JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Yes, North Carolina governors matter

RALEIGH — With my longtime friend Andy Wells, a former state senator, joining the Republican primary field for governor and Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan publicly considering a run for the Democratic nomination, now seems like an opportune time to answer a frequently voiced question.

Why in the world would anyone want to be governor of North Carolina?

As Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer pointed out in a recent post at OldNorthStatePolitics.com, our state’s governors rank precisely 50th in the nation in institutional power. Most chief executives in other states possess line-item vetoes, for example. Here in North Carolina, the governor has the power to veto only bills in their entirety — and can’t veto local bills, redistricting plans or proposed constitutional amendments.

Moreover, most states don’t split their executive branches among 10 separately elected statewide officials, as we do. Many state governors also have broad authority to staff departments, boards, and commissions with thousands of appointees. As of now, the governor of North Carolina appoints only 300. There are bills currently under consideration in the General Assembly to make that number even smaller.

State government has never been precisely analogous to the federal system, which concentrates executive power in a single elected official. The president is commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, and requires the ability to act swiftly and decisively to national-security threats. Still, all properly constructed constitutions distinguish between legislative and executive branches. And all properly constructed constitutions, while separating those branches, makes the legislature more powerful than the executive.

What makes our state distinctive is how just heavily our constitution presses down on the legislative side of the scale. The tradition dates back to the days of royal governors, who were often royal pains in the you-know-what.

Given these facts, then, why are at least four prominent Republicans and possibly two prominent Democrats launching campaigns for governor? Because the office’s formal duties do not represent the entirety of its power. North Carolina’s chief executives influence political and policy outcomes in other ways.

When governors speak, people hear them. One might argue that this mattered more in the pre-internet days when newspapers and broadcast stations from across the state kept dozens of reporters in Raleigh covering state government — and those media outlets collectively reached the vast majority of North Carolinians. But I think the governor’s megaphone remains wide and loud even in our current social-media age.

In addition to this public-facing capability, many of our governors have also exercised tremendous influence behind the scenes among the lawmakers, Council of State members, and other public and private actors who set the agenda for policy debate in North Carolina. Whether it was Luther Hodges selling the concept of the Research Triangle in the 1950s, governors of both parties pushing education reforms in the 1960s and 1970s, Republican Jim Martin working with a Democratic legislature to restructure the state transportation system in the 1980s, or Democrat Jim Hunt hatching Smart Start and welfare reform in the 1990s, all these initiatives came to fruition before voters amended the constitution to give their governor veto power.

Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen Mike Easley, Bev Perdue, Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper enjoy both successes and failures. Having a veto strengthened their respective hands, to be sure, but each used appointments, public rhetoric and private cajoling to good effect in at least one high-profile dispute with the legislative branch.

At this writing, the Republican field for 2024 contains Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, State Treasurer Dale Folwell, former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker and Andy Wells, who currently serves on the state board of transportation. Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein is definitely running for his party’s nomination for governor, while Mike Morgan is reportedly thinking about it.

Each of these individuals has experience in other public offices. Each understands the limits of gubernatorial power — but still believes he can best serve North Carolina in the future by occupying that office. May the best leader win.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.