07/15/04 — Lure: What calls people to public office?

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Lure: What calls people to public office?

Scott Mooneyham began his newspaper career with the Goldsboro News-Argus. Later he served as the chief legislative correspondent for The Associated Press. His Raleigh column, which he now writes for the Capitol Press Association, appears regularly in this newspaper and others across the state.

He is respected among his peers in the media and among those who serve in state government.

Recently he wrote a piece ruminating on why people are lured into public office. The reasons could be many, he speculated, but he focused on one — the attraction of political power.

And to make his point, Mooneyham focused on Henson Barnes. A former president pro tem of the N.C. Senate, Barnes was elected from Wayne County where he had established his law practice. He served in the House before going to the Senate and quickly rose in popularity and respect to become president pro tem.

In that role, Barnes was one of the most powerful people in Raleigh, Mooneyham pointed out. The Republican governor — Jim Martin — had no veto and the Republican lieutenant governor had been stripped of power by Democrats who controlled both houses of the General Assembly.

Mooneyham told of people in the state’s capital “bowing and scraping” to Barnes who, when back home, was taken for granted as a fellow citizen who had done all right for himself and was doing a good job for his constituents.

To his fellow citizens Henson Barnes was never one to gloat over or even aspire to a position of great power. To the contrary, throughout his public career, he manifested a sincere sense of modesty, easily misread as shyness.

He had great insights into the workings of the General Assembly combined with a low-key but effective persuasiveness. Barnes was anything but a browbeater or one who cottoned to being fawned over.

Ambitious? Probably. But quietly so. He considered running for attorney general, giving rise to speculation that he ultimately might like to serve his state as governor. When he determined that he lacked the statewide name recognition or the financial resources to gain it, he bowed out of the attorney general’s race — and declined to offer again for the Senate.

Later he gradually withdrew from the daily activities of his law firm and focused on his first love — farming. He now runs a successful blueberry farm in Bladen County.

There undoubtedly are many who revel in the trappings of power, positions of great influence and having people, figuratively, falling down at their feet as they stroll down the halls of high office.

But Henson Barnes had “been there and done that.” And he gave it up, voluntarily.

Colleague and constituency adulation obviously had had no bonding appeal.

Today he is found close to the soil, in the fields and near the black waters of Bladen County where he grew up as one of seven children of an itinerant preacher-tenant farmer. And there Henson Barnes apparently has found far greater contentment than he experienced being one of the North Carolina Legislature’s most powerful figures.

Published in Editorials on July 15, 2004 11:04 AM