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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., January 31, 1998. Interview C-0328-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Holshouser's early political career

Holshouser's political career snuck up on him, the former governor explains. A Republican, he beat out an incumbent Democrat to win a seat in the state legislature and soon found himself party chairman. This passage offers a brief look at Holshouser's early career and how he benefitted from party struggles in the 1960s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., January 31, 1998. Interview C-0328-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Governor, I am beginning with a series of questions on your personal political development and the political interests that you had in your very early stage. When did you begin thinking about a career in politics?
Actually Jack, I guess it was not really thinking about a career in politics. I don't think I ever really thought I was going to have a career in politics. I almost always considered myself sort of a short-term visitor and it got a little stretched out. I grew up in family where my father was involved, sometime another probably before I could read. I think he ran for the legislature. He didn't win. But he served on the local board of elections and went to party meetings and served on the state board of elections and ended up being a U.S. District Attorney during the Eisenhower administration. So I heard politics sort of talk at the house, not in a serious vein, but just as a casual part of life. It certainly didn't dominate the dinner time conversation in our household growing up. At least there was sort of a little public interest there. But at the time I went off to college, I was not thinking about politics. I was trying to get an education, find a good person to marry, have a good time. I was interested in sports, served as sports editor of the newspaper and the annual while I was at Davidson as I had in high school. I was seriously thinking about being a sport's writer. In the fall of my senior year in college I worked weekends with the Charlotte Observer sport's department and slowly but surely decided I enjoyed sports too much to have to make my living from it. If it got to be work I might loose what had brought me to it. So I ended up in law school and following my dad's footsteps joining his law office. And even in law school, didn't even in college or law school, get involved in the young Republicans and that sort of thing. I went to a young Republican meeting once when I was in law school and I was asked by a friend at Davidson to go to the state student legislature when somebody else got sick and couldn't go. So I did and I enjoyed that. So I had those little things but really not much. I guess my interest in government got peaked when I was in law school. The legislature was taking up reform of the court system at the time. We had several hours from our law class to go over and watch the legislature debate all of this. The professors from the law school were talking about it and I got interested in it. I knew that in the 1962 election there was going to be a referendum on the constitutional amendments that had been passed and that meant the 1963 legislature would start looking at that. I just decided I wanted to be part of that if I could. Being a law student and having looked at it, I was sure I had all the right answers of course. And so in late 1961 after I had gotten married that summer I started talking to my father about the idea of running for the legislature. He had come back from the U.S. Attorney's office during the summer and so we were practicing law together. He said if it was something that I was interested in he thought I ought to try. We had a Republican incumbent at the time. And so I talked to the party chairman who ran the hardware store downstairs below our law offices and so he suggested some things, people I should see in several precincts. I just sort of went about it analytically. I got the records out from past Republican primaries to see how many people came out and voted and where they came from and where I needed to concentrate time and people, and spent some time and got elected, got the nomination. I ran against the father of an old long time standing family in Boone, the Winklers. I dated both of his daughters and played bridge at his house.
He was the incumbent Republican?
He was the incumbent Republican senator, excuse me, Democrat senator. They had a rotation agreement on the senate seats at that time. So he rotated out of the senate seat and was running for the house on the Democrat side and so that part was interesting too. Had a good time. It was a good Republican year. So I did fairly well. When I got to the legislature as it turned out they ended up setting up a judicial commission, judicial reform commission, courts commission, I guess is what it was called at the time. So the 1963 legislature didn't do anything after all in terms of court reform. But I got interested in the fact that school boards in most of the counties at that time, particularly ours, were appointed by the legislator. The Republican and Democrats would have primaries and they would nominate folks and send the nominees to Raleigh. And the Democrats would always be appointed no matter who got how many votes or anything. And I thought that was pretty undemocratic. So I worked on some legislation that helped changed that for the county. We were getting ready to have a bond election for building a new consolidated school. That was at least part of what was important in helping that bond issue pass, making sure that both parties felt like they had a tie in and involvement with the public schools. So what started off as an interest in court reform sort of got broadened a little bit. Several issues came alone. I decided that I would run again because it was obvious the courts commission would be appointed and coming back at the 1965 legislature. It turned out 1964 was the Goldwater-Johnson Republican debacle and we lost half the seats we had in the house. The guy who had been the minority leader didn't run again. The guy who was the heir apparent lost and I ended up being the minority leader in 1965 sort of by default. That put me on the Republican central committee, which meant I was going to those meetings every month and got to know some of the party people around. When Jim Gardner decided to step down as party chairman in 1966, I was elected as party chairman.