Alum Veteran and Pentagon Appointee Puts Principles Above Politics
AUTHOR – Mark Johnson
National strategists for the Democratic Party in 2008 were trying to recruit a candidate in North Carolina. Then-U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican, was up for re-election.
Struggles in the economy and the war in Iraq gave Democrats some momentum, but Dole still wielded potent name recognition and the luster of having run the American Red Cross.
Democrats started courting one of their party’s state legislators, N.C. Rep. Grier Martin, who was finishing his second term in the state House of Representatives. Martin was an Army reservist and paratrooper who had signed up for active duty after Sept. 11, shipped out six days after his daughter was born and served a seven-month tour in Afghanistan. He was the grandson of a Davidson College president, son of a Green Beret and carried himself with squared-away military posture even when he was chatting at Big Ed’s Diner, in Raleigh.
Political opponents scouring his background for scandal figured they would have more luck against a Boy Scout.
“He’s [expletive]ing G.I. Joe!,” a Republican legislator said at the time.
If They Had Facebook Back Then
It would be difficult to look at any college freshman and foresee that the nation’s two major political parties some day would be, respectively, eager to promote or anxious about that person’s potential as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Include Grier Martin in that group.
“There were a bunch of us who didn’t know what we were doing,” said Mark Harris, describing himself, Martin and a group of other first year classmates and hallmates at Davidson in the fall of 1987. Harris now is a South Carolina-based sales rep for Pfizer but notes: “I ended up being a youth pastor for six years.”
Martin grew up in Charlotte and arrived at Davidson from West Charlotte High School. There he ran cross country, proved a “very bad wrestler,” and competed on the debate team with Anthony Foxx, who would enroll at Davidson two years later and go on to get elected mayor of Charlotte and appointed U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
Martin is the son of D.G. Martin, a 1962 Davidson alum and Army special forces officer—a “snake eater.” Grier was attending Davidson on an ROTC scholarship, and his military obligation was just that, a duty he would fulfill.
“I had no desire for a military career,” he said, “and no desire for a political career. I kind of had the notion of being a lawyer.”
He majored in history, took a lot of political science courses, yet was drawn to philosophy and logic classes. He joined a fraternity and played club rugby.
He also had an extraordinary depth of ties to Davidson and its alumni, between his grandparents’ and father’s time at the college.
Harris remembers Martin displaying a little more maturity than others, a mentor at times, but an instigator of good fun.
“None of us were Jesus incarnate,” Harris said. But if Instagram and Facebook had existed in those days, he said, Martin wouldn’t have to delete any posts when he ran for public office.
Martin, though, suspects he would have needed the “delete” button a few times.
A Dollar—or Two—and a Dream
In 2005, North Carolina was one of only nine states without a lottery and was surrounded by lottery states that were drawing Tarheel customers—and their money—across the lines. Democrats, eager for new education funding, started shedding their past opposition to the games. Then-Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, had pushed for a lottery for several years, and his party’s leaders in the legislature signed on. Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed, so the Democrats in the majority had to stay together to pass a lottery bill.
Martin did what was rare then and even less frequent today. He refused to vote with his party. He politely rejected the position of the Governor and the Speaker of the House, both Democrats. Lotteries are regressive, disproportionately pulling dollars from low-income families, he argued with considerable evidence. He also warned that any legislature’s promises of using proceeds strictly for education could be undone after the next election by a new crop of lawmakers who see a cashflow they can tap for other wants.
Democrats smartly wrapped the lottery into the state budget to make it harder to oppose. Martin still voted ‘no’—on the single biggest piece of legislation his party would push through that session.
Raleigh’s Indy Week newspaper dubbed him a hero, snipping that “other House Democrats chose the go-along route.”
“He was straightforward about it,” Easley said recently. “We had some friendly conversations, and he just made clear that this was something he felt strongly about. I respected that. And his argument about the legislature taking the money for pet projects after I left office turned out to be right.”
Martin’s vote was memorable to some. The next day, he presented a noncontroversial bill in a committee and watched several members of his own party suddenly oppose his bill.
“Their behavior,” he said, “was directly a result of my vote.”
Watching It Unfold
The day before graduating from Davidson in 1991, Martin was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Reserves. Next stop: field artillery school. The following year he was off to law school at the University of North Carolina. As a newly minted lawyer, he worked for a law firm in Charlotte and, then, a nonprofit in Raleigh helping protect the state’s historic properties. Around that time, his dad launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate.
D.G. Martin had served as a vice president in the UNC system and narrowly lost two races for Congress. Grier volunteered in the campaign and occasionally served as surrogate for his dad at events. He thought his dad was the best candidate, as would the child of most contenders for public office.
D.G. Martin had built up both name recognition and a following among Democrats, but he faced a newcomer to politics who was well-funded, well-spoken and looked great on television. The other candidate was a trial lawyer named John Edwards. Edwards won the primary and went on to unseat the incumbent Republican, Lauch Faircloth. Edwards’ career, though, would crash and burn a decade later, after a run as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2004 but also after two failed presidential bids and publicly lying about an affair and his paternity of a child.
The lesson Grier Martin gained from the 1998 race, D.G. Martin said, was that “he ought not be afraid of losing.”
Grier Martin agreed, and “that the best person doesn’t always win.”
Four years later, Grier won election to the state legislature.
“He got out there,” D.G. said, “and showed his daddy how to do it.”
Martin’s opponent in his first race, in 2002, was another Davidson alum, Don Munford, from the class of 1976 and an incumbent Republican legislator. Munford said the race would look odd by today’s standards. He and Martin became friends and remain so, for which Martin expressed appreciation.
“Grier and I both approached the fight with the type of respect for others and open minds that we learned at Davidson,” Munford said recently. “I believe that our mutual pride in conducting ourselves as ‘Davidson Gentlemen’ allowed us to fight hard, to do what we needed to do, including the usual negative campaign ads, but at the end of the race, we could share a hearty handshake.”
The race, he said, was politics at its finest.
“Even though I lost the race,” Munford said, “I gained a wonderful friend.”
Success Out of Loss
House Democrats named Martin chair of the transportation appropriations committee in his third term. He wrote the state’s transportation budgets, one of the biggest pieces of state spending and a critical gear in the machinery of North Carolina’s economy, he said: “I felt like I was starting to make a difference.”
In 2010, Republicans gained the majority in the N.C. House and Senate and have held it since. Martin’s committee post and his ability to set policy and priorities were gone.
He chose not to run in 2012 after Republicans redrew legislative districts and placed him in the same district with another Democrat, Deborah Ross. Martin and Ross quietly sorted out what to do after they were lumped together by redistricting. He stepped aside, and Ross went on to win her race. Their resolution contrasted with a pair of congressional Democrats in North Carolina who also were “double bunked” in the same district and ended up in a public squabble.
“It was clear from Grier’s first campaign and when he arrived at the legislature that he was going to operate with different rules of engagement,” Ross said. “It gives insight into his character.”
The following May, Ross resigned to work for a public transit organization. Martin had been out of office for half-a-year.
“It was,” he said, “the happiest six months of my political career.”
Democrats asked him to return to the N.C. House and take Ross’s seat, which he did. Ross later ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020.
Martin said some of his greatest accomplishments as a legislator came as a member of the minority, working with Republicans on military issues, which tended to be less partisan.
“It was an opportunity to work on issues that are very meaningful to our service members and their families,” he said. “And my function is not political.”
A bill he co-sponsored, for example, made it easier for service members’ spouses who are licensed professionals, such as electricians, in another state to get certified in North Carolina. That lessened the burden when a soldier is transferred from out of state to Ft. Bragg or a Marine to Camp Lejeune.
“Party didn’t matter,” said former N.C. Rep. Doug Vinson, a Republican and Army veteran who collaborated with Martin on legislation. “In such a polarizing environment as now, I look back and think how great it was to have a relationship with a Democrat and rise above party. We were able to talk about issues, not from your side and my side, but how do we solve it. Grier saw the bigger picture of politics. A lot of folks see an arena and that it’s your job to go in and bludgeon the other side. He saw it more like the military: you have a mission, and your objective is to complete it.”
The Price of Saying ‘No’
Martin ended up on the losing side of the lottery debate but never wavered from his opposition.
He passed on the opportunity to run for the U.S. Senate. The Democrat who won the nomination, Kay Hagan, defeated Dole in the general election.
D.G. Martin, who writes a column for news outlets, recounted recently that he told his son at the time that the chance to win a seat in the U.S. Senate is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“Well, Dad,” Grier Martin replied, “so is the opportunity to be a good parent of a young daughter. That is an opportunity and an obligation I can’t pass by.”
His choices took him off obvious paths to greater political influence.
D.G. Martin said those decisions fit into his son’s willingness to work for smaller successes that still improve others’ lives, particularly those in military service.
A New Mission
While a Davidson student, Martin interned in the office of then-U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat and Davidson alum. Martin watched legislators choose not to run for re-election and wondered how they could give up such a terrific job, even if their party did not hold a majority.
After a dozen years in the minority, he said he understands.
“Politics can wear you down,” he said. “Part of it is unnecessary in that maybe politics these days is too adversarial. At the same time, representative democracy is intended to provide a constructive way of resolving our differences and deciding on a path forward.”
Brakes, he said, are designed to stop a car. The purpose of a legislative body is to slow things down and make collaborative decisions. Brakes create friction and heat and eventually wear out.
“I’ve been approaching that point,” he said, “for a couple years.”
This summer, the Biden administration asked Martin to serve as senior adviser to the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs. The Pentagon post enables him to return to what he enjoyed most in the General Assembly—helping resolve problems for active and reserve duty service members: benefits, quality of life, personnel policies, force structure and recruiting.
“That’s exactly where I want to be,” he said, “helping make life better for service members.”
The lesson of Davidson College, Martin said, is not that the real world will be as wonderful as life on campus and that everyone is focused on service. It’s that the world is gray and messy, and that the college prepares you to go out into it and improve it.
“It may be that we end up in places that need the most work,” he said, “like Afghanistan or the General Assembly.”
Or, maybe, the Pentagon.