Hurricane force winds are gusting in the North Carolina House of Representatives. But it isn't the usual bluster of Republicans versus Democrats. In this storm, Republicans are taking a pounding from each other.
At the center of the tempest is Richard Morgan, a seven-term Republican legislator who in 2003 cut a power-sharing deal with Democrats to win the influential job of co-speaker of the House, which is split 60-60.
Morgan wasn't his Republican colleagues' first or even second choice for speaker, so his rise to power and his truce with Democrats have stirred up a nasty squall within his own party, roiling the GOP's only sphere of influence in state government.
At last weekend's state GOP convention, North Carolina's top Republicans voted overwhelmingly to oust Morgan from their 500-member executive committee and bar him from the party post for five years. A band of conservative House Republicans has disparagingly nicknamed Morgan and some 15 of his allies RINOs Republicans In Name Only. His own party is running a candidate against him in the July primary.
Such a wide schism has developed between Morgan's supporters and a more conservative faction of House Republicans that the upcoming primary is shaping up as a referendum on the party's future direction in the state.
Morgan's governing style is fierce.
"He plays hardball," said state Rep. David Miner (R), one of Morgan's close allies and a co-chair of the House Finance Committee. "He's out of the mold of a politician who believes that you reward your friends and punish your enemies."
One of his chief Republican nemeses is state Rep. Frank Mitchell, who until a few weeks ago was answering his own phone in his legislative office because Morgan refused to grant him funds for a secretary. "He's a mental case," Mitchell snapped. "He does things no sane person would do."
For his part, Morgan openly and unapologetically admits he distinguishes his friends from his enemies and is fully prepared to show one group loyalty and write off the other.
Positioning his ample frame onto a sofa in the expansive office he commandeered after landing the co-speaker post, Morgan, 51, exudes an air of mild-mannered affability but is surprisingly direct.
"Loyalty is a priority to me," he said. "I am loyal to my friends and to the people who support me. In politics, you want to reach out to those who are salvageable and make new friends ... and then there are some who you are just wasting your time (on)."
Supporters such as Miner say Morgan's shrewd approach enables him to make tough decisions and get the job done.
"He can count noses," Miner said. "He knows where the votes are."
Morgan rose to the top House job after an unprecedented brouhaha to elect a speaker in early 2003. In the 2002 election, Republicans gained a slim 61-59 majority in the House, regaining control for the first time in four years in a state where Democrats over the past decade have had exclusive control of the Senate and governor's office. The House Republican caucus at first anointed Rep. Leo Daughtry, formerly minority leader, to be the next speaker.
Then, Rep. Michael Decker, one of the House's most conservative Republicans, defected to the Democratic Party just days before the start of the 2003 session, leaving the chamber evenly divided and paralyzing efforts to elect a speaker. After much behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, the stalemate was broken when a winning ticket emerged: Morgan -- paired with Democrat Jim Black, 69, who had served as House speaker since 1999.
Not only were Daughtry's supporters left out in the cold, but some say the choice of Morgan was particularly painful because of a years-old feud between the former minority leader and Morgan.
Morgan's supporters will tell you that the power-sharing arrangement he brokered demonstrates his commitment to putting effective governing before petty party politics. Both speakers have widely touted the co-speakership as a success, pointing to expedited budget and redistricting processes during 2003. The 2004 session just opened May 10.
"He'll tell me what I don't want to hear, but it is the truth," said Black, the Democratic co-speaker, who chose to align himself with Morgan after working with him in key House leadership posts in the mid-1990s.
"It has all to do with being able to trust the person you work with and not having one trying to upstage the other," Black said.
But his detractors insist that Morgan has traded his party's ideals for a leadership post and uses his power to punish those who oppose him. Morgan's support for continuing a state sales tax that was set to expire this year is cited as prime evidence that he has betrayed his party.
Other complaints center on his use of the power of the speaker's post to punish those in his own party. Critics say he gave allies key committee chairmanships and prime front-and-center seats in the newly renovated House chamber while his most vocal opponents have been relegated to the 120-member chamber's nosebleed section. They say Morgan has refused to acknowledge rival Republican members during floor debates when he is presiding and also refused to fund legislative clerks for eight members - including Mitchell -- during the break between the 2003 and 2004 sessions.
Morgan said members who were not granted aides did not need them because they were not active on panels that met during the break. "Why should the state foot the bill?" he asked.
As proof of his authenticity as a Republican, Morgan points to photographs in his office showing him posing with three of the last four Republican presidents. He notes that besides 14 years in the state House, he has campaigned for decades for state and national candidates for the GOP.
"None of these people has the standing to challenge my Republican credentials," he said.
As a counterpunch to critics, Morgan's supporters recently launched an issue-advocacy group called the N.C. Mainstreet Committee, which this month began airing radio ads touting legislative successes under Morgan's leadership.
The relationship between Morgan and foes in his own political party has become so acrimonious that his detractors are backing another Republican -- Peggy Crutchfield, president of the United Way of Moore County - to dethrone him in the July 20 primary.
"We're going to do everything we can to defeat Richard Morgan," vowed Mitchell.
Morgan, who first ran for office in 1976, is no stranger to tough campaigns or the down-home politics of the rural county he represents.
He was born and raised in the small town of Southern Pines in the state's Sandhills region. He has lived nearly all of his life there in Moore County, where he founded and runs an insurance business and where he has endured several hard-fought campaigns, including a number of past primary challenges.
"I've had more battles than I have had what we refer to around here as free rides," Morgan said. "I think that's good. It's good experience. ... I love the political strategy, and I'm probably better at that than anything else."
This summer's primary election also is shaping up in other districts as a sort of referendum on Morgan's leadership. Several Morgan supporters, including Miner, face primary opposition from more conservative Republicans. Mitchell even has changed his address to run against Rep. Julia Howard, a Morgan supporter, in the primary. Rep. Sam Ellis, one of Morgan's most vocal critics, also is facing a primary opponent.
In the past decade, a handful of other state legislatures including Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington -- have attempted power-sharing arrangements, to varying degrees of success. The Oregon Senate, with 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans, is the only other state legislative chamber where leadership currently is shared.