The Hunt for the Republican Jim Hunt. Helms went to DC. Hunt stayed home; the NC GOP’s worst nightmare.

by johndavis, June 24, 2010

“Hunt criticized the Democratic controlled General Assembly for raising taxes in 1991 during the recession, saying the budgetary shortfall was ‘sheer government mismanagement.’”[i] Rob Christensen, News & Observer, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics Twenty-five years ago, in Washington DC, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, was beginning his third term in the
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“Hunt criticized the Democratic controlled General Assembly for raising taxes in 1991 during the recession, saying the budgetary shortfall was ‘sheer government mismanagement.’"[i] Rob Christensen, News & Observer, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics


Twenty-five years ago, in Washington DC, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, was beginning his third term in the world’s greatest deliberative body.

In Raleigh, former two-term Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, was returning to the practice of law.  He had lost to Helms in the 1984 epic battle of political titans in the US Senate race.  Hunt was all washed up; a mere single-entry footnote in the annals of state political history.  Wrong.

Jim Hunt, today’s patriarch of the North Carolina Democratic Party, went on to serve a third and fourth term as Governor, a first since 1776.  He achieved an extraordinary and unprecedented list of accomplishments … not the least of which was the exalted partisan political triumph of becoming the state Republican Party’s worst nightmare of the past two-and-a-half decades.

As News & Observer political writer Rob Christensen pointed out in his book, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, "Hunt kept the Democratic Party from going under during a Republican tide by his political skills, ideological nimbleness, and the fact that he never stopped working."[ii]

Jim Hunt has become the Michael Jordan, the David Thompson, and the Christian Laettner of modern-day North Carolina politics … that player that is simply better than everyone else on the court.  You know the one … the one with the most wins.

This report examines the teachable personal qualities of Jim Hunt, such as “ideological nimbleness” and work ethic, along with the political skills that have made Jim Hunt the extraordinary winner that he has become.  What if Hunt had gone to Washington DC in 1985 and Helms had stayed in North Carolina?  Is there a Republican Jim Hunt?

Teachable Quality: Persuasiveness.

Damn, he really believes this stuff!”

In 1985, the state GOP had much about which to boast.  President Ronald "Morning in America" Reagan was in the White House, Republican Governor Jim Martin was in the Mansion, and Sen. Jesse Helms was making liberal Massachusetts Sen. Teddy Kennedy miserable day after day.

It was about this time that my friend Roger Bone, a loyal Democrat and seasoned lobbyist who represented the tobacco and pork industries, suggested that a newcomer to North Carolina political circles like me would benefit from a visit with Jim Hunt.  He made the appointment.

With his trademark enthusiasm, Hunt welcomed Roger and me into his modest office at the Poyner Spruill law firm in Raleigh.  As we were sitting down, he reached for a magazine on the coffee table in front of us and said, "Have you seen this study?"

It was a national educational publication, featuring a recent report on the results of new initiatives for improving education.  "No I haven't," I replied curiously, wondering why he would spend any of our valuable time talking about something as mundane as education.

My political training and experience to that point had taught me that issues were nothing more than arrows in your quiver ... a means to an end; arrows were used only for winning campaigns.  It was all a charade … a game.  Candidates talked about education only because the public opinion polls showed that it was on the short list of policy concerns most important to voters.  When they were not playing the game, they talked about sports or fishing or the news of the day.

Fifteen minutes passed.  Hunt was still talking about education reform.

I stared blankly, struggling to appear interested, but thinking, "Why is he still talking about education?  Surely he knows that I know how the game is played … that it’s all just a game."

A half-hour later, the conversation had not wavered from the topic of education reform.  That’s when the thought occurred to me, "Damn, he really believes this stuff!"

Jim Hunt persuaded me that day that a quality educational system is an economic development imperative; that the role of political leaders is to facilitate a union of the best ideas from business, education and government professionals and to see that those ideas are funded and implemented.

Thanks to my since-departed friend Roger Bone, I learned early on that in North Carolina education is not just another arrow in your political quiver … it’s a cannon.  It is the secret weapon Democrats have always used to keep the middle from voting Republican.  Until Republicans can come up with a persuasive argument for positive education reform, they have no hope of capturing the middle ground.  It’s that important in North Carolina.

Teachable Quality: Persuasiveness. Of all characteristics that set apart effective political leaders, number one on the list is persuasiveness.  Persuasiveness is the result of a sincere and persistent commitment to accomplishing a short list of goals that most voters will ultimately agree are worthwhile.  If you lack sincerity or if you are not persistent; if you build your career around too many issues or issues that are not important to voters, persuasiveness will elude you.

Teachable Quality: Pragmatism.

Business-oriented politicians backed by education-oriented capitalists for 100 years.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the 25th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Public School Forum at the North Carolina Museum of History. The Forum has become a national model education policy think tank, founded on that time-honored North Carolina notion that a quality education system is an economic development imperative, and that leaders from business, government and education must work together to achieve high expectations.

The Forum's great success can be attributed to the hard-working staff led since its founding by John Dornan, Executive Director, and Jo Ann Norris, Associate Executive Director.  It is also attributable to a diverse board of 60 volunteer directors, 20 directors each from the worlds of business, education and government. But the real key to the Forum’s success is their commitment to continuing a tradition that has set North Carolina apart from the rest of the South for 100 years: A progressive group of business oriented politicians and educators, backed by education oriented capitalists, who are willing to work hand-in-hand through the legislative process to develop and implement positive education reforms.

Has the business/government/education partnership really been around for 100 years?

Thomas F. Eamon, East Carolina University political science professor, writes in The New Politics of North Carolina, that Governor Charles Aycock, who served from 1901 to 1905, "... held a passionate belief in education as the means of human fulfillment." Eamon describes Aycock's legacy as, "... a state creed promoting economic advancement and education while protecting the privileged status of major corporations."[iii]

As to privileged major corporations, consider this:  In 1920, only Texas had more manufacturing plants than North Carolina among the Southern states (textiles, yarn, towels, underwear, hosiery, cigarettes, and furniture).[iv] By the end of the decade of the 1920s, only the state of New York had a larger bonded indebtedness than North Carolina.”[v] Public wealth would not have been available for public investments in education and roads were it not for the support of the progressive captains of the major industries.  "Expenditures Produce Prosperity," was the title of an editorial published in the Southern Textile Bulletin of Charlotte in the 1920s.[vi]

In 1949, Harvard University political scientist V.O. Key wrote Southern Politics in State and Nation, arguably the most referenced book on the politics of the south in the 20th Century.  Key titled the North Carolina chapter, North Carolina: A Progressive Plutocracy.  The business elites, Key’s plutocrats, have ensured that the education/economic development political leaders have had the financial advantage to fend off their conservative challengers for 100 years.

Jim Hunt is as pragmatic as he is persuasive.  He has always understood that you can't govern if you don't win and you can't win without money and you can’t get money if you don't go along with the business leaders who demand pro-business conservatism along with pro-education/pro-economic development progressivism.

Jim Hunt did not start the parade that is North Carolina's sense of priorities for state government.  That parade has been moving up the street along a route certain for 100 years.  Hunt merely took his turn as the parade marshal, albeit an inspirational and persuasive marshal who insisted year after year that the parade could be bigger and better much to the delight of most onlookers.

The biggest reason that North Carolina parade goers hesitate to choose Republicans as the parade marshal is because at every intersection they try to remap the parade route by turning sharply to the right on important issues like education.  Republicans must be more pragmatic about issues like education, beginning with a politically pragmatic decision to accept education as a critical issue that will be a priority for North Carolinians for another 100 years.

In May, the conservative Civitas Institute conducted a statewide public opinion poll in which the question was asked, “When you think about voting for a member of the state legislature, what issue or problem should be their highest priority?" Not surprisingly in these times, "economy and jobs" came in as the highest priority. However, you may be surprised to know that the second highest priority was, "improving public education."[vii] Improving public education was a higher priority than “Budget/Spending,” higher than “Illegal Immigration,” higher than “Reducing healthcare costs,” “Holding down taxes,” or “Government corruption.”

Teachable Quality: Pragmatism: Of all characteristics that set apart effective political leaders, number one is persuasiveness, followed by pragmatism.  Pragmatism is what Rob Christensen was referring to when he used the phrase “ideological nimbleness” to characterize Hunt.

Hunt was unique in his ability to plant the flag for both progressive and conservative causes, thereby holding together the traditional Democratic constituencies including unions, teachers, African-Americans, urban dwellers, university communities along with Down East rural, conservative "Yellow Dog" Democrats.  He also succeeded in melding the traditional Democratic Party loyalists with big-city business leaders and high-tech CEO’s in Research Triangle Park who were committed to the relationship between a quality education system and dynamic economic growth, business leaders who became some of his strongest financial backers.

Dick Daugherty, former general manager of IBM in Research Triangle Park, participated in a panel discussion at the Public School Forum’s 25th Anniversary celebration.  He stated that North Carolina's reputation as a state where business, education and government leaders worked collaboratively was one of the deciding factors that brought IBM to North Carolina.

Hunts ideological nimbleness can be found in his streak of social conservatism.  Hunt favored the death penalty, created the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, orchestrated a major increase in the number of prisons and championed welfare reform.  He also never hesitated to invoke God's blessings in his speeches, and banned the serving of alcohol in the governor's mansion.  In 1992, while running for his third term as governor, “Hunt criticized the Democratic controlled General Assembly for raising taxes in 1991 during the recession, saying the budgetary shortfall was ‘sheer government mismanagement.’"[viii] Now that’s ideological nimbleness!

Throughout his career, Jim Hunt has been the star player on the court.  Now he is the renowned coach … the Dean Smith, the Jim Valvano, the Mike Krzyzewski … that coach that is simply better than the other coaches.  The one that inspires his players to work as a team and leave it all on the court.  You know the one I’m talking about.  The one with the most wins.

Twenty-five years ago, in Washington DC, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, was beginning his third term in the world’s greatest deliberative body.  In Raleigh, former two-term Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, was returning to the practice of law.

I called one of Governor Hunt’s close friends this week to ask how long it took Hunt to recover from that devastating loss in the 1984 US Senate campaign.  “It took him six to nine months to come to terms personally with the loss,” his friend told me, “But then he went right back to work, beginning with the creation of the Emerging Issues Forum in 1985.”  Then he added, “His therapy was his work.”  There is nothing more pragmatic than hard work.

Since that time, Hunt has achieved an extraordinary and unprecedented list of accomplishments … including helping grow NC State University into a flagship university, with national and international standing equal to UNC-Chapel Hill, granted with different disciplines and cultural identities.  Anyone who doubts that claim has yet to see the Centennial Campus.

As to the question, Is there a Republican Jim Hunt? The answer is most assuredly “yes.”  If you want to hunt for the Republican Jim Hunt, here are the characteristics to look for:

Persuasiveness: Are they sincere and persistent in their commitment to accomplishing a short list of goals that most voters will ultimately agree are worthwhile.  If they lack sincerity or if they are not persistent; if they build their careers around too many issues or issues that are not important to voters, persuasiveness will elude them.  They are not the one.

Pragmatism: Do they respect North Carolina’s 100 year old conservative/progressive tradition.  Do they understand that you can't govern if you don't win and you can't win without money and you can’t get money if you don't go along with the business leaders who demand pro-business conservatism along with pro-education/pro-economic development progressivism?

Remember, in North Carolina education is not just another arrow in your political quiver … it’s a cannon.  It is the secret weapon Democrats have always used to keep the middle from voting Republican.  Until Republicans can come up with a persuasive argument for positive education reform, they have no hope of capturing the middle ground.  Who is the Republican Jim Hunt?



[i] The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, by Rob Christensen, chapter 7, page 257

[ii] Ibid., p. 259

[iii] The New Politics of North Carolina; UNC Press, 2008, page 15

[iv] The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, by Rob Christensen, chapter 1, page 51

[v] Ibid, page 53

[vi] Ibid, page 52

[vii] http://www.jwpcivitasinstitute.org/media/poll-results/may-2010-poll-results

[viii] The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, by Rob Christensen, chapter 7, page 257

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