James B. Hunt: Installments

Part 1: Early Years

In part one of the four-part Biographical Conversations with James B. Hunt, Jr. series, North Carolina Governor James Hunt takes you from his childhood on his family’s Rock Ridge, N.C., farm through his political beginnings as president of the Wilson County Young Democrats Club.

Jim Hunt's father, James Baxter Hunt, Sr., was a farmer and one of the creators of the Wilson County Grange chapter.  His mother, Elsie Brame Hunt, was an educator, as well as the first female member of the North Carolina Board of Health.

Hunt's parents were ardent supporters, as well as personal friends, of Kerr Scott, who, in 1948, became governor of North Carolina.  Hunt recalls that Governor Kerr Scott had an enormous influence on his own future ambitions because Gov. Scott illustrated that people in public office are there to serve the larger citizenry.  In particular, Hunt recalls Gov. Scott's promise to pave the dirt roads of rural North Carolina, and then watching a road-paving machine lay down asphalt on a particularly dusty and bumpy trail.  "That was one of the most significant moments of my life," Hunt says. "It made me realize how you can make things happen and how useful being involved in politics can be."

Jim Hunt was president of his class at Rock Ridge High School (as well as valedictorian and captain of the basketball team) and student body president at North Carolina State College during both his junior and senior years.  During college, Hunt met Carolyn Joyce Leonard, a young woman from Iowa who shared many of his interests and values.  The two married in 1958 and settled in Raleigh, N.C.  A year later, Hunt met Terry Sanford at a banquet and would go on to serve as a volunteer in Sanford’s successful 1960 gubernatorial campaign.  In 1962, the Hunt family moved to Washington, D.C. for a two-year stay, where the future North Carolina governor worked for the Democratic National Committee.

Shortly after moving back to North Carolina in 1963, Jim Hunt graduated from the University of North Carolina Law School. Distracted by politics during the summer of 1964, he failed the North Carolina bar exam.  Two months later, the Hunt family, which now included a daughter, Rebecca, and a son, James Baxter Hunt III, moved to Nepal.  During their two-year stay, Hunt taught agricultural techniques to Nepalese farmers and also became involved in developing a tax program for economic development.  In addition, the Hunts welcomed their third child, Rachel, who was born in a Katmandu missionary hospital in 1965.

In 1966, the family returned to North Carolina where Hunt retook—and this time passed—the bar exam. He began working for a private law firm and eventually became a partner.  The following year, Hunt was elected president of the Wilson County Young Democrats.
The first episode of the series ends with Hunt's reflections of 1968. The Hunts fourth child, Elizabeth, was born that year and Bob Scott was elected governor of North Carolina.  On the national scene, Hunt was deeply affected by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., noting, "He appealed to the best in Americans."  After attending a memorial service for King at Jackson Baptist Memorial Church—the largest African American Church in Wilson County—Hunt joined a crowd of 1,800 African American citizens who participated in a silent procession from the church to the courthouse in memory of the slain civil rights leader.  In doing so, he ignored warnings that his presence could incite racial tension and perhaps lead to violence. "I was proud to be a part of it," says Hunt.

Part 2: The First Two Terms

In part two of Biographical Conversations with James B. Hunt, Jr., Governor Hunt discusses his four-year term as lieutenant governor, as well as his first two terms as governor.  He begins with recollections of Bob Scott, who served as governor from 1968 to 1972, and then describes his own first campaign for statewide office, announcing his candidacy for lieutenant governor in 1971.

During his first campaign, Hunt focused on education.  “I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Terry Sanford and change the schools, not a little but a whole lot.” In addition, he campaigned on issues such as crime and the environment, as well as economic development.   Hunt’s efforts proved successful; he was elected lieutenant governor in November 1972.  On the national front, the 1972 elections brought two prominent Republicans into power.  Richard Nixon won the presidency—in the process becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win the North Carolina electorate—and Jesse Helms won his first election to the U.S. Senate.

The new lieutenant governor was able to forge a successful relationship with Republican Governor James Holshouser, and the two men worked together to bring new policies to North Carolina such as a statewide public kindergarten program.  Within his role as lieutenant governor, Hunt was the president of the North Carolina Senate and was not initially a favorite among the senior members of the state Senate.  “[They] didn’t really appreciate that this young whippersnapper had won the lieutenant governorship,” Hunt recalls.  During his four-year tenure, Hunt sharpened the political skills he would use later on.  “I worked hard, I fought hard, I made friends, and we won those battles.  I kept those tools of leadership, and they served very well, as I presided over the Senate and helped shape what came out of the legislature.”

In April 1976, Hunt declared his intention to run for governor.  As he had in the lieutenant governor’s race, Hunt campaigned on a platform that stressed crime prevention, economic development, and education.  Election night 1976, proved to be a triumphant one for Southern Democrats; not only did Hunt sail to victory—beating Republican candidate David Flaherty—but Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, defeated Republican incumbent Gerald Ford to become president of the United States.

Early in the tenure of Hunt’s first gubernatorial term, he introduced a double-pronged strategy designed to encourage long-term economic growth in the state, first by improving education, and second, by recruiting more industries with high-paying jobs.  While successfully passing measures to achieve these goals, he also coped with several state issues that caught national interest.  The first of these was Joseph Califano's campaign to outlaw cigarette smoking. This controversial campaign from the Carter Administration's Heath, Education, and Welfare (HEW) secretary would have the effect of dramatically lessening the profitability of tobacco, North Carolina's major cash crop.  The second major state issue of national interest occurred when Califano struck again, this time announcing that the University of North Carolina system had failed to adequately desegregate.
During Hunt’s first four-years the state legislature passed a measure allowing the Governor to serve two terms.  Hunt took advantage of the new law and successfully ran for reelection in 1980.  Shortly after Hunt’s second inauguration the university desegregation issue was quietly resolved under the new Ronald Reagan administration, leaving the governor able to concentrate on his education and economic strategies.  By 1982, Hunt’s popularity and effectiveness as governor had made him the Democrats’ top choice to face Jesse Helms in the 1984 Senate election. Hunt announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate race in February 1984.

Part 3: Running for the Senate

Biographical Conversations with James B. Hunt, Jr. begins with Hunt's recollections of President Ronald Reagan, elected to the country's highest office in 1980. Though critical of some of Reagan’s policies—such as the president's tax cuts—Governor Hunt respected the charismatic leader’s positive attitude.  "For him it was always morning in America," Hunt says of the 40th president. Reagan’s optimism made him the overwhelming favorite to win reelection in 1984. Throughout his presidency, Reagan remained enormously popular among North Carolina Republicans and Independents, as well as some Tar Heel Democrats. 

Jim Hunt remained immensely popular in his home state as well, and in the early months of 1984, the governor held a small lead in his senatorial race against Republican incumbent Jesse Helms.  But this was to be a brutal campaign, filled with personal attacks on Hunt’s character.  "Oh, it was ugly," Gov. Hunt recalls.  “The ads that Senator Helms’ team ran were almost all negative ads against me.”

Hunt and Helms agreed to debate four times during the summer and fall of 1984 with each showdown becoming more dramatic and divisive. The two traded barbs on a range of issues from campaign finance and benefits for military veterans, to legislation creating a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., which Helms opposed and Hunt supported.  By the final debate, in which Helms called Hunt a "radical liberal" and Hunt labeled Helms "a tool of the radical right," the two candidates were neck and neck in the polls.

At the same time, Hunt had a state to govern.  In June 1984, the state legislature passed the governor’s $255 million economic package aimed at improving public education.  A few weeks later,  Hunt attended the annual governor’s conference, where he promoted rewarding the country’s finest educators with higher pay. "Paying the best teachers the highest salaries," said Hunt, "is the most important thing."

Hunt continued his senatorial campaign through the fall of 1984.  But in November, the governor came up short.  Riding the coattails of President Reagan, who emerged victorious against the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, Helms won his bid for reelection.  In his concession speech, Hunt said he was "beaten but unbowed." In retrospect, Hunt admits that Helms' negative and divisive strategy was effective. "He was tearing me down as a person, and I was talking about the issues.  And I would have to say their ads worked."
Hunt left the governor’s mansion in January 1985 to return to a private law practice.  Eight years later, he returned to public service, and posted a resounding victory in the 1992 gubernatorial race. Hunt approached his third term pragmatically. “It wasn’t the overwhelming feeling of when (I) first ran,” Hunt recalls. “It was more a feeling of, okay, now we’ve got another opportunity to do it better.  I’ve learned a lot.  I know how to do this job, and I can’t wait to get started.”

Part 4: Back to the Mansion

Episode four of Biographical Conversations with James B. Hunt, Jr. focuses on Hunt’s final two terms as governor of North Carolina. Hunt begins by noting how he had changed in the eight years since he left office. He ran unsuccessfully for Jesse Helms’ U.S. Senate seat in 1984; returned to practicing law in 1985; and became a grandfather.

It was his Hunt's new grandchildren, as well as his knowledge of education, that inspired him to concentrate his energies on an early childhood development program--one that would be state funded, but would run more like a non-profit business rather than a government bureaucracy. This was to be Smart Start--a program the governor created and expanded throughout his third and fourth gubernatorial terms. When Smart Start was first launched in July 1993, it had 12 “pioneer partnerships” in 18 counties. By the time Hunt left office in January 2001, Smart Start was available in all 100 of North Carolina counties and had won several national awards. Today, more than a dozen states have modeled early childhood development programs using the Smart Start model.

In 1994, the Republicans gained majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. In North Carolina, Republicans took control in the North Carolina House of Representatives, and a share of control within the state Senate. Hunt now had to work with members of the opposing party to gain approval of his budgets, which made for long legislative sessions in 1995 and 1996. Despite these challenges, Hunt passed measures that appeased both parties, focusing on tax cuts and a new crime bill. In 1996, Hunt contended with hog farm pollution and the immense damage wrought by Hurricanes Fran and Bertha, while also beating Republican candidate Robin Hayes to win a fourth gubernatorial term in November.

A few days after his inauguration ceremony at Broughton High School in January 1997, Hunt proposed the Excellent Schools Act, a measure that would raise performance standards for public school teachers while also raising teacher salaries to the national average. Later that year, he oversaw settlement talks between U.S. government officials and North Carolina tobacco companies.

The environment was another final-term focus for Hunt.  The Clean Air Act, ratified in 1998, established monitors to measure and analyze air pollution. The following year Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina, and Hunt rolled up his sleeves to rebuild from the worst natural disaster in state history.

During his final year in office, Hunt began First in America, a campaign aimed at elevating the state's public education system to the top of the national rankings.
Since leaving office in 2001, Hunt has founded the James B. Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as the Emerging Issues Institute, a think tank based in Raleigh, N.C. The former governor is also a partner at Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice, and remains, as ever, a doting husband, father, and grandfather.