SALISBURY — Volunteering can be a slippery slope, one that can lead you all the way to the General Assembly, as Charlotte Gardner well knows.
Gardner learned that lesson years ago when the former high school English teacher, wife to high school coach Lester, and mother of six was encouraged to volunteer with the Rowan County Republican party.
“We were in a depressed economy,” she remembers of that year, 1982. “I just wanted to do something to get involved.” Next thing she knew, after encouragement from friends, she was adding her name to the ballot. While she won the primary, the general election proved to be out of reach for a minority Republican. By the next election in 1984, however, the economy was improving and Reagan was running for a second term. Luck brought her a different ending, making her the first woman to represent Rowan County in the General Assembly.
“I never set out to be the first,” says the woman who served 16 years in the General Assembly. “In fact, I never even thought about it.”
Those first days in the House were overwhelming, recalls Gardner, 81. “You realize, this is an awesome job, an awesome responsibility.”
The first year presented “a huge learning curve,” as she learned key players and committees, she remembers. Her roles as a former educator and stay-at-home mom, she found, helped her find her bearings in the House. “I think having to be an organized person is certainly helpful,” Gardner said. “And when you have a large family and only one income, you have to be organized and budget to make it work.” Teaching had also helped prepare her for public speaking in front of large groups.
N.C. Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican representing Davie and Forsyth counties, credits Gardner as being her mentor for lawmaking in the General Assembly. Gardner had only been in the House four years when Howard herself found herself a freshman lawmaker. During sessions, they sat with each other and eventually became roommates. “She's probably one of the best friends that I have today,” she says.
“She was a wonderful legislator,” Howard said. “She was very passionate about the issues she worked on,” such as services for mental health.
She also learned an important lesson from Gardner — that not all campaign contributions are equal. “We as women (politicians), we simply do not get the contributions our male counterparts do,” Howard explained. For every dollar women candidates receive, male candidates might get three. “You take whatever money you can get for your campaign and you make it go a long way.”
Howard saw creativity in Gardner's campaign strategies, such as using purple as a distinctive color theme for her signs and handing out seeds. “She would buy packets of flower seeds — Forget-Me-Nots — and hand them out with a campaign card at the fair,” she said.
“When you raise six children on one income, you make do with what you have,” Howard said of Gardner's budgeting abilities. “She could stretch the dollars.”
The Mavretic revolution
Gardner, as Howard would quickly find, was also adept at helping stage a political coup.
By 1989, House Republicans were feeling the pains of being the minority in the historically Democratic General Assembly. Exacerbating their feelings of being politically sidelined was the fact then-House Speaker Liston Ramsey had held his post — with an iron grip, many say — for an unprecedented four terms, leaving it nearly impossible for House Republicans to contribute to the legislative agenda.
“We were decidedly in the minority. We got tired of sitting on the back row and not getting any bills past,” Gardner said. “We put our thinking cap on and decided that we needed to find a Democrat to support,” in order to change the process, she said. “We were meeting all around the state and nobody had a clue. We were getting ready for the Mavretic revolution.”
And revolt, they did. During the inaugural session of 1989, the entire Republican delegation, along with some Democrats pooled their votes to ensure Democrat Rep. Joe Mavretic ousted Speaker Ramsey. The vote made national news and had kept Gardner on the edge of her seat. “It was crucial that the first couple of Republicans at the beginning of the alphabet voted for Mavretic because there were some Democrats who, if they saw that anyone had jumped ship on our side, would have jumped ship because they were really taking a risk.”
That vote eventually led to state Republicans having opportunities to propose legislation and serve as vice chairs on legislative committees. “We were able to participate in a way we had not been able to do before then,” Gardner said, adding that it helped pave the way for an election of a Republican as speaker in 1994.
“The new speaker treated us all equal and he was fair,” Howard said. “That was the beginning of a new day for the North Carolina House.”
After eight terms in office, Gardner was defeated by Democrat Lorene Coates, who assumed office in 2001. The measure of Gardner's time as a lawmaker, however, might best be measured by the laundry list of awards that remain dear to her, from accolades marking her work in mental health, to the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, to an award proclaiming her a Guardian of Small Business.
“I had a wonderful opportunity, one I never thought I would ever have. It was something a lot of people could only dream of,” Gardner says. “I feel like I've had it all. I was able to have a large family, be able to teach, which I love, and to be able to go to Raleigh, which is something I never expected to do.”