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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., May 9, 1998. Interview C-0328-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Leadership strategies as governor

Holshouser touches on a number of different issues and how as governor he attempted to stay on top of them. One of the most effective ways of maintaining control was through appointments, which allowed him, as governor, to place competent, loyal people in key roles. With these people in place, by creating an environment that encouraged teamwork, and by taking advantage of the relationships he built in the state legislature, Holshouser managed to advance his agenda.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., May 9, 1998. Interview C-0328-3. 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

That's amazing, and somewhat disappointing. When you look back over your administration as Governor of North Carolina, how much were you in control of the administration?
Well, it's a little hard looking back to know for sure. We did some things that were deliberately set up to keep control programmatically in that we had what we called a policy council where all the legislative proposals had to sift before they went to the legislature. The budget, too. I think I talked about this before, but I'll get on with it and say that I might take a different view today, but probably not. I took the view that these people [Council of State members] were constitutionally elected by the people, and they were the ones that had constitutional responsibilities. The place where that runs into joint interests is with the Department of Public Instruction, because you can't be governor and not have an interest in public schools. And yet the superintendent is constitutionally elected and the governor appoints the state board. You've got this crazy government system that's—well, dysfunctional is the wrong word, but you work against that system instead of having that system help you. In terms of the people in the cabinet, I think for the most part the people worked as a team. You certainly had people with different ideas. Jim Harrington, for example, thought the inventory tax ought to be repealed. People in his department thought that, and frankly I thought that, too. But I told him I didn't want him over there in the legislature lobbying for that because we'd taken a firm ‘no tax repeals’ stand. We just sort of stonewalled the whole thing for fear that the legislature would start trying to decide about taking tax cuts. The first thing you knew the whole budget's blown. Since the Advisory Budget Commission had recommended some onetime tax rebate, it was a live issue at the time. We had four different secretaries of transportation in four years, which is not a good way to do things but is the way things worked out. I suspect that people were hired that the governor's office didn't know about. That probably still goes on today. Joe Pell is probably the best of anybody of keeping his fingers on that. You've got to have a certain amount of confidence in the people that you put in cabinet positions. At the same time, none of ours had ever had any government experience in the state government. It probably meant that our administration was more cautious than most administrations, and less aggressive in some ways. Frankly, when I look back at accomplishments that you can check off, it's remarkably good given the fact that we hadn't been there and we were trying not to make any more mistakes than a naive new administration had the potential to. We didn't turn the secretaries loose with everything, so to speak.
You mentioned the policy council, and then the sort of control in so far as you could over appointments. Would those be the two principal mechanisms that enabled you to maintain some kind of control, or were there others?
That's the main thing. We had a cabinet social about once a month that'd rotate from house to house. Never had it at the mansion as I recall. Each cabinet member would be host. I think that was very important, looking back, in terms of building that sense of camaraderie and teamwork. So it wasn't a sense of control—governor's office versus the departments—as much as it was everybody feeling like they were part of the same team. You didn't have circumstances for the most part where a cabinet member says, ‘I think we ought to do this,’ and the governor saying, ‘No, we're not going to.’ It was pretty much—it wasn't an administration that had seriously different points of view. So there wasn't a lot of pull and tug. You had some things on personnel that were either changes that needed to be made or cabinet members who didn't feel the time was right for them.
What about beyond the administration to the state government? You were obviously in a position as the first Republican governor to come into a governing structure—a bureaucracy, if I may use that term—where people had gone about their business to the tune of Democratic governors. Did you feel that you could control that larger government?
Well, I went in nervous about that because of an experience I had had in the previous four years sitting in the Oval Office. President Nixon would give a direct order to the secretary of HEW, and her field man in Wilmington six weeks later would say just the opposite. That sort of reminded you of Eisenhower's statement that ‘You push the button on the desk and wonder if it goes anywhere; if there's a wire under there or not.’ I had the good fortune of having at least the key department and division heads have a chance to see me in the legislature. I knew most of the budget people on a first-name basis. I think there was a lot of nervousness, despite the fact that I'd been to the state employees' convention, and did the same way with the NCAE folks. I did more than just put in an appearance. The day after the election at the news conference I told the reporters that state employees—unless they had gotten their jobs through total politics—didn't have anything to worry about. I had one of our economic developers tell me somewhere in the third or fourth year that he was in New York on an industry recruiting trip on the day of the election. Well, his wife called him about one o'clock and said, ‘You better get your tail home. We've done elected a damn Republican!’ [Laughter] So there had to be a certain amount of that. Newspapers had these stories about state employees running out to the parking lot the next morning and tearing the Bowles' stickers off their car. There was some interesting things about that. But for the most part what you found was that people generally have a regard for the office of the governor. That was true with the legislature and Council of State as well. Folks tend to—because of that respect for the office, folks tend to sort of try to get along. I heard after I left office that people in the ABC system were lining up raids to do on places where I had been the night before, so that it looked like I had put them on them, so to speak. Of course, that was also influenced by the fact that the guy who headed up the ABC board was a Holshouser from Rowan County. He had been the chairman of the State Association of ABC Boards, and they had recommended him. And I said, "I am not going to appoint someone named Holshouser. He's got to be kin to me. You prove to me that he's not close kin and maybe I'll look at it." So he got a genealogist, and showed that the closest relative we had was the original Holshouser who came down from Pennsylvania in 1750. That was the only common connection. So I went ahead and appointed him. He did a good job, and looking back, I wish his name hadn't been Holshouser. [Laughter] But I think those situations were exceptions rather than the rule. I think most people tried hard to do their job. We weren't out there trying to crucify any one department or division. There wasn't any reason. You invariably have the hassles that you go through in terms of moving people out who had been political hacks, so to speak, in various departments. It's amazing to me. Some cabinet officials were so adept at not only doing it without ripples on the water, but also in a way where you respected the other person. Gave them time to find another job; helped them find another job. That's probably one of the most important attributes for somebody who's going to head up a state department; that is to have an ability to manage that particular transition.