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Calling Gilbert and Sullivan

Major Martin is a moderate, and Munford's a moderate, too (tra la la)

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When the subject turns to candidates "reporting for duty," Raleigh voters will naturally think of--Grier Martin? "Yeah, we have kinda put that out there, I guess," a sheepish Martin admits. Martin, the Democratic candidate for state House of Representatives in District 34, is a lawyer--ho, hum--who is also a major in the Army Reserves. After 9/11, he volunteered for active duty and served a two-year tour that ended in May and included six and a half months in Afghanistan. No, not fighting. Lawyering. But lawyering out in the countryside, where on one occasion his talks with a tribal chieftain required first sweeping the mortar shells off the chief's negotiating table.

Martin's campaign, against incumbent Republican Don Munford, is not just the most interesting legislative race in the Triangle. Because of gerrymandering, it's the only interesting race. Or it would be interesting, if we all weren't absolutely obsessed with the presidential campaign to the exclusion of all else. Is there a U.S. Senate contest? Oh, yeah, Bowles vs. Burr--which party is Bowles again? And in the race for governor, what's the difference between Easley and Ballantine? Right, one's more anti-tax than the other--but which one?

And, anyway, who cares? There's a war on. Actually, lots of wars, real and imagined.

In this charged atmosphere, when Martin knocks on a voter's door in Raleigh--and so far he's knocked on almost 2,000 of them, belonging to Democrats or independents--he's asked one of two questions. "They either want to talk about presidential politics," he says, "or about how [Raleigh's] trash collection system is changing. Neither of which has much to do with the legislature."

No wonder, then, that Martin's mail and TV spots show him in Afghanistan, in uniform, ready to defend himself if necessary (he's trained as a paratrooper), though while he was there it never was. He spent most of his time acting as a circuit judge on claims made by Afghan citizens because of our "collateral damage" to their lives and property. He also helped GIs with their legal problems back home (divorces, unpaid bills) and advised field commanders on the law regarding use of force and appropriate targets.

Does this matter in a legislative campaign? Does it matter, back in 'Nam, that John Kerry did four years in the Navy, including a harrowing four months in his Swift Boat, while George W. Bush played flyboy back in Texas, carefully remembering not his last scheduled physical (actually, he seems to have remembered not to attend that), but rather to check the box that said don't ever send me into combat?

Sure, it matters.

It matters--if you are an American who's willing to send our young men and women to a war--that when you're young and fit, you're willing to go, too. That's a moral question.

In politics, it matters most, I suppose, if you're a "moderate." Being in the middle, able to see both sides of the issues, isn't a bad thing at all, not really--as long as you don't leave the room when the votes are cast. But the fire-breathing conservative, or the hard-charging progressive, will always be thought the more courageous character, even if his clear views are the product of a huge blind spot for the facts.

The moderate, though, has trouble proving his courage. Unless, by reporting for duty, he's already proven it.

And Grier Martin is--well, he eschews labels, but he's running in a moderate-to-conservative Raleigh district and he's not a raging progressive, that's for sure. To put something in simple terms that isn't simple at all, he's a chip off his father's block, his dad being D.G. Martin, the ex-UNC system lobbyist and former Green Beret who lost the '98 Democratic Senate primary to John Edwards. D.G. Martin has the soul of a bleeding heart liberal combined with the conservative's sense of public duty that says, there's a war, you support it, fight in it. He also knows that in North Carolina politics nowadays, little incremental steps are all the Democratic party is capable of taking--if it's even capable of that (see: Bowles; Easley). As a candidate, he talked too long and explained too much (as opposed to Edwards, who boiled the same centrist views down to 30-second TV ads), but the point of the explanation was to say where he would take a risk and where he wouldn't--and why.

Put another way, D.G. had a strong enough sense of public duty to tell the voters what he really thought. That's not just risky, it's--well, it's a good thing, right?

His son, similarly, took a long time telling me what he thinks about capital punishment. He's for it, in theory, for first-degree murders. But in practice, he's studied hard about whether the state can ever be "accurate, fair and non-discriminatory" in the way it applies the death sentence. He's in favor of a moratorium on death sentences while others study it, too. But he wants the voters to know that, so far, he can't imagine how mistakes and bias could ever be eliminated. And if they can't, he can't support capital punishment.

And on taxes, a subject made more difficult for Democrats by Gov. Easley's reactionary campaign, the younger Martin's views are also complex, but finally clear. He's not in favor of raising taxes. You wouldn't be either, if you were running, he tells me, and I know that's right. But he's also not claiming that there's a lot of fat in state government. And he is in favor of pushing education forward, especially in poor counties where more state aid is the only way that push can be made. And he's anti-lottery. You do the math.

"I have been pleased," he says, "that when I knock on voters' doors, while nobody's saying raise my taxes, they are saying that if we need more money for our schools, let's go find it. Raising taxes isn't my first choice either, but make no mistake, I will do the right thing for our schools."

Against Munford, Martin is pitted against a candidate who won his first term two years ago running as Jesse Helms' lawyer and accountant (one brochure showed him literally sitting at Jesse and Dot Helms' knee), but who has since turned out to be something of a moderate himself, at least for a Republican.

Munford voted with the conservatives against the Jim Black-Richard Morgan co-speakership deal (Morgan, the renegade Republican, broke with his party, along with a half-dozen GOP allies after the House elections ended in a Democrat-Republican tie), but after that he made himself a swing vote on at least a few issues. He voted against his first state budget, but in favor (in other words, with the Black-Morgan coalition) on the second one. He, too, is pro-moratorium on the death penalty. And he refused to co-sponsor the party's pet "wedge" bill, which would have asked voters to add an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriages and civil unions.

Thus, Munford was rated the most influential freshman legislator this term by the pro-business group NC FREE and by the centrist N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, whose ratings reflect what insiders think.

He's a nice guy, too, which has Martin's Democratic friends (but not Martin himself) grumbling that, just because he's not a "knuckle-dragger"--ironically, their term for the sort of Republican who doesn't want evolution taught in science class--he's not seen for the Helms conservative he is at heart.

Munford's legislative district is the only one in Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill, Senate or House, that is considered up for grabs. The others are drawn so they're either safe for the Republicans or safe for the Democrats.

Thus, in a close election, the Munford-Martin race may determine which party controls the House--the Democrats, the Republicans, or (once again) the Black-Morgan coalition. Only if it's the Democrats, Martin thinks, is a little incremental progress possible. He's for that.

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