Co-speaker of the House works amid controversy
Critics charge that Morgan is a traitor to Republicans
By David Rice
Monday, November 24, 2003


On his farm not far from Pinehurst, Richard Morgan raises a hybrid breed of beef cattle called Brangus - three-eighths Brahman, five-eighths Angus.

And 75 miles away in the Legislative Building, where he serves as the Republican co-speaker of a state House with 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats, he tries to manage a hybrid legislature as well.

With the House evenly split after Rep. Michael Decker of Walkertown switched to the Democratic party in January, Morgan and 12 allies forged a historic coalition with Democrat Jim Black. And Morgan and Black became the first co-speakers of the House in state history.

After watching both Republicans and Democrats struggle to govern through the years with slim, two- to four-seat majorities, Morgan says that coalition government is a necessity these days in North Carolina.

"It's clear that there are not going to be decisive majorities to govern within one-party ranks," he said. "The fact of the matter is you cannot govern. You have small groups of folks on either side that can hold the policy of the state hostage unless you get about forming a coalition, being serious about it and making it stick."

Though he agrees that the state is gradually evolving toward a Republican majority, "I believe for the remainder of this decade that it will be necessary to have coalitions made up of members of both parties," he said.

But such statements rankle hard-core Republicans.

As legislators prepare for the highly partisan, highly personal task of drawing new legislative districts for the remainder of the decade in a special session that begins today, Morgan is at the center of attention.

His very vocal critics - most of them fellow Republicans who consider him a traitor who sold out his party for personal power - speculate that he will "double-bunk" many of them in the same districts, forcing them to run against one another and thin their ranks.

And some observers wonder how long the power-sharing arrangement with Black can remain tenable in a state that is growing increasingly Republican.

"Morgan's political interests do not coincide with the interests of the North Carolina Republican Party as a whole," said John Hood, the president of the conservative John Locke Foundation. "If they maximize their gains, that minimizes his political power.... His interest is in keeping it very, very tight."

To his admirers, Morgan is a serious, studious, strategic thinker who often works until midnight in his dimly lit legislative office. He is single-minded and intensely focused - he even eats one thing at a time from his plate.

"Morgan is the classic 'speak softly and carry a big stick' kind of insider political leader," said John Davis, the executive director of N.C. FREE, a business group that tracks state elections. "They are very, very effective, because they never tip their hand, and they never react emotionally.

"He's smart as a whip, and shrewd politically. Some people are politically savvy. He's politically shrewd," Davis said.

So far, the co-speakership has worked far better than skeptics thought it would.

Despite ongoing troubles with the state budget, the House passed a budget this year with ample votes to spare - and without the bitter partisan divisions of recent years. Jim Black says that he's more relaxed than he's been in five years as speaker.

"They sure have had a remarkable run as a team, and have impressed and shocked a lot of people with their cooperation," said Davis.

To his Republican critics, though, Morgan is a mysterious, conniving, vengeful sellout.

The critics call themselves "the Safari Club," because they sit "so far" to the rear of the House chamber that they need binoculars to see what's happening up front. They also hunt for what they call RINOs - "Republicans In Name Only."

They blame Morgan and his allies for agreeing with Democrats this year to extend $384 million in "temporary" state taxes for two more years.

They blame him for sitting on legislation sought by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. that would force discount cigarette-makers to make payments at the same rate large companies do because of their settlement with the states.

They point to a statement he made this year that loyalty is more important to him than competence.

And they point to how Morgan denied secretaries for eight out-of-favor members between legislative sessions this year as a sign of his pettiness.

"He was a backyard bully, and that's never left him. He loves to intimidate," said Rep. Billy Creech, R-Johnston."What little progress we've made, he's tearing down. He's a one-man crusade to move the Republican Party from the conservative party to the moderate party."

The critics predict that in drawing new House districts and recruiting Republican candidates for 2004, Morgan will target or double-bunk his Republican enemies.

Those enemies include Reps. Leo Daughtry and Creech of Johnston County, Frank Mitchell of Iredell County, George Holmes of Yadkin County, Sam Ellis of Wake, John Rhodes and Ed McMahan of Mecklenburg, and John Blust of Guilford.

Daughtry, initially the Republican nominee for speaker last year, could easily be drawn into the same Johnston County district with Creech.

And Mitchell, from northern Iredell, expects Morgan to lump him into the same district with Holmes, from neighboring Yadkin.

"It is a lust for power that drives him, 24 hours a day. He craves power. He's gone over the limit now when he starts going after his own members," Mitchell said. "We feel he wants us out of the way so that he can control the freshmen that come in."

Morgan dismisses such accusations.

"Really, the only issue is my enemies tried to cut their own deal and failed. Because of their failure, they're looking for someone else to blame," he said.

Morgan also denies that there's a target list - up to a point.

He says that some incumbents will find themselves in the same district with another, if only to satisfy court requirements for compact districts. And he says that the House Republican caucus needs a "cleansing," and that he looks forward to an active primary season next year.

"There's no target list. There are folks that I think less highly of than others," he said.

"Really, the appropriate place for Republicans to air their differences is within the confines of a Republican primary. There's no secret ... that I'd like to bring more-competent and more-qualified Republicans to the General Assembly who are effective in place of some who are ineffective."

Republican opposition for some of his most outspoken critics is arising without drawing new districts, Morgan said, and he is willing to talk with those potential challengers.

A mystique swirls around Morgan - one that he admits his own actions sometimes reinforce.

Especially when he served as the House's chief enforcer as rules chairman under former speaker Harold Brubaker from 1995 to 1998, he often let speculation about his motives go unanswered, and the rumor mill filled the void.

Morgan also chooses his words very, very carefully. When he pauses in mid-sentence searching for the right word, listeners sometimes interpret it as pausing for dramatic effect - or worse, out of arrogance.

But Morgan even ranked ahead of Brubaker, who was then the speaker, as the House's most effective member in a 1997 survey by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Creech contends that Morgan hardened during a 1998 investigation by the State Board of Elections into his fund raising with Brubaker among executives in the hog industry.

"The State Board of Elections was investigating them for influence-peddling, basically, and Richard really changed," Creech said. "He didn't trust anybody. He was suspicious.... I think that was a turning point for Richard."

Though they were accused of using a Morgan bill that clamped new restrictions on hog farms to shake down the industry for campaign contributions, Morgan and Brubaker were cleared of wrongdoing.

Morgan contends that he is more open now as speaker than he was as rules chairman in the 1990s. But he still doesn't discount the element of surprise.

"If I'm ever predictable ... then maybe I'm not quite as effective," he said.

"I've always said that you really cannot effect change without controversy. Some folks say that it's better political wisdom to have less controversy. I'm not sure you ever get anything done if you take that attitude."

The Republicans who criticize him say that while Morgan has built relationships with Democrats, he has done little to mend fences within his own party.

To demonstrate his GOP credentials, Morgan, 53, digs into a file cabinet in an outbuilding at his Moore County farm and pulls out 25 years' worth of letters from Republican governors, congressmen and party officials.

One document shows how he tried to get Arnold Palmer to run for governor in the 1970s.

Morgan says he has put contribution checks totaling as much as $291,000 into the hands of party officials. And he clearly questions his critics' standing.

"While they're getting all steamed up, what I'm trying to do is keep completely focused on raising dollars for elections," he said. "Maybe I'm trying to change the face of the party in saying to some of these folks who like to toss the grenades ... that I'm just not going to put up with it anymore," he said.

Though Morgan paints his critics as a small band of loudmouths, Hood, at the Locke Foundation, says that it's Morgan who has limited support among Republicans.

"The reality is that there is no significant Morgan faction. There is Morgan, a few members of the legislature and half of the Moore County Republican Party," Hood said.

Hood noted that at least three Republican candidates for governor are campaigning against the two-year extension of $384 million in sales and income taxes that Morgan and his allies backed in the state budget this year.

"Everywhere you go, Republicans are angry," he said. "They consider him at least a threat to Republican cohesion."

But there are varying degrees of resentment, he said.

"There is a faction of vitriolic, motivated Republicans who would like to unseat Morgan and all of his minions. But I think there is a broader group of Republicans ... who see him as damaging the party," Hood said.

Davis says that as they draw new districts, Black and Morgan face what could be one of the most stressful periods in their power-sharing arrangement.

"Those two leaders are morally obligated to beat each other," Davis said. They must seek the advantage for their party."

Morgan says that because of intra-party factions, a simple majority or even the 68 seats that Republicans held in 1995-96 isn't enough to govern effectively in the 120-member House.

"I'm not sure that's sufficient today. I think you need 70 (seats)," he said.

Davis agrees. "You have to have somewhere around 68 or 70 in order to have a ruling coalition - and neither party is likely to get there in '04," he said.

As they draw new districts, Morgan acknowledges a certain tension.

"Jim Black's objective is to bring back as many Democrats as possible. And mine is to bring back as many Republicans as possible - I admit to you maybe not the same Republicans in all cases," he said.

But he also says he expects the co-speakership to continue after the 2004 election.

"Yeah, I believe it goes beyond. With slim majorities, there's great potential for it to go on. This co-speakership works because you've got two people that trust each other. And we've put together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats that trust each other. You've got a whole bunch of freshman that have never seen the bickering and gridlock ... and I hope they never see it," he said.

• David Rice can be reached in Raleigh at (919) 833-9056 or at

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