state budget has been the partnership's greatest success. The House approved its spending plan in April. And when negotiations with the Senate and the Governor's Office dragged, Morgan's determination along with Black's good relations with the other Democrats combined to push the budget across the finish line by the July 1 deadline.

It was past midnight on Saturday morning, June 28. Easley had threatened to veto the budget that House and Senate negotiators had finally agreed to. Senators were so angry they contemplated an override, and even thought about letting Easley use his veto stamp -- a gesture that would have launched a historic shutdown of state government the morning of July 1.

Morgan didn't want that. He invited Easley budget adviser Dan Gerlach to his office. They and Sabra Faires, Morgan's chief of staff, shared a bag of popcorn and tossed around some ideas. And then, Faires recalled, Morgan said: "OK, you and Dan stay and figure something out here."

That conversation led to a supplemental budget bill that satisfied Easley by giving him additional spending powers, thus averting a shutdown.

"In the tenseness of the moment, we were all hoping that there would be calm and that level heads would prevail," Morgan said. "Jim Black played a big role in making that happen as well."

Morgan works well with Easley's staff, but less clear is how well he and the governor get along directly. Morgan has developed a reputation over the years for having thin skin; it is a charge lobbed at him regularly by enemies who have wondered sometimes just what they've done to cross him.

Morgan came to just such a crossroads with Easley during budget deliberations. Easley began calling Morgan supporters in the House whom the governor was also friendly with, seeking support for the delay of additional tax cuts.

Easley viewed this as his prerogative, an opportunity to talk directly with lawmakers. But Morgan, who had already explained that the House was immovable, said he viewed Easley's calls as a betrayal of trust. And he called the governor and told him so.

"He's like a bulldog," said state Rep. David Miner, a Morgan ally from Cary. "He grabs hold of you. He did that with Leo Daughtry" -- Morgan's Republican rival for speaker this year -- "and he'll do it with Mike Easley if he needs to."

U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat and former state senator, is all too familiar with Morgan's bulldog side. When Morgan headed House Rules and Miller led a Senate committee, Miller buried a bill of Morgan's because other Democrats opposed it.

But the move so upset Morgan that he thereafter gutted legislation of Miller's that passed through his committee. And he didn't just gut the bills. He referred them to his committee, placed them on the calendar, let Miller speak to the committee, then introduced substitute bills that had nothing to do with the originals.

Morgan maintains that such actions have been justified and directed only at people who have betrayed him. He has plenty of friends he disagrees with, he said, and Black is Exhibit A. The key, he added, is never surprising each other -- and always telling the truth.

Miller concedes that there probably was a way to avoid the conflict all those years ago. "If I'd gone to him to try to make peace, it probably would have turned out differently."

Still, others wonder whether Morgan, who has not spoken a word to some of his Republican rivals in the House in years, is just colossally petty.

"His game plan is to take out anybody who disagrees with him," said George Holmes, a Republican from Yadkin County who supported Daughtry for speaker this year until he was nominated himself as a compromise contender. "He's the speaker. He's the one who has to pull us together. If he doesn't, we're just going to keep on throwing rocks at each other."

Feuding in the family

Perhaps Morgan's greatest challenge lies within his own party. His GOP detractors say he has torpedoed the party's electoral chances in 2004 for his own political gain, dividing House Republicans bitterly and permanently.

Many Republicans voted against the budget because they viewed its delay of two tax breaks as tax increases. But how can they run on that record, they ask, when a Republican speaker voted for the budget and says it contains no tax increases at all?

"Now, we're pulled apart," Daughtry said. "And there doesn't seem to be any effort to pull us back together."

On that much Morgan agrees. Morgan has disliked Daughtry for at least four years, claiming Daughtry has lied to him and has promoted his own political ambitions at the expense of other Republicans. Morgan has no plans, he added, to bridge that divide.

But the speaker is not without a grand strategy to remake his party with him at the top .

Morgan is reaching out to younger Republicans, newcomers to the legislature. He wants the Republican Party to be more open and inclusive, spending less time attacking others' ideas and more time coming up with its own.

"I like the way Speaker Morgan conducts business," said Rep. John Sauls, a first-term Republican from Sanford. "He's prompt and professional and fair. He's been fair to me. He's willing to cross party lines, and that's more important than anything else to voters in North Carolina."

Morgan is also raising money -- lots of it. Miner, who is helping the speaker solicit money, said Morgan has raised about $70,000 over the past two months.

Morgan will use that money to cultivate new Republican candidates and to promote his own re-election as speaker. But he is candid that he also plans to punish some old enemies, a reminder of the power of loyalty, betrayal and vengeance in his mind.

Daughtry is at the top of Morgan's hit list, along with Sam Ellis of Raleigh and Frank Mitchell from Iredell County. These Republicans are likely to face GOP opposition in next year's elections; they may also find themselves drawn into new, less friendly districts now that a court has ordered legislators to redraw their maps.

"Several years ago, you would never hear me say anything or even think about going after another Republican," Morgan said. "But I'm tired of the threats from people like Mitchell and Ellis and others. Mitchell's been calling into my district for four years trying to recruit somebody to run against me. So I have no hesitation to try to find more competent and more qualified Republicans. "

A strategy for survival

These enemies won't go down without a fight. Already they are attacking Morgan for entering a partnership they believe has left him a Republican in name only.

But Morgan has worked carefully to inoculate himself against that charge. He drew the line at new tax increases this year, and he refused to budge under pressure from Easley and the Senate to allow delays of additional tax breaks beyond those he agreed to support. He also refused even to consider introducing a lottery proposal, as Easley wanted.

Morgan believes these are credentials that he and other Republicans can tout on the campaign trail next year. He also regularly drops the names of such popular Republicans as President Bush and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

He sees no contradiction between that and his ability to work with Democrats in Raleigh. Like them, Morgan wants to protect schools and universities and stimulate the economy with well-chosen investments such as a new biotechnology research center.

"I've said all along, 'If you deliver good public policy then that becomes good politics,' " Morgan said.

"If you have some vision to get us out of where we are now and put our state in a better place, then that will be good politics, and somewhere along the line people will see our mark."