Governor Jim Hunt
Editor’s note: On Thursday, March 8, Governor Hunt talked with the Editors of the Carolina Political Review; the conversation ranged from the history of Democrats in North Carolina, the once and current price of tobacco, the rural-urban divide, education and the ACC tournament. Attached, table thumping and all, is the audio recording from that interview.
No single man has served as Governor of North Carolina longer than Jim Hunt. Hunt held the office in two eight-year intervals, 1977-1985 and 1993-2001. Now, at eighty years old, Gov. Hunt still exudes the energy and passion which surely led to his unparalleled tenure as North Carolina’s chief executive.
Hunt traces his experience with politics back to his parents and his early life in rural North Carolina. His parents both participated in the Grange, an organization like the Farm Bureau, which organized farmers and poor rural Americans.
“We were interested in helping people,” the Governor remembered.
One success of the Grange was achieving free rural delivery of mail; it was the the small things one might take for granted which made all the difference in those poor communities. In those days, Hunt says, poor people did not have champions. By the late 1940’s, though, one had appeared in the form of Kerr Scott.
Kerr Scott ran for governor on a platform of extending electricity to rural people, improving schools and paving roads. In 1949, he took office and did just that.
“I saw the paving machine come down my country road at Rock Ridge. I was 13 and I’ve never forgotten it,” Hunt said.
For both Scott and Hunt, the goal of government was clear: to give people a chance for a good life.
“We supported Kerr Scott. He did what he said he would do. We were proud and thrilled. Things got done for people.”
Hunt went on to attend NC State University, where he served as student body president for two years. Around that same time, Terry Sanford began gaining prominence statewide. As Hunt recalled, “Terry Sanford wanted to improve education not a little bit, but a lot.” Then-candidate Sanford asked Hunt to be the chairman of the Young Voters for Terry Sanford program. Hunt went around the state organizing student groups at various colleges in an effort to elect Sanford as governor.
Hunt emphasized the important role that Democrats played in propping up the farmers with price supports. At that time, he says, the margin on which farmers survived by selling their crops was minuscule — they were only able to survive through the knowledge of a guaranteed price for their products.
Tobacco played an important role in the economy of North Carolina as a primary cash crop for farmers. Hunt says that it was only successful, and therefore so were the farmers, because of price supports. Whereas the farmers may have historically depended on Democrats to continue those programs to survive, the divide between rural and urban North Carolina has continued to deepen in recent years. Democrats cannot bank on farm programs alone to win votes in rural counties today; Hunt believes that the key to statewide appeal for Democrats is education.
During his tenure as governor, Hunt focused on education in particular. He believes that starting children off young is essential to producing a vibrant workforce for the future. With that in mind, he pursued programs in early childhood education. Through helping to provide education for all North Carolinians, Hunt hoped (and still hopes) to treat all people equally to give them a full opportunity to become all that they can be.
Were he to be governor today, Hunt says that he would continue to push for “first rate early childhood education,” along with a firm commitment for public schools, emphasis on public.
Hunt recounted an anecdote from a principal friend of his near the South Carolina border, who was troubled to see his best teachers moving across the county-line and making ten thousand dollars more per year.
“We need to raise teacher pay a lot. Not a little bit — a lot.”
Education in North Carolina is an issue that Democrats must continue to fight for, he says.
“North Carolina ought to be investing a lot more than we are in public education. That’s one place where the Democrats are right and committed, and the Republicans are wrong overall.”
Gov. Hunt considered economic development another important aspect of his career, and education is tied to that. “The good jobs are going to be where the people are smart. We gotta have great education, and North Carolina should not ever be satisfied unless we’re the best,” he said. “We need to be committed to the things that will make us successful as a state, and I’d like to see both parties compete to do that.”
To close the interview, we move toward addressing an important topic on the minds of many North Carolinians in the month of March: the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament.
The tournament has been held in Brooklyn the past two years, but is set to return to North Carolina in 2019 and 2020.
“The ACC is different [than it used to be]. We’ve got two teams from Florida in the ACC, we’ve got Georgia Tech, we’ve got Clemson, we’ve got much of what used to be the Big East in the north. And people are gonna probably want to move it around some, and we can live with that, but it ought to be in North Carolina a lot.”