Close election birthed column

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How did a close election in the 9th Congressional District of North Carolina lead to this column?

It does not have anything to do with the recent contest between Mark Harris and Dan McCready that has gained national attention.

I am thinking about 34 years ago when I lost a congressional election in the Ninth District by 321 votes. It was so close that I knew I would try again two years later.

There was one great challenge. The newly-elected congressman would have a monopoly of news coverage for the next two years.

One of my supporters knew about plans for a new newspaper that would be distributed weekly to every household in Mecklenburg County. The owners needed content and agreed to publish a column each week if I would write it.

From the first I enjoyed sharing my views each week and, in preparation for the next election, keeping my name before the public.

When the congressman complained about my getting a prominent voice in the paper, the owners told him they would print a column from him, too. For a year and a half he and I faced off every week.

It worked out to be a great help for my campaign. But not quite enough. I lost again by a close margin.

I lost the election but kept writing the column, offering it to other newspapers in addition to a few who had picked it up during the campaign.

In the beginning, before email, my wife and I would address and stamp each envelope, stuff the column copies, and get them in the mail so they would arrive at the papers by Monday morning. Maybe all that hassle explains why there were so few statewide columns back then.

At first, the column often dealt with issues I had studied as a congressional candidate and insights into North Carolina politics. But, from the beginning, I shared personal experiences, such as a train ride between Charlotte and Durham and taking my daughter to a gemstone and rock exhibition where we met a Jewish survivor from Nazi Germany.

Not long after the end of my congressional campaigning, UNC System President Dick Spangler asked me to serve on his staff. The move to Chapel Hill and the close connection to state politics provided more fodder for columns.

Travel to university campuses also gave me the chance to visit some wonderful country cooking restaurants along the way. A big response to a column I wrote about my favorite country cooking eateries led me to invite readers to share their favorites. I combined their responses into a pamphlet that led to my writing about eateries first for Our State magazine and more recently in my book, “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries” published by UNC Press.

Soon after retiring from the University in 1997 and unsuccessfully running for the United States Senate, UNC-TV asked me to host its North Carolina Bookwatch program. I began to share my thoughts about new books related to North Carolina that I thought should get attention from a wide audience.

Meanwhile, during the 1990s, the problems of producing and distributing my column diminished. Email delivery made it possible to expand the column’s availability to more and more newspapers. No more envelopes to stuff and stamp.

These developments also opened the door for other statewide columns like those of John Hood, Tom Campbell, Mike Walden and several others who are much better at the task than I am. But I tell them that I have been at it the longest, writing and distributing my column every week without a break for these 34 years.

All that thanks to a close election loss in the 9th District in 1984.

D.G. Martin is host of “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs on WUNC-TV.

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