Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James B. Hunt, October 3, 2001. Interview C-0332. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Problems with bipartisanship among the Democratic Party hardliners in North Carolina

Hunt's embrace of bipartisanship met with some opposition from the hardliners in his party. He insists however that his strong and forceful presence as governor helped him keep mainstream Democrats in line.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James B. Hunt, October 3, 2001. Interview C-0332. 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

Personal, well being, or their family's well-being. I want to switch to talking about your role as a political party leader and as governor. Was it important to you to be and to be seen as the leader of the Democratic Party when you were governor?
Could you explain it?
Well, I think our system of government is well served by a strong two-party system. You have a strong two party system. In fact we're better for it. While I say to you that it is important, it is also important that the governor be bigger than just his party. You have to have, develop bipartisan [support]. You have to work with people of different parties. You should try to develop bipartisan support for things when you can. But the fact is you, your party is the group that worked hardest to elect you, support you strongly, believes in you, will go to the wall for you if you're a strong party leader. Now I, of course, came up through the party. My first activities were in Young Democrats. I wrote the state party precinct manual, ‘Rally Around the Precinct’. I canvassed every house in my precinct and got involved with the people and talking with them and so forth. I was state president of Young Democrats and led the first sort of party reform effort in North Carolina which included recommending voting eighteen-year-olds and full participation by minorities and women and so forth. I was maybe the last governor that came along to come up through the party ranks going out and speaking to party organizations in all counties of North Carolina. As I look back on it I think it was a great advantage because I got to go to people out there, where they were. Television and media today is, was very important. You can probably win without going to counties. I don't think you should. I don't think you're as good a governor as if you'd been out. You shouldn't just work out in the across the state, through the party. That shouldn't be the only thing you do. I did agricultural groups and education groups, especially in recent years environmental groups and safety groups and on and on. But your question was about party leadership, and I think it strengthens you a great deal if you're strong in your party. For them to be behind you they have to know you, have worked with you, see their success as yours. Now but there are limits to that, and I'll give you an example. Parties tend to be one side of the spectrum. There are many people within a party that just want you to be very orthodox, very extreme their way. So moderate Republicans in this state often times aren't appreciated by very conservative, maybe far right of the party. I could always tell in the Democratic Party that my pushing for punishment of criminals, my strong stand on that including support of capital punishment (that) all the liberals in my party, the very most extreme liberals, always felt like I wasn't quite one of them because I wasn't. My closeness to business, my understanding of how you have to make the economy work, working with business and seeing that we had an environment in which they could locate and prosper and provide jobs. That didn't sit well with some people in my party. I know that. There were issues that we had a great deal in common on.
Who were the maybe not naming people but naming positions who were the challengers? Where did the challenge for leadership of the party for you come from, legislative leaders?
Yeah. I don't think the challengers were ever very strong. They came certainly when I was first elected governor. That's when people need to give Mike Easley some running room. I remember how tough it was when I started. Unfairly people kind of compare him to me at the end of sixteen years. But yeah we had some pretty—I'll name one name, but we had a group of people within the legislature that were pretty conservative. I'm talking about Democrats. They didn't want to do a lot of these things. They didn't want to put a lot of money into it. But when I got my Excellence in Schools Act through, when I got my Smart Start program through I, of course, was successful in part because the business leadership supported those issues. They would be impressive to the conservatives of the legislature particularly the Democrats. Now what developed of course later was the Republicans in the legislature were so tightly bound together. It was very hard to get any bipartisan support. I did that on the Excellence in Schools Act. But it got harder and harder. You can see right now with the pledge they signed today. But that's not just on that issue. You had that kind of feel on lots of other issues. So I did have some challenge from conservative leaders in the legislature. I had some challenges to my leadership on public safety issues from Speaker Blue. When I called the special crime session in '94 whenever it was, he and Bob Hensley and Martin Nesbitt and a group of those people strongly opposed many of the bills that I got through. I think I proposed thirty-six bills. Thirty-two of them passed. We had a knock down drag out about getting it through. So I had people sort of on the liberal members of the legislature who were opposing me on crime and public safety issues. I had more conservative people who didn't want to make the big jumps for children and education that I thought were important. Then I had people—I remember Harold Hardison whom I respected and I worked with closely in the early years—boy, he fought environmental legislation tooth and nail as did many others. I had to deal with them getting that Clean Air Act through that we got through two years ago. It was accomplished that was little noted, but an amazing accomplishment to the truth of the fact. So that was where the main, as I said within the party ranks when it came to picking party chairman, state chairmen, things of that sort, there would be grumbles. The governor's trying to run it, but they never amounted to much. People knew my party credentials. They supported me on most issues. They appreciated my active leadership in the party, helping raise money for the party and that sort of thing.