Working for the people...still
Jim Crawford Jr. arrived in Raleigh as a freshman legislator in 1983 when evening cocktail receptions were frequent, wings of parties didn’t have control and the national economy was rebounding from crippling inflation.
As he leaves following 28 years of public service in the N.C. House of Representatives, he goes with an unprecedented 12 years serving as the chairman of the appropriations committee. The 75-years-young father, grandfather and great-grandfather also leaves with a wealth of irreplaceable knowledge and memories.
As he sat for an exclusive interview on a recent rainy Saturday morning, he reflected on the last three decades. The ups and downs have shaped him, his accomplishments and decisions have defined him.
He currently works with Gov. Pat McCrory’s transition team on the state budget. He was interviewed by the new governor’s team for an unspecified job, and Crawford believes he was considered for the deputy budget director position given to Art Pope.
Redistricting by the Republican-controlled legislature sent Crawford against fellow Democrat Winkie Wilkins in last spring’s primary. Between the gentle laughs of humor about his colleagues and serious reflections on government today, Crawford can be described as a gentleman ready to continue to help people of the Tri-County area. He’s not bitter about redistricting. He’s certainly not satisfied with current government.
In that respect, he’s like most of America.
“I’ve tried to tell legislators for years, it’s not what you do over here,” Crawford said. “People don’t care what you do in Raleigh. You answer their questions at home.”
And for three decades, he tried to do just that. Yet, he knew that much like ball coaches and players, or actors on the stage, he was only as good as his last performance.
“You know, I was carrying a bucket of water to put my Christmas tree in. And I put my hand down in there to see what a hole I would leave,” Crawford said. “When I took it out, it just filled right up.”
He laughed and added, “I’ve got to the age that I understand that when you’re gone, you’re gone. People appreciate it immediately, but time moves on. And I expect time to move on.”
Crawford said he’s been richly rewarded for what he’s done and he loves the people he’s helped no less today than ever. His joy is seeing them do well.
“They’re still calling by the dozens with problems,” Crawford said. “I do everything I can to help them. And those kinds of things, I don’t have to be in the legislature to help with. It takes an inordinate amount of time. I probably spend three hours every day working on other folks’ problems, but I enjoy doing it.”
Crawford learned political brinksmanship like many. He saw the old way of iron-fisted leaders, like the late House Speaker Liston Ramsey, and what he calls the beehive of activity on the House floor.
He lamented what schoolchildren who are taught order and quiet in the classroom perceive from the gallery, but explained it is the nature of business to be frequently visiting with other lawmakers, gaining votes for bills and hearing concerns.
It is a system Crawford grew to have comfort in, and he found a successful style different than what he first encountered in 1983.
“It’s been fun being part of the power structure,” Crawford said. “A lot of legislators come and go and never understand where they are or what they’re doing or why they’re there, or how to work the process. I’ve been very lucky. For the last 12 years, and even before that, I’ve been a part of the decision-making group.
“And it’s just like church or anywhere else. You’ve got a lot of people that do the work, and a lot of people that just come to church. That’s the way the legislature is. There are probably, out of 120, they’re probably 15 that really run things and make the decisions. There are others that have input, and talk in the committees and go through the committee process, but it really comes down to a few to make the final decision.”
Crawford said in his early years, it wasn’t uncommon for a committee to vote with clearly more “no’s” and the chairman to say “the aye’s have it.” Chairmen also gladly took most all the bills to the floor with all the credit.
“I would pick people out of the committee and let each one of them take one,” Crawford said. “I felt the process ought to be more open.”
And credibility established.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It made a lot of difference in my relationships with people.”
And not because he was a good point guard on the basketball court.
“I used to tell the story about being on the legislative basketball team,” Crawford said. “I came back and started talking to people. I said I know you didn’t send me over there to play basketball with the legislature, but I have my first bill in the judicial committee. And George Miller from Durham was the chairman of the committee. And he says Rep. Crawford has his bill, what would you like to do? Are there any comments? And the guard on the basketball team said I move we give it a favorable report. And the forward said I second the motion. And I didn’t even get to explain my bill.”
Crawford laughs at the story. His smile assures he’s at peace moving forward.
He’ll be footnoted as one of the Gang of Five, the group of veteran Democrats who crossed party lines to override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of the state budget and a controversial teacher dues bill.
“I crossed party lines because the Republicans had cut $400 million out of education,” Crawford said. “I said if you’ll put $300 million back in public education, and $100 million back in the university system, I’ll vote for the bill.
“They put $300 million back in public school education and $100 million back in the university system. I didn’t sell out cheap. I just felt like it was important not to hit education that hard.”
Crawford said he and the other four went to see Perdue before voting. With the governor, Crawford said there was a vast amount of Jones Street experience in the conversation.
“She didn’t like the idea of us overriding anything,” Crawford said. “But I think she knew there were reasons and we felt like it was the right thing to do.”
He says he is unsure of the true nature of his relationship with the unpopular governor today. He said Raleigh lawmakers have more relationships with the local Democratic Party than with the state party.
“She is very, very friendly on the outside,” Crawford said. “I don’t know how she feels on the inside. I notice some of the issues that I was working on got pulled off the Council of State meeting, so we’ll see.”
Crawford said he understands why communities want to feel they have “their person” in Raleigh. But he explained that doesn’t always mean what is best for a community’s interests will happen.
“We used to have a district with three representatives here,” Crawford said. “We represented everything from the Guilford County line to the bridge on Interstate 95 in Roanoke Rapids. They broke that up, and said it wasn’t fair for us to have three representatives in that area.
“But having more representatives in a community is good. A lot of folks think you ought to have one and live in our town. The truth is, if you’ve got three representatives, they’ve all got friends over there. They’ve all got groups that they interact with. And when it comes time to pass legislation for your area, if you’ve got three people and they’ve got 10 friends apiece, you’ve got a head start. If you’re one person, they can gang up on you pretty easy. I think it’s good to have three representatives. Granville is fussing now because they don’t have anybody, but I think they’ll be all right.”
As for the redistricting that was going to cost he or Wilkins a seat, he found humor in the parties’ bickering.
“I was always amused that the Democrats were screaming bloody murder about the redistricting,” Crawford said. “They’ve done it their way for years. So what?
“They called me from Washington asking me what I thought of it. I said, well, we’ve been doing it to them. I guess it’s their turn. Everybody says it needs to be non-political. How do you appoint people to make something non-political? It’s just a matter of whose politics, that’s all. Even if you try to come up with a group of people to draw the lines, they’re going to draw them like they see fit.”
And though the commander in chief represents his party, Crawford was surprised America sent President Barack Obama back into office.
“I don’t know how in the world, economy-wise, Obama won this time,” Crawford said. “I just, for the life of me, I cannot understand why folks would put him back in.”
Later, he added, “He’s got a lot of folks depending on the government now. A lot. And I think more people ought to pay taxes. And I guess when North Carolina took 600,000 off the books, that’s probably been 15 to 18 years ago, we made a horrible mistake. Not that they pay much tax, but they pay some tax. You’ve got to have some skin in the game to appreciate the game. And I think that’s probably been a mistake that we made.
“I know we don’t want people hungry, and we don’t want to take money from people that can’t afford to pay,” he continued, “but by the same token, we can’t kill the American dream. You’ve got to give people the opportunity to get to the middle class. I’m afraid the way things are going now, the middle class is shrinking. We need a lot of help in Vance County.”
In a lighter moment, Crawford chuckles when recalling questions about what he does when not in Raleigh.
“I have done very well in my shopping center,” Crawford said. “They ask me what I do in Raleigh for a living. I tell them I fix toilets and pick up trash.”
He’s proud of its success despite the turbulent times from which it has survived. The downturn in Henderson’s economy, many mills and businesses shuttered over time, left him unable to secure a loan from a local bank. He got the loan in Raleigh, and he has an appreciation for business owners still operating.
“But it’s been a great little shopping center,” Crawford said. “There are as many offices out here now as there are shopping. I tell you, this recession has been murder on the retail business, just murder. Folks that have made it through this have really got a good business.”
Crawford made it through some tough times in Raleigh over three decades. He arrived when the nation’s Republican leader was trumpeting a new day in America. He’s leaving with the Democratic leader struggling to move forward on hope and change.
On a rainy Saturday morning, in an office adorned with honors and the appreciation of constituents, he’s ready for the next phone call, the next opportunity to help.
“Hello. This is Jim Crawford.... What can I do for you?”
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Jim Crawford Jr.
Born: Oct. 4, 1937, son of James W. Sr. and Julia Brent Hicks Crawford.
Family: Wife, the former Harriet Cannon of Concord, married in 1961; children James W. Crawford III, Julia Brent Crawford Milholen, Harriet Crawford Hoyle; seven grandchildren; five great-grandchildren.
Education: Oxford High School, 1956; bachelor’s degree from University of North Carolina (industrial relations), 1960.
Military: U.S. Navy, 1960-62.
Public service: N.C. House of Representatives 1983-1992, 1995-2012; Oxford City Council 1965-69; candidate for lieutenant governor 1993.
Professional: Businessman, developer, partner in Crawford Properties.