Looking back, what's most remarkable about Jim Hunt, our governor for 16 of the last 24 years and lieutenant governor before that, is how little he's changed. He was "tough on crime" in the '70s. He's still tough on crime. Taxes? Didn't like 'em then, doesn't like 'em now. In his first inaugural address in 1977, he said change must come from our individual efforts, "not from some new 'manipulation' of government." His signature program of the '90s, Smart Start, is a modest manipulation: Nonprofit groups and churches share $250 million in state funds with the expectation that they will bring far more than that to the goal of better child-care and preschool education services. Hunt thought churches should do the lifting, too, on his Work First plan to get folks off welfare. His Wilson church, he noted, paid for a used car so a welfare mom could get to work.
But if Hunt's been conservative about what government should do, he's never been the least bit conservative about what he as governor should do. He should lead by example and by exhortation, and he should do it all-out, every day, and in every way he and his staff can think of. Jim Hunt's weekday schedules are jammed with meetings and appearances, and an endless stream of phone calls--endless until Friday night, when he and Carolyn head home to their farm in Wilson, and you'd better have a very good reason for calling him before 7 a.m. Monday.
The pattern was set early on. Hunt was among a very few whites who, as members of the local Good Neighbor Council, marched in a memorial parade in Wilson after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. "You do what needs to be done for your community," he said later to William Snider, a Greensboro newspaper editor who profiled Hunt in a book about the historic U.S. Senate race of '84, Helms and Hunt. Said Snider: "As one who has seen Tar Heel governors in action for over three decades, Jim Hunt beats them all for sheer drive and energy."
On the other hand, Hunt never launched a major affirmative-action, jobs or community development program as governor, nor did he propose much in the way of extra money for poor school districts or progressive tax reforms. Instead, he used trickle-down policies: more money for all schools, tax breaks for all businesses. Hunt signed tax cuts totaling $1.4 billion a year during his last two terms.
Was that the best way to help the needy? Perhaps not, but it was what the financial and business elite who ran North Carolina would support, in the view of Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat and author of Tar Heel Politics 2000. Hunt had their backing in the '70s and again in the '90s, following their flirtation with Republicans like Jesse Helms and Gov. Jim Martin in the '80s. Unlike most of its southern neighbors, North Carolina today is still, however slightly, a Democratic state. A big reason is that Hunt made himself a part of the system and didn't buck it.
Hunt let highway contractors and real-estate developers control state transportation policies until scandals forced him to embrace modest reforms in his fourth term. He was silent on the issue of campaign finance reform until his last year in office, when he declared that big-money politics--which includes contributions from the developers' lobby--was out of control. As the state's all-time fundraising champion, he said, he was in a position to know. He talked up "smart growth" and mass-transit alternatives to highways. Public opinion had changed, and if Hunt rarely charged out ahead of his times, he wasn't about to be left behind either.
No, Jim Hunt kept his finger to the wind and the telephone to his ear, and he was never left behind. He was, in his own way, a leader, with a progressive vision of what the rest of us should do.
As Hunt wraps up his epic reign as governor, we asked local progressives to weigh in on his career and his impact on North Carolina. Their comments follow.