When Zeb Alley died earlier this month, lots of people in North Carolina thought they had lost one of their best friends.
Those of us who worked the Raleigh scene knew him as one of the most influential lobbyists ever to work the North Carolina General Assembly.
Zeb – almost nobody called him Mr. Alley – was a former legislator from the mountains, and he was ranked Number 1 on the list compiled by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research for as long as anyone can remember.
And with good reason. He knew how the legislature works. It is not exactly how the civics’ lessons teach us. Legislators are complicated people. Just like the rest of us, they have their pet projects, their special interests, their friends whom they would like to help, their enemies whom they have a hard time trusting, and their hopes for advancement and, of course, for reelection. Zeb made it his business to know about these things and help them when he could, which was almost always.
His mountain background gave him a quiet, respectful manner that won friends and drew people to him.
At Ruby and Jack Hunt’s legendary home-cooking suppers where the state’s most influential people often gathered, they gathered around Zeb. To hear his stories.
One of my favorites was about one of his clients back when Zeb was trying to make a living as a lawyer representing mountain people who got into trouble.
“This man was the most unsuccessful criminal I ever met,” Zeb said over and over again. “Tried to commit an armed robbery with a broken shot gun and one shell, which he fired as a warning shot. Ran away, but got caught by the intended victims, who beat him to a pulp before the sheriff arrived.”
“Then he was charged with attempted rape, which was terrible. But it was only ‘attempted’ because he fell asleep before he completed the crime.”
When Zeb would try to stop, his friends urged him on and on.
I thought to myself, if I were a legislator, my door would always be open to Zeb. I would stop whatever I was doing just to hear him tell another story.
An open door to an important legislator’s office is the effective lobbyist’s most prized possession.
An open door to the office of a powerful and busy legislator gives a lobbyist the opportunity to present his or her client’s positions in the most positive way. More importantly, it gives the lobbyist the chance to hear the legislator’s real worries and problems about those positions. An experienced and effective lobbyist like Zeb can often work out a way to deal with those problems – or to work around them.
Unlike the inept criminal who only had one shell in his shotgun, Zeb’s always had multiple ways to work around a problem.
Of course, Zeb and other effective lobbyists do not always win or get everything their clients wanted. Babe Ruth didn’t hit a home run every time he went to the plate either. But when Babe was at the plate, you knew you had the best chance of success. Same with Zeb.
Like many of the best old-time lobbyists, he also worked for free to help some people and groups who would never be able to afford to pay for his talents. He took a special interest in veterans, who like himself carried wounds from their service to our country.
Every time I watched Zeb in action or heard about one of his successes, I wished that, somehow, every North Carolinian could have someone like him to look out for their interests in the legislature.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs at noon on Sundays and at 5 p.m. Thursdays on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch
This week’s (July 28, Aug. 1) guest is John Hope Franklin author of “Mirror to America.”
John Hope Franklin, who died in 2009 at 94, could be called North Carolina’s Nelson Mandela. Like Mandela, Franklin insisted on accountability and redress for the injustices of his country’s racist past, but always, in his gentle and dignified manner, ready to engage and make common cause with his former opponents. In 2006, Franklin appeared on North Carolina Bookwatch to discuss his memoir, “Mirror to America.
A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.