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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James B. Hunt, October 3, 2001. Interview C-0332. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Hunt's leadership tactics as governor

Hunt describes how he sustains his leadership through an effective and committed political team and a respectful relationship with the General Assembly. His strategy to delegate responsibilities was critical to his leadership style.

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

JACK FLEER:
Governor, how influential were you and can a governor be in shaping his own administration? How much in control were you?
JAMES B. HUNT:
I think you're in control a great deal, and I think I was. You have to have a strong staff and team in the governor's office. You have to pick members of your cabinet who share your commitment, who are effective leaders themselves. They have to be loyal to you and be on the team and stay on the team, not let their own personal ambitions get in the way of what the people elected the governor to do. You have to work at it day and night. You don't just put them in place and let them run. That's why I had cabinet meetings once a week. I kept that focus. I don't know if you've ever seen that agenda. It was on my boards. I kept [it] in front of them all the time. They can tell it to you in their sleep. The joke was in my first I guess my third term that I made everybody carry [the agenda] on the inside pocket of their coat. Some people said they had to sleep with it in their pajamas. Well—
JACK FLEER:
However it happened.
JAMES B. HUNT:
The point was they knew what the agenda was. They knew what was on it and what wasn't. If they were going to pursue something that wasn't on it, they really had to justify it. We changed it some over time, but that is something you have to work on every day is to keep your own team on board that committed to the things you were elected to do, that you promised to do and help you do them. You'd have to have, you need a secretary of transportation who would help you on your Smart Start bill. You've got all these people on board. They can all help you back out where they come from. They can help influence legislators votes. They can serve on the partnership for children committees in their counties, give it stature and help moving it forward. That's one thing I feel best about in my terms was my teams and the strength of them, the unity of them, the hard work of them in getting our programs adopted. I think that's one of the good reasons why we got it done.
JACK FLEER:
What were the major obstacles to a governor's ability to shape his administration?
JAMES B. HUNT:
Well, there's always the reluctance to change. The bureaucracy doesn't want to change. They are, they don't like to take risks, and frankly the system is adverse to risk taking. State employees, rank and file state employees, just don't want to do it, don't want to be cooperative. You're dangerous to them and taking the risk of changing. Used to be it was hard to do it because you didn't have succession. They thought they'd just wait you out. It's hard work. You have to work at it day and night. Just the personal energy and effort that you have to make is an obstacle in some cases. A lot of people and of course it's awfully easy to lose sight of what you were elected to do, lose focus because new things come up, and you have to deal with new things. Gosh you've got some cartoons up here about the flood. Nobody ever knew that was coming along. But you have to deal with it and we did. I think I'd add one more. I believe in an earlier conversation we touched on this, it's awfully easy for members of your own team, members of your own cabinet, members of your own administration to begin to think that they'll substitute their agenda for yours. I had some people who did some of that, not a great deal. There's always that tendency there. I'm an expert in this area; I spent my life in it; I know more about it than the governor does. He may have been elected by so and so but I'm in here now, and I'm going to push so and so. You have to deal with that delicately. These are good people. Many times they are true experts outstanding leaders in their own right. You respect that, and you appreciate those strengths, but they have to stay on your team, play on your team. It's not, they didn't get elected governor. You really have to keep making that clear, keep pulling them back in, and one of the keys to that is to keep a close connection, in other words to talk regularly. The other key to that is to have your own people on their staff, a cabinet secretary has a deputy that the governor approved. It might have been the secretary's original suggestion, but the governor approved it. The cabinet secretary has a public information officer that the governor approved, a legislative officer that the governor approved. It's still all the governor's team. You see. So that's the way we did it. Again we, you just have to constantly keep your own team focused and then get them working out there regularly and working along side you. That's one of the reasons why I like to go out and do things with my cabinet officers. David Bruton and I went all over the state trying to get the Child Health Care plan approved including to Winston-Salem. That built our team and built our relationship. You need to constantly work with your people.
JACK FLEER:
Did you have to remind them that they were there because you got elected, or did they, or were they reminding each other?
JAMES B. HUNT:
Well, they did some reminding, and you do this very carefully. You respect them. You appreciate them but and the way you do that, you don't have to remind them that you were the one elected and they weren't. You remind them about what we ran on, we, the team. Here's what we ran on. Here's what the people elected us to do. That's the approach we used. I've got my copies of my agenda for action, my report to the people and all that stuff. That's without precedent Jack in North Carolina, maybe in America. I don't believe anybody ever laid out as clearly exactly what you were running to do, what you did do this year, next year, four years, at the end of four years, at the end of eight years as we did. But it was really I found it so helpful to write it down and to constantly focus on it, have cabinet meetings that are about it, have working groups that work together to advance those things.
JACK FLEER:
It was a discipline in itself for you as well as for the team.
JAMES B. HUNT:
That's right.
JACK FLEER:
In talking about your relationship with the North Carolina General Assembly, with the legislature and reflecting on your work as governor with it. What do you think are the key components with it? What makes it work effectively for our governor?
JAMES B. HUNT:
One is having an attitude of respect and appreciation for legislators and their leadership. I pushed hard. But they knew I respected them and appreciated them because I did a lot of things to show them including campaigning with them, working with them on their issues. I made speeches for them, considered their suggestions for positions on boards and commissions and thing of that sort, an attitude of respect and understanding how the system works. They make the laws. They pass the budgets. The governor can't pass anything. Second being very clear about what you're proposing and conveying that to them and trying to get them to come aboard and share the ownership of this with you, to be a part of a team to make it happen. A lot of governors think just because they're for it even if maybe they ran on it, but you've still got to sell your legislature. They may not have run on it at least initially. I ran on Smart Start, but nobody else did in 1992, but they did afterward. That requires an enormous amount of work. Then I would say the other big thing is and included in that is making very clear to them how strongly you feel and that the people did vote for this. There will be real consequences if they didn't carry out what the people wanted. I don't have to say too much. You can read between the lines on that. But you have to sell that too. But I always felt like positive leadership. I never could get anything through just by threatening somebody. I would get right tough with pushing folks, but only after I tried everything else in the world. They'd heard from their people back home that they had every reason to know it was the right thing to do. People, their people wanted it done. Then I guess the final thing I would say is getting other people to weigh in on these things. A perfect example I think would be, I could list a lot of them. Gosh, I had, you could look at this wall and see some of the things. I had a special session on crime one time, and I had the cops here and the sheriffs here and the people whose kids have been murdered and things of that sort pushing for action. They sensed, ‘Hey, the people want this. I'm hearing from these folks.’ We did the same thing with children. We did the same thing on issues for improving teaching in North Carolina. We did the same thing when we needed to respond to the flood. I had a special session of the legislature. We worked hard to get ready for it. It was three quarters of a million dollars for that to help people, and they heard from the folks back home. The governor needs to make sure the legislature hears from the people and hears from a cross section of people not just special interests that have a particular view. I think all of those things. If I thought about this a long time I might come up with some others. I think those are some of the main ones.