New Biography Celebrates Tar Heel State Icon

Posted January 5, 2011 at 5:42pm

Before 1976, North Carolina had not had a two-term governor in a century. Governors were not allowed to run for re-election in the Tar Heel State, nor could they veto legislation. 

A quarter of a century later, Jim Hunt redefined what it meant to be the governor of North Carolina. In fact, he very nearly became a major player in Washington during a long and successful political career. 

Hunt, a native of Rock Ridge, N.C., and Democratic governor of the state for 16 years, is the subject of a new biography by Gary Pearce, one of Hunt’s longest-serving advisers. Although “Jim Hunt: A Biography” begins with Hunt as a child on a rural farm and his development at North Carolina State University, most of the book focuses on Hunt’s 40 years as one of North Carolina’s most prominent politicians. 

North Carolina on the Map

Hunt’s career as a four-term governor was full of ambitious initiatives, most notably a push to allow governors to run for re-election, education reform and the creation of a technology industry hub now known as Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh-Durham area. The explosive growth of technology in the central part of the state is probably Hunt’s signature achievement, and it gave him and North Carolina plenty of visibility on a worldwide scale.

“Hunt was more than a salesman for North Carolina,” Pearce writes. “He became the state’s face to the nation and to the world. He gave North Carolina the image of a state that put a high value on brains and innovation.”

But it wasn’t all roses for Hunt. He portrayed himself as a moderate Democrat willing to work on bipartisan issues, yet he epitomized the role of a political flip-flopper long before John Kerry was tagged with the label in the 2004 presidential race. For example, Hunt spoke out in favor of both longer and shorter school days. He was able to shake off the stigma of being a flip-flopper in his runs for statewide office, but it doomed him in his only race for Congress.

No Objective Biography 

The tone of Pearce’s book is reverential, even fawning, and it is clear to the reader that this is no objective biography. That’s no surprise; Hunt’s political successes gave Pearce a job, prestige and influence on policy, and Pearce clearly admires the former governor. 

Pearce’s insider status and great respect for Hunt are clear positives — his access to Hunt and other former staffers in the governor’s office is excellent, and those interviewed are very candid — but the tone of the book makes North Carolina politics seem tame, collegial and cooperative nearly all the time. Pearce highlights Hunt’s accomplishments while glossing over legislative defeats and social problems, and readers are left wondering if Hunt’s tenure in office could really have gone that smoothly. 

A Flawed Campaign

The one major exception, and the most interesting part of the book, concerns Hunt’s only electoral defeat: his failed run for the Senate in 1984, when he took on conservative icon Sen. Jesse Helms. Pearce worked on that campaign, and his willingness to discuss the Hunt organization’s many flaws — and to recognize the quality campaigning done by Helms’ staffers, especially campaign manager Tom Ellis — gives the book depth and credibility. 

The chapter also provides a fascinating look into the differences between national and state elections, and the connection between a presidential candidate at the top of the ticket and his party’s statewide candidates. 

In 1984, with a weak Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, challenging President Ronald Reagan, Hunt lost to Helms by 3 points. Had he won the Senate seat that year, Pearce and others suggest he might have gone on to become president instead of Bill Clinton, another moderate Southern Democrat.

In the book, Pearce acknowledges the Hunt organization’s ineffectiveness against Helms, saying, “We did not run a good campaign.” The author adds, “Too often, Hunt seemed to be running because he wanted to be in the Senate, rather than because he wanted to do something for North Carolina. That reeked of raw ambition.”

Hunt took a lucrative job with a Raleigh law firm after that setback. But according to Pearce, Hunt still had a desire to see through many of his policy achievements — and to prolong his political career. Hunt had considered another run for Senate, either against Helms or Republican John East, but instead he waited until 1992 to once again run for governor. 

At his inauguration that year, he said in typical Southern prose, “Today, people ask if there’s a new Jim Hunt, or if it’s the same old Jim Hunt. Well, it’s an older Jim Hunt, but not quite the same old Jim Hunt.”

Jim Hunt took office for the first time in 1976 and finally left the governor’s mansion in 2000, a record few in American statewide politics can emulate and few North Carolinians can forget, even though two governors have since held the office. That’s why the final chapter of Pearce’s biography bears the fitting title “The Eternal Governor.”