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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Terry Sanford, August 20 and 21, 1976. Interview A-0328-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Difficult policy decisions as govenor

Sanford describes three of the most difficult decisions he made as governor regarding prisoners and alleviating poverty. He opposed the death penalty and mandated additional investigation for every potential case in North Carolina. He also funded a new phosphate plant to provide more jobs and allowed more prisoners to obtain parole.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Terry Sanford, August 20 and 21, 1976. Interview A-0328-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I bring up these two things, the food tax and civil rights, not to overlook some of the other decisions, but I was just wondering whether these were the most difficult decisions, to review the whole decision-making process of someone in office?
I never really found the decision-making all that difficult.
Some were easier to make than others.
Well, but once you . . . no, I made the point that whether it's commuting a death sentence or deciding what kind of a tax program to have or what tie to wear in the morning, that all you need are the facts. You know, you've got to know what color the tie is and what color your shirt is and what color your suit is and then you go from there. Now, I don't mean to be frivolous about a serious decision affecting life and death, but really all you've got to know are the facts and getting the facts in an objective way is more difficult than making the decision. Once you do that, making the decision is not all that difficult. I had decisions to make in appointing a Commissioner of Agriculture, for example, and there really weren't many facts. "There's a good man, there's a good man, which one should I appoint?" To some extent, I suppose that personal sentiment entered that kind of a decision. In the death penalty, I decided that although I personally wasn't in favor of it, it wasn't up to me to change the law single-handedly, that wasn't why the Constitution gave the power of clemency to a governor. They gave it to the governor because under unusual circumstances, someone had to act and that was the proper person. But I decided that as a matter of policy that we would thoroughly investigate on our own outside of the regular law enforcement every capital case and if there were any changes, then we would take whatever action was appropriate. I permitted one person to go to the gas chamber and I would have permitted several others, except that they didn't get to them. It wasn't my job, the legislature chose to stick to that position. On the other hand, I commuted sentences that some governors wouldn't have commuted, because I got the facts that indicated they ought to be. The most complicated decision obviously had to be the tax decisions. But there were many, many other things. We wanted to risk doing something about people in poverty. Nobody else ever had. Would that be a political liability? Well, it turned out to be a great political asset, but we didn't know that at the time. Are you going to borrow money to build a phosphate loading center for the Ports Authority, how do you know the phosphate is going to go? Are you going to make a decision to come down on the side of the phosphate companies to go into eastern North Carolina or are you going to keep them out and if you are going to finally let them in, what kind of safeguards do you impose? We had a decision to build a ramp at the old blimp hangers, which in effect belonged to the state down at Weeksville out from Elizabeth City, in order that a company could come in there with a contract to repair all of the navy planes that patrolled the coast, they brought them up to date on the radar or whatever, and it was a tremendous contract and it meant a whole lot to the people of Pasquotank County, but can you legitimately get public funds to build a ramp of a hundred thousand dollars or so? Well obviously, just if you figured nothing but the income tax from the payroll, it more than paid the state back and then look at all the other benefits. Somebody said, "You can't do that, you can't use highway money to build a ramp." "Well legally, the Attorney General says that we can if we want to and if it improves business, we ought to." That's really about the only way that you could do it. Someone said, "Yeah, but suppose they don't get a renewal of the contract, what are you going to do with that ramp?" I said, "Well, we are going to take a chance." We built it and we more than got our money back before they didn't need it any longer. So, hardly a day passes that you don't have a decision that involves some risk of criticism. I took the position that the parole procedures in this state were far too restrictive, that we had people in jail that we ought not to have and continuing in prison that ought not to be in prison. Well, every one of those is a tremendous risk. Suppose he gets out and kills and rapes somebody and they can say, "Sanford let him out." Well, I put in this general rule that I wanted everybody reviewed sympathetically, not just those who had high-priced influential lawyers, and I don't mean review them on a routine basis, but as an advocate. You know, "What do we do about letting this fellow redeem his life?" I paroled more people than three or four other governors combined and I sweated it out for a few years, but nothing bad ever came of it. But you know, every one of those was a decision that could have backfired. Almost everyday, you had a decision that you could be timid or you could do what you thought best served the state. In this particular case, we had the first declining prison population in the country. Well, I say that's good, especially that it turned out good. Now, I'm not saying that everybody stayed out that we let out, but in any event, no great harm came of it that wouldn't have come otherwise. And it proved that the parole system was what it was supposed to be. Instead of letting people out when they finished their sentence without any supervision, let them out when they had some guidance and nobody has ever gone back and made a study, but I'll bet that more good than bad came of it.