Blake Faces Former Ally in GOP Senate Primary
This is the third in a series of stories profiling May 4 primary election races in Moore County.
Neither state Sen. Harris Blake nor his primary opponent, former House Co-speaker Richard Morgan, will say what caused the rift between the two one-time close political allies.
The first public hint of the erosion in their relationship came two years ago when Morgan’s wife, Cindy — who is a county commissioner and is seeking re-election this year — ran against Blake. She lost in a Republican primary.
Now it is Blake-Morgan II. Judging from the rhetoric and the tone of the campaign, the level of animosity has only risen — though both candidates assert that it is not personal.
The winner will face no Democratic opposition in November for the District 22 seat, which covers Moore and Harnett counties.
Morgan, who served in the state House from 1990 to 2006, claims that Blake is ineffective and has strayed from his conservative roots. He has zeroed in on Blake’s vote for a $25 million fishing pier in Nags Head and for what Morgan calls Blake’s refusal to stand up and oppose “pay-to-play” in Raleigh.
Blake counters that he has been effective in representing his district since first winning election in 2002 and that he would enjoy increased clout should Republicans gain control of the Senate in November.
Both candidates recently sat down with The Pilot to discuss their campaigns.
Blake, a Pinehurst businessman, is seeking re-election to a fifth term.
“If you are a representative, the campaign never ends,” he said. “That is part of the process, staying in touch with the people. I am not doing anything different than I would normally do.”
Blake said he does not put much stock in the effectiveness rankings of lawmakers — he was 48th out of 50 senators in the latest one. The rankings, done by the nonpartisan Center for Public Policy Research, is taken among legislators, registered lobbyists who work with the General Assembly and news reporters assign-ed to cover the state capital. Senators in the majority party tend to fare better.
“I don’t want to sound defensive,” Blake said. “There are 30 Democrats and 20 Republicans. I am sitting there in the minority party that has no influence. I could care less about it, knowing how the process works.”
Blake said he has been effective.
“I have a good track record of getting things done,” he said.
The only thing he said he was unable to get passed was legislation to create a special license plate for Pinehurst.
“I got it through the Senate, but it ticks me off that I can’t get it through the House,” he said. “But if it’s a local bill, we can take care of it.”
At the time Morgan filed for Senate in February, Blake said he would not respond to every allegation and claim made against him. He said that has not changed.
“Most people in Moore County know me, and they know Richard Morgan,” he said. “I will leave it for the people to decide. When his wife ran against me, he said he didn’t have anything to do with it. That is total BS.”
Blake said he is unable to say what caused the falling-out between him and Morgan.
“I supported Richard Morgan to the hilt the first five years I was in Raleigh,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, things changed. I would like for him to explain it. I am not going to do it unless he is in the room and under oath.”
As for Morgan’s criticism of his support of the fishing pier at Nags Head, Blake said the bill was supposed to be noncontroversial and that every Republican voted for it at first. He said that when GOP leaders realized it was a mistake because it would end up costing the state money, they tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill. But Blake said he had to leave Raleigh to take his wife, Barbara, to the hospital. (She died in May 2009.)
“Some things get by you,” he said.
Blake almost became angry when asked about comments by Morgan in an earlier interview that he might be starting to slip mentally.
“For him to use that is stupid,” Blake said. “I am not surprised at Richard. He is evil and stupid. It is so disrespectful for him to be that little, for a guy I supported for half my life”
Morgan said in an interview in February shortly after filing that if he is elected, he will not “make a career of it, being there forever and running when I am 80 and if I have health problems.”
Morgan stopped short of saying that he thought Blake was not physically fit to serve.
“All I can say is that I am not going to be doing that,” he added. “It ought to be his concern.”
On the issue of Blake’s heavy involvement with China, which Morgan has criticized, he said Morgan has missed the point completely. He said times have changed.
“Within in the next four weeks, you’ll learn about the work we have done,” Blake said. “It is awesome.”
Blake was referring to the creation of the Carolina China Council. He said a delegation of North Carolina leaders will be going to China, including state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco.
“The state will be signing documents that say North Carolina is ready to do business with China,” he said. “That is all I can say for now.”
“This is why I am so supportive of Gov. [Bev] Perdue. This all happened because of that World War II pilot from High Falls (Lt. Hoyle Upchurch). It is so damn big. I can’t explain it in one sitting.”
North Carolina and Hunan Province have linked themselves as “sister” states in honor of Upchurch, who grew up in High Falls and lost his life in World War II as a Flying Tiger when his P40 was shot down over Hunan.
Formal agreements also link Robbins (the nearest municipality to High Falls) as sister city to Zhaiquian Town and Moore and Guidong as sister counties.
Blake said it is untrue that all of his focus is on China and that it has distracted him from doing his job of representing the people of his district.
“I spend 80 percent of my time representing this district,” he said. “China happens to be something that is important. I see this as an opportunityto break down this resistance we have with China. We are tied to China with our future, like it or not. They are our competitors. We have got to figure out ways to do business with them.”
Jackson Springs Native
Born in Jackson Springs, Blake has been a resident of Pinehurst since 1953, when he and Barbara were married. He has one daughter.
Blake graduated from the former West End High School and attended Elon College. He is a veteran of the Korean War, serving as a battalion operations sergeant in the Army from 1951 to 1953.
He is president and owner of Pinehurst South Commercial Realty and Development.
He started out as a clerk and later manager of Pinehurst Hardware and Supply Co. He purchased the business in 1964 and expanded into three hardware and building supply locations.
Blake served as vice chairman of the Moore County Board of Education, is a former Sandhills Community College trustee and a former Moore Regional Hospital trustee. He is a past president of what is now the Moore County Chamber of Commerce.
“I am humbled to have represented the district,” he said. “I look forward to continuing to serve.”
Morgan said he would not have filed against Blake if he did not feel the incumbent was vulnerable.
“I hear a lot of talk,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if it is going to register at the polls. I hear a lot of dissatisfaction. People don’t see their senator. I want to point out our differences.”
After losing his seat in the state House to Joe Boylan in a brutal GOP primary in 2006, Morgan said he took some time away and that his brief “sabbatical” did him some good.
“It was a time to take care of myself,” he said, “to take care of what is important in life, gain some perspective and to gain some humility.”
But Morgan, who lost quite a bit of weight during that time, said he was never far from the world of politics.
“I feel like I never really left, in a way,” he said. “People continued to talk to me. It was like running a constituency office.”
A leaner Morgan re-emerged on the political scene two years later, running for state superintendent of public instruction.
He won a Republican primary — although his own party had declared war on him two years earlier over the power-sharing deal he made with Democrats to become co-speaker in 2002-2003 — before losing in the general election to the incumbent, Democrat June Atkinson.
Morgan said Blake is out of touch and ineffective, pointing to his low ranking.
He said differences have occurred between the two — at least philosophically — over the years. He specifically cited Blake’s vote for that fishing pier at Nags Head.
“I think that is a waste of money, particularly in these tough economic times,” Morgan said. “Harris Blake means well. He holds himself to be a conservative. His votes don’t bear that out. I want to point out who is the Republican and who is the conservative.”
Morgan said Blake would not own up to making a mistake in voting for the fishing pier. He said other Republicans — including Senate GOP leader Phil Berger — who voted for the pier thinking it was noncontroversial later admitted that it was a mistake.
“Over the years, I have probably made a few mistakes,” he said. “I might have cast a vote a different way, looking back on it. But at least I would own up to it.”
‘Turnaround’ on China
Another difference, Morgan said, is Blake’s complete turnaround on trade with China. Morgan said Blake once vehemently opposed most-favored-nation trade status with China.
“He focuses on that a lot,” Morgan said. “He is for free trade with China. I am not. How can a senator stimulate trade with China when so many of the jobs we have lost we have lost to China? That doesn’t wash with me. What caused such a turnabout in philosophy?”
One of the hallmarks of Morgan’s campaign has been putting an end to what he calls “pay-to-play” in Raleigh. He even went so far as to file an ethics complaint against Lanier Cansler, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Morgan said in the complaint that Cansler had a “huge” conflict of interest because his department recently awarded two no-bid contracts valued at $30 million to a company that was a client of Cansler’s former consulting firm and that he still receives payments from his old firm.
Cansler said all of that was disclosed. He said through a spokesman that Morgan’s claims are “politically motivated and without merit.”
Morgan said he has yet to see his opponent stand up and say, “Let’s put an end to pay-to-play.”
“This isn’t anything new, and it isn’t personal,” Morgan said.
As for what he wants to accomplish should he win election to the Senate, Morgan said one of his top priorities is improving the economy and creating more jobs. He said he would push for a taxpayer protection act to guard against tax increases.
“You don’t stimulate the economy by raising taxes,” he said. “People are fed up.”
Morgan said he can be an effective legislator.
“I know how the legislature works,” he said. “You have an advantage when you know how to use the rules.”
Morgan said that whether Republicans can take over the Senate this year remains to be seen.
“Either way, it is going to be close,” he said. “I am not as concerned about where I might sit as I am about having the confidence of the staff and both sides to get things done.”
Born in Southern Pines
Morgan was born and raised in Southern Pines. He graduated from Pinecrest High School and then Sandhills Community College. In 1972, he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After graduation, Morgan served in the administration of former Gov. Jim Holshouser, then returned to Pinehurst and started his own insurance brokerage firm. He is also a North Carolina real estate broker and cattle farmer.
In 1988, he married the former Cindy Richardson, a Moore County native. In 1992, they purchased a farm near Eagle Springs, where they have lived for 17 years.
Morgan readily acknowledges that he thrives on being involved in the state legislature.
“Ever since I walked into that building as a child — I broke away from my group and went up and down the halls looking for Moore County,” he said. “I came from no means. Who would have believed that he would be in this body and that his picture would be on the walls of the institution? I would never have dreamed of that.
“I care about the institution. That is what keeps driving me back.”
Contact David Sinclair by e-mail at email@example.com.
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