Former N.C. governor helps state through improvement in education and personable relationships
Hunts aren’t quitters.
At least, that’s what James Baxter Hunt, Sr. told his son James Baxter Hunt Jr. when he was growing up.
“One day, I came home from football practice and I was tired, wore out, hot,” said Jim
Hunt Jr., a former four-term North Carolina governor. “And I said, ‘You know what, I might just quit that team.’ And my dad said ‘Hunts aren’t quitters.’ Pretty good advice, by the way.”
This advice served Hunt well throughout his life. He was elected governor for the first time in 1977 and eventually became the only governor to be elected to four terms in office, although not consecutively. Jim Hunt found that perseverance and hard work was what allowed him to succeed so well in his time in office — especially coming from an atypical political background.
Gary Pearce, a close friend who authored Hunt’s biography and worked with him during his time in and out of office (which now amounts to about 36 years), discussed just how hard Hunt worked. Nothing Hunt got was just given to him, Pearce said.
“You know, when somebody’s a governor you tend to think that they’re rich or born to a prominent family,” Pearce said. “Hunt really did have remarkable parents and he wouldn’t have become what he did without them. But they weren’t remarkably wealthy people and they weren’t politically powerful people. To me, it’s a reaffirming story about how people from normal or humble beginnings can really have a big impact on the world.”
Hunt’s father was a farmer who also worked as a soil conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was not very active in the political world. However, he did carry around wads of newspaper clippings in his shirt pocket and would “pull out the right one to make a point,” Pearce pointed out in Hunt’s biography. Hunt’s mother, Elsie Brame Hunt, was a schoolteacher and was a great influence in Hunt’s passion for education, Pearce said in his book. “She believed every child could learn, if you just gave them enough time and help.”
Hunt did further education standards in N.C. greatly during his first four years as governor and decided eventually to run for N.C. senator the 1984 election again former Senator Jesse Helms. He was loved by the people of N.C., Hunt said, which was why it was so surprising when he didn’t win. This campaign was, at the time, the most expensive non-presidential race in America — Hunt’s and Helms’ campaigns, when totaled together, exceeded $25 million, according to a report by UNC-TV.
The 1984 campaign and maintaining relationships
The 1984 senate race between then-Governor Hunt and incumbent winner Jesse Helms was one of the most expensive campaigns in U.S. history, said Jimmy Broughton, Jesse Helms’ chief of staff from 1994 – 2003.
Hunt agreed with this assessment and said that another major defining aspect of the race were the political commercials that were run.
“You have to run some tough commercials to tell the truth on other people when they are misleading the public,” Hunt said. “I learned to do that because it didn’t come naturally. If people are running negative things about you, you’re setting the record straight and tell the truth about the other person. You have to fight fire with fire and answer the untrue things about you immediately.”
Hunt did respond with commercials and announcements, going against what Helms had broadcast about him.
Although Broughton was not the chief of staff during the race, some of these feelings still lingered, he said.
“It was a strong campaign,” he said. “They were convinced that the senator was going to lose the race up until election night. And up until 1984, [Helms and Hunt] had a good relationship. Obviously, that was soured in 1984, and it was not mended until about 1994.”
But Hunt didn’t let this “tough” campaign and bickering with Helms during the race affect their later relationship.
“All of the people who ran against me turned out to be friends,” Hunt said. “Jesse Helms is included. You’ll have times when you differ and have issues but you have to make the attempt to work with everyone — that was my approach. You have to fight like the dickens to win, but also make every friend that you can.”
Broughton agreed with this, when asked about the office’s relationship with Hunt after the race.
“[Hunt and Helms] worked together well,” Broughton said. “Our offices worked well together. When you’re a U.S. Senator, you have to work with the governor’s office regularly. We had no disrespect for each other. It doesn’t mean we agreed on everything, but there wasn’t a big divide. And this is contrary to pretty much everything you’ll ever read.”
In Pearce’s biography of Hunt, he describes Hunt’s feelings when he lost the race as being “numb with disbelief.” Hunt agrees with this assessment.
“I just couldn’t believe that a progressive governor that had done so much could lose to this man,” Hunt said. “He was basically against many of the things that I thought were progressive. You just couldn’t believe that people have defeated you, but then the reality sets in. You have to accept it and go on with your life.”
Initiatives during office
Eight years separated Hunt’s first two terms from his last two, and the intervening period was vital to his political career, he said. The time may have been somewhat of a blessing in disguise.
“During that interim, I did a lot of thinking about how we could have done better, what we could have done better,” Hunt said.
The governor said he discovered three main things he thought his administration could have improved, which he ended up putting in place when he became governor again in 1993.
First, Hunt pointed out that the ages for starting children in education initiatives were too late, and that they needed to start earlier. This is when he began to think of Smart Start, a program that began in 1993 and aimed to better prepare children to start school, before the age of five, by bringing together “all of the people involved in a young child’s life,” according to the Smart Start website.
“He has an energy that I’ve never seen in anybody but him,” DeVane said, “and it’s an energy and a passion for North Carolina and for making North Carolina and the people better. It’s never been for his own benefit.”
Another big aspect in the education system that needed improvement, according to Hunt, was how teachers were teaching.
“We had a lot of good teachers, they tried hard, they worked hard,” Hunt said. “But a lot of our teachers were not successful enough, effective enough. So I went about creating the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.”
The final aspect that Hunt tried to focus on turning his return to office was the administration’s relationships with businesses. He said it was vital to get to know that business leaders of N.C. in order to succeed fully in his initiatives.
“I became more aware of the efficiency of businesses in North Carolina,” Hunt said. “So when I ran again for governor, I contacted some of the business leaders of the state and asked for their ideas. They then supported me and became somewhat of partners for the next eight years.”
Video courtesy of North Carolina New Schools Project
Enthusiasm that still lingers today
When asked about the governor, political allies and adversaries, as well as close friends, spoke highly not only about Hunt’s initiatives during his time in office, but also about his current lingering enthusiasm.
“I certainly enjoy working with Governor Hunt,” said Broughton, who now works in the same law firm as Hunt. “It’s been one of the highlights of my time at Womble. I had admired him for a long time, anyway.”
Pearce said he also admired Hunt and that it’s not only his politics that gained his respect, but also how he handled many situations while in office. One in particular that came to mind, Pearce said, was during the 1984 campaign. Helms had just run a political commercial about one of the biggest political issues at the time — whether or not to make a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., asking Hunt’s position on the subject. Helms was against it, Pearce said. Hunt had a meeting with a political adviser to discuss the matter.
“The adviser said to him, ‘You have to realize that if you support this holiday, it could cost you the election,’” Pearce said. “And then Hunt said, ‘Well, if I have to lose because of that, I’ll just lose.’ At the time, I probably didn’t think about it that much but in retrospect it was really an important moment because at the bottom, Hunt really had core convictions and he was ready to risk his career.”
Although DeVane wasn’t around as much during Hunt’s early years in office, he now works closely with the former governor, allowing him to know his personality and to truly understand his convictions.
“Nobody I know is as determined, as passionate about helping people,” DeVane said. “You expect people to be that way when they are in office. It’s when they get out that it really matters, and I get to see now that passion that is still there.”
DeVane thinks highly of the governor, and emphasized that his attitude toward education and people wasn’t just for show.
“It’s not about trying to make friends,” he said. “He just genuinely likes to help people. It’s a moral calling that his upbringing has taught him and he is going to do everything he can to make the country a better place for our kids.”