North Carolina first to oust a Speaker
Published October 5, 2023
By Tom Campbell
While we digest the ousting of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy it might be informative to know that North Carolina was the first in the modern era to oust a Speaker. We can learn from that history.
The year was 1989. Since early in the 20th century Democrats had dominated state leadership, but in the 1988 elections former Republican congressman Jim Martin was elected to an unprecedented second term as governor. Republicans also gained legislative seats, electing 46 members, to Democrats’ 74.
Lincoln County freshman, Johnathan Rhyne was elected by Republicans as minority leader. The Democratic caucus re-nominated Liston Ramsey, from Madison County, for an unprecedented fourth two-year term. But seasoned observers knew there was grumbling over leadership.
Those who previously served in the House were upset that a “gang of eight” essentially determined what did or didn’t pass. Individual members felt disrespected and ignored, especially by Speaker Ramsey’s top lieutenant, Billy Watkins, chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Watkins could be vindictive, dictatorial and disrespectful to anyone who disagreed. Several Democratic members met with Speaker Ramsey and demanded that Watkins be removed from power. He refused.
A small group of about 20 Democrats met to discuss how to remove Watkins, concluding the only way was to oust Ramsey. But “the group,” as they called themselves, didn’t have support from enough other Democrats to vote him out and recognized they needed help from Republicans. Conditions were not nearly so partisan or polarized as now, so they speculated who in the GOP they could approach about overthrowing the Speaker.
Call it fate or whatever, but Democrat Joe Mavretic from Edgecombe County, volunteered that he had a personal relationship with Representative Rhyne and would be willing to probe whether a coalition might be possible.
Private discussions were begun. They readily acknowledged Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice: “If you shoot at a king, you must kill him.” We can only imagine those deliberations.
Included in the twenty or so Democrats were names we know, like Sam Hunt, David Diamont, Pete Hasty, Harry Payne, Pryor Gibson, C. R. Edwards, Walter Jones, Jr., Joe Mavretic, Betty Wiser, Roy Cooper and Alex Warner. We know what they accomplished in later life, but in that moment they understood that failure would not only result in banishment to legislative purgatory, but also would impact their future personal and professional lives. They believed their cause was not only just, but necessary for the betterment of North Carolina.
Rhyne and Mavretic had developed strong bonds of trust and step by step helped build trust among their respective party members. Mavretic was chosen to be the speaker nominee. In addition to being a retired fighter pilot and Marine Colonel, he had attended the War College, studied political science and had been schooled in how to conduct a “quiet” campaign, something necessary to avoid killing the plan before they were ready to go public.
An elaborate strategy evolved. Some of their agreements sound like action movie plots. The group divided into “cells” and kept each other constantly informed of relevant happenings. At one point they each agreed not to take personal phone calls, having assistants, spouses or family answer and relay messages.
Mavretic personally went to Speaker Ramsey the day before the vote and informed him that they had the votes to oust him. On the day of the vote all the group met for lunch; just before the appointed time they walked onto the House floor and elected Josephus Mavretic to be the Speaker of the NC House.
I remember the reverberations that quickly spread over Raleigh and throughout the state. A new era had begun in our state legislature.
Here’s my spin on six lessons that can be learned from the 1989 takeover:
1. We must reaffirm that every person has value and cannot or should not be diminished for any reason. Too many of the 120 House members didn’t feel respected and heard.
2. Those in elected positions represent many others. Today, each member of the NC House is representing some 88,000, so disrespecting the representative also disrespects those they represent. That opposes every basic tenant of our founders’ beliefs.
3. We have become a state and nation of intractable factions. George Washington, in his farewell address, tried to warn us of the dangers of geographical sectionalism and political factionalism. “You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together,” he said. “The independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common dangers, suffering and successes.” Words worth heeding today.
4. We can get more accomplished working together than standing alone. Bipartisanship serves us all better.
5. Many political problems can be solved by term limits. The longer someone remains in power, the more susceptible they are to abuse that power. Our founders never envisioned career politicians, as too many have become.
6. The “group” of Democrats and Republicans in the NC House knew the possible consequences of what they were doing but were willing to take risks for the good of our state. There are times when you must act. Now is one of them.
The question now before us is whether we will meet the challenge.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.