Norris Tolson is an insider's insider.
One of three leaders of Governor-elect Beverly Perdue's transition team, Tolson is a former state secretary of Commerce, Transportation and Revenue and the current head of the N.C. Biotechnology Center.
As N&O columnist Rob Christensen wrote during that campaign, Tolson is also a member of the "N.C. State University mafia" — a group of powerful state politicians who cut their teeth on 4-H and Future Farmers of America organizing in college.
"The NCSU mafia has so dominated the Democratic Party that there has not been a governor with an undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since Sanford was elected nearly 40 years ago," he wrote.
(That is no longer true. Easley graduated from UNC in 1972.)
Tolson's appointment is partly an indication of his status as one of Raleigh's "wise men." But it could also be a sign that Perdue is taking advice from Tolson's old friend, Hunt.
The full column after the jump.
Running with the Wolfpack
By Rob Christensen
May 30, 1999
Of all the members of the N.C. State University mafia, Norris Tolson seemed the least likely to get bitten by the political bug.
Tolson has spent most of his career as an executive with DuPont, living all over the country. He returned to his home in Edgecombe County only after taking early retirement from DuPont. But he is making up for lost time.
Last week Tolson became the fourth — yes, the fourth — member of the NCSU clique of the late 1950s and early 1960s to run for governor. And that doesn't count all the legislators, Cabinet secretaries and other officials to come out of that group.
The N.C. State mafia were all farm boys who learned how to organize in 4-H and the Future Farmers of America clubs. They dominated campus politics. They admired Gov. Terry Sanford and President John F. Kennedy. And they joined the Young Democrats Club, where they made headlines by refusing to hold their convention at the old Sir Walter Hotel, because it did not allow blacks as guests.
The NCSU mafia, of course, centers on Gov. Jim "The Godfather" Hunt of Wilson, the two-time student body president and four-term Democratic governor (class of 1959).
But he had help from the NCSU mafia every step of the way. When Hunt was first elected governor in 1976, former state Sen. Eddie Knox of Charlotte (class of 1960) chaired his campaign. Former state Rep. Tom Gilmore of Julian (class of 1959) was House floor leader for a constitutional amendment letting Hunt run for more than one term.
When Hunt, out of office for eight years, attempted a political comeback in 1992, his consigliere was Phil Carlton of Pinetops (class of 1960). Carlton, a former state Supreme Court justice, got into trouble for receiving political intelligence on a Hunt opponent that had been gathered illegally on a police scanner.
Hunt has also been helped by such NCSU mafia members as former state Sen. J.K. Sherron of Raleigh (class of 1959) and former state Sen. Wendell Murphy of Rose Hill, the world's largest hog producer (class of 1960). Hunt and Murphy still sit together at Wolfpack basketball games.
Tolson (class of 1962) was gone from North Carolina most of this time. But shortly after moving back home, he was elected to the legislature, defeating former House Speaker Joe Mavretic. Hunt later appointed Tolson — whom he has known since they were in the Future Farmers of America — as his commerce and transportation secretaries. Tolson even has a '50s-style pompadour like Hunt's.
Tolson would like to succeed Hunt, a goal that eluded Knox and Gilmore, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1984.
Expect Hunt to stay neutral in the Democratic primary — a position that so angered Knox in 1984 that he switched to the Republican Party. But Tolson is said to be getting some advice from other NCSU mafioso.
The NCSU mafia has so dominated the Democratic Party that there has not been a governor with an undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since Sanford was elected nearly 40 years ago.
If Tolson has anything to say about it, the NCSU mafia is not yet ready to call it quits.