Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., June 4, 1998. Interview C-0328-4. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Remembering "the little things" accomplished as governor

Holshouser remembers "the little things" he accomplished as governor that gave him satisfaction, such as modernizing the state license plate system, preventing the damming of the New River, and establishing an ombudsman's office. He elaborates on the role of ombudsman, an official who can listen to citizen complaints, and on his involvement in preserving the New River, a move he made for personal reasons but which benefitted him politically.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James E. Holshouser Jr., June 4, 1998. Interview C-0328-4. 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

JACK FLEER:
Governor Holshouser, what was the most satisfying decision that you made as Governor?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
I am trying to think. I am not sure I remember what I said the last time. I look at the big picture and it was getting some things done that I had not been able to do as a legislator which is the reason that I ran for governor to start with I think. So just little things like changing the five-year license tags, saving the state money. We had the private sector come in and do an efficiency study. Came back with a whole bunch of recommendations about 600 of them and as implemented it was suppose to save us about 80 million dollars a year. Now that is the kind of thing that managers ought to be doing periodically, not every other year because it is fairly time consuming. But once a decade at least that kind of thing ought to happen. In terms of specific things I have a feeling that avoidance of damming up the New River probably not only took about as much time as any single thing during the whole four years but also had as much of my own heart and soul in it as about anything. That was a long fought battle that was won and that was satisfying. I think the establishment of an ombudsman office so that the people had some place to come when they could figure out who they were suppose to talk to about a problem in state government was a good step forward in terms of how people feel about their government. I guess overall looking back finishing four years with people feeling like the governor had been trustworthy and responsive to the kind of problems we had was as satisfying as any thing looking back at the four years. That is not a thing, a project, but it is important.
JACK FLEER:
Important legacy actually.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
And in a sense secondarily to that from the standpoint of building a two party system in the state it was satisfying. People felt like that the government could be entrusted to Republicans without the world coming to an end.
JACK FLEER:
Let's talk a little bit about the ombudsman decision that grew out of or was certainly associated with your people's day efforts.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
That is right.
JACK FLEER:
And what did you expect from the establishment of that office and what do you think it achieved?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well sometimes you get results that you don't expect in a way. When we started off with the people's day things, it was one of these things that you do it as much as to let people have the opportunity even if they don't exercise it as you do for the people who come in. But at the same time setting up the mechanism with the people that was going to staff that project and then expanding that into a full-grown ombudsman effort. It seemed to me it should have been a very positive long term thing saying that John Jones out here on the street, you have got a problem with DOT or the Department of Corrections or Environment or whatever. You have got some place you can call without having to be bounced around from phone to phone in the government which happens an awful lot. I mean it still happens to me and I know the government pretty well. Occasionally I will call up and they will say no you need to talk to so and so and I'll call and he will be out of town until next week and he calls back and says no, that is not my department, somebody told you wrong. And I don't get frustrated because I sort of know about those things. But the average person on the street sometimes will just throw up their hands and say I can't get anywhere with this. Now I have not really kept up to see whether that office has functioned on a continuing bases or not. There has been a separate effort on volunteerism. It seems to me that maybe those two offices got merged.
JACK FLEER:
They have been.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
And how well the office functions as an ombudsman, it is hard for me to know.
JACK FLEER:
I was tracking yesterday in the budget office, the growth of the governor's office and particularly the growth of what is now called the Office of Citizens Help or Citizens Affairs which title they are using right now. The ombudsman is part of that and it is pretty significant. I think Governor Hunt, for example, picked up on particularly the volunteer side but also kept the ombudsmen side going. But it has continued to a part of the governor's office and an important part of the governor's office.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
And the trick about this is that I am not sure that Joe Jones out there on the street knows to call that particular office. Now if the people in the administration are turned in the first call that comes that it is not in my jurisdiction I ought just to send them to the ombudsmen office but I suspect that doesn't happen. It is a little hard to know you. Sometimes you set things in motion and you have a core but it takes more tentacles of reaching out within the various departments. But what I did find is that the people in that office, because they spoke with the authority of the governor's office, could cut through a bunch of what politicians call the bureaucracy and the red tape and get a response back to people even if it wasn't always what they were looking for. Frankly a lot of times if you got the response back to somebody even if it was no, if you could explain to them why it was no, that was enough.
JACK FLEER:
On the New River decision why was that so satisfying?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well I grew up in the mountains. Watauga County was just adjacent to Ashe and Allegheny was next over. A long time a friend of my father, a lawyer by the name of Floyd Crouse over in Sparta, had been very involved during the Scott administration in the citizens' efforts against the dam so to speak. You had some people who thought this was going to be the greatest thing since slice bread. Real estate developers could just see lots of things but it was going to change the basic character of that part of the state. There were enough people who felt so strongly about the land and its use that I became convinced that it would be much better to leave it as it was. I don't guess I will ever know whether that was right or not because you don't know what would happen the other way. We spent a lot of time and books were written about it. But it was very well down the pipeline at the time I came into office. The state basically had a posture of not fighting the (national) government. There were three or four different initiatives in court, some in Congress, some in the state legislature. As I indicated to you previously there were congressional offices involved — Vinegar Ben Mizell, Steve Neal. Rufus Edmisten when he became Attorney General and Senator Helms office all took an active hand at one time or another. I ended up going to see, I think it was, four different secretaries of the Interior over time to get their support for the approach of using the Wild and Scenic River's Act as a mechanism to say you can't touch this.
JACK FLEER:
It was quite an effort coordinating the various levels of government and different offices. Now did you see any political benefits from this or was it essentially an environmental decision?
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
You total up the total votes in Ashe and Allegheny counties and they weren't going to get anybody elected on a statewide bases or anything. This didn't have anything to do with politics except in the best sense of the term.
JACK FLEER:
I was talking with the former editor of the Winston Salem Journal a couple of weeks ago about the New River decision.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Yes Wallace Carroll was very interested in that too and as instrumental as anybody in helping to generate support.
JACK FLEER:
And he indicated that his paper decided to endorse you and he believes, although I haven't actually checked this, that in their major counties of circulation you actually won at least in part I suppose because of your New River decision and your involvement with the New River.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
I don't know. I don't remember the New River being that big of a campaign issue per se. It was heating up but if you asked me right now what were the major issues in the campaign I wouldn't say that was one of them. I may be mis-recollecting.
JACK FLEER:
No I don't think he is implying that either but I think what he might have been implying was the power of the Winston Salem Journal.
JAMES E. HOLSHOUSER, JR.:
Well you know the Republicans hadn't got many big city newspapers endorsement. Getting the Charlotte Observer and Winston Salem papers endorsements were probably as significant of a factor in winning as anything.