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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Influences on the path of legislation in North Carolina

White describes some of the influences of the path of legislation in the North Carolina legislature. He avers that speeches on the floor of the legislature can have an impact, describes the effect of a coordinated effort by hunters and fisherman, and recalls his own successful push to prevent the levy of a cigarette tax.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. 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

PAMELA DEAN:
I'm trying to think of what else we can explore. From what you've been telling me, my impression of the way that the General Assembly works is that most things are fairly informal. My guess would be that any kind of speeches that are given on the floor are really not that important. That it's the conversations and the relationships you have with other members that are more decisive. Is that a fair picture of how things work?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
That is not an accurate picture, no. Of course, what you speak of is involved but there are not a great many bills, as they procede on their courses change course by reason of eloquent or other speeches on the floor. I say not a great many, yet sometimes, there are. I have known bills the passage of which appeared to be a foregone conclusion be completely turned around by a speech not so much of eloquence as practical application of the result of that bill, and things of that sort. That doesn't happen everyday.
PAMELA DEAN:
Can you think of an example of that happening? I mean, do you recall a specific case?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Yes. In 1947, I think it was, there was an appropriation bill to appropriate $1 million from the general fund for the purchase of objects of art and, at that time, I would say perhaps the majority of members of the General Assembly were as bad off in their knowledge of art as I am. Certainly, in many counties of this state, there were no art societies, no art councils, no art this, no art that. That was not the kind of an object for which to be appropriating money that the average appropriation committee was interested in. The appropriations committee was primarily interested in the fiscal well being of the state and its institutions. Art had no special appeal to the committee. One man got up on the floor of the house and made a speech in favor of that bill and changed just about every vote that was against it. That was a great event in the history of North Carolina and its now having such a wealth of good art. That was a great speech. I didn't hear it, I wasn't there. But that is accepted as common knowledge in art and legislative circles. That's one example that I recall. Another example didn't involve a speech but it involved some doing.
PAMELA DEAN:
What was that?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
That was when the hunters and fishermen of North Carolina who had organized themselves into an association of wildlife clubs.
PAMELA DEAN:
You had something to do with that process.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Yes. We had all these clubs all over the state and we were trying to get a bill passed to take the management of the state's game resources out of the hands of the Department of Conservation and Development.
PAMELA DEAN:
We talked about that in, I think, the first interview. You mounted quite an effective lobbying action in that case. Broad-based, I understand.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
We organized these clubs all over the state and I was chairman of the legislative committee and I conducted the hearing in favor of that bill in the hall of the house. I had never been a member; I had just been beaten running for the house. The way we organized that thing was we wanted the members of the house to know every county, we didn't skip any of them. Every county had people interested in and in favor of that bill being passed. We chose people, of course, who would make a speech. We have a hundred counties in this state and the legislature isn't going stand hitched for very long at a time. So I told each one of these people who were going to speak saying, "If you speak more than one minute, I'm going to embarrass you and I'm going to ask you to sit down."
PAMELA DEAN:
So you had it really tightly organized.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
That's right. The estimate was that we wouldn't get any votes, then the estimate got up to where we'd get a few votes, and it actually wound up we got all but about three or four.
PAMELA DEAN:
It's known as doing your political homework. [Laughter]
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
To do that it took a lot of doing. We had a lot of good help. We had help from all over the state. Those boys were on fire.
PAMELA DEAN:
So sometimes a speech, sometimes a good representation at a hearing will make a real difference.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
It will make a good difference and it makes a good difference in committees oftentimes. But usually, to change the course of anything of that sort, the speaker, number one, must have the respect of the people to whom he's speaking. Number two, he's got to have his facts straight. And if there are things wrong with the bill that he is presenting—maybe "wrong" is not the right word. If there are parts of the bill to which there is a general objection, he must be prepared to explain why it's that way and go farther and explain why it should not be that way. These are some of the principles that you follow.
PAMELA DEAN:
He can't just go in there and present a biased argument. He's got to give the full….
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Well, the last time that I said anything to a committee on a tobacco bill, it was the bill to tax cigarettes, when they called on me, I said, "Mr. Chairman, all I want to do is to make a statement and announce a position." It was the cigarette tax bill and I pointed out how the tobacco industry felt about it; the kind of investment it had here in North Carolina; finally got around to what its value was to North Carolina, to how it contributed to the welfare of many other North Carolina industries and businesses; and wound up with the conclusion that North Carolina cannot afford to increase the tax on cigarettes. North Carolina manufactures 67 percent of all cigarettes manufactured in this country, and we grow a high percentage of all the cigarette tobacco that's grown in this country.