New Bern, NC – INTRO - After nearly 35 years without one, a former News & Observer reporter is again enjoying a by-line of sorts. Gary Pearce is the author of a just released authorized biography of former four-term Governor Jim Hunt. George Olsen has more.
Gary Pearce didn't wake up one morning with the sudden urge to see his name in print again.
"The main reason was he asked me to, but I was happy to."
That was all the reason he needed to begin work on the simply entitled "Jim Hunt: A Biography." Pearce and Hunt have a long history. Pearce was covering state government and the Legislature for the Raleigh News & Observer when he first met Jim Hunt when Hunt was running for Lt. Governor in 1972. During the years between that first introduction and Hunt's first gubernatorial campaign, Pearce got to know Hunt and decided to make the jump from political reporter to political insider.
"By then I had reached a point where I started out thinking newspaper journalism was what I wanted to do all my career but I really liked politics and I was getting to the point where I wanted to have a chance to be inside the room where things were happening and decisions were being made as compared to outside the room trying to find out what happened."
Then-Lt. Governor Hunt offered Pearce a job with his gubernatorial campaign, and what Pearce thought would be an interesting year turned into a 35-year association. Pearce will tell you that in writing this biography, he wasn't an unbiased observer in fact, it's in print, 2nd paragraph of the author's note. So writing a biography as compared to a hagiography was a difficult task.
"One thing I did to prepare myself was read a number of authorized biographies which this is, and it bothered me that so many of them seemed to lose credibility because they seemed guilty of hero worship, and people may think my book is guilty of the same thing but I tried very hard not to. Clearly I have a very favorable view of Jim Hunt and his impact on the state and I know that comes through in the book, but he wasn't perfect. He made his share of mistakes."
Most of the mistakes, according to the book, came in the famous U-S Senate campaign that Hunt ran against incumbent Senator Jesse Helms, though the book waffles a bit on what those mistakes were. Should the campaign have gone further in its negative attacks on Sen. Helms, or did the negative attacks that were made come back to bite them? There's no definitive answer given, nor could there be, but it led to the one political defeat in Hunt's career. The effectiveness of the Helms campaign against him and the seeming ineffectiveness of Hunt's Senate campaign was summed up in this Election Day 1984 incident.
Reads from page 1 "Hunt was a driven man for the Christian."
"And I think what happened in this particular instance is he realized I have failed to let people know and people like me to know who I am and that was a really galling failure, and then I think that on top of losing to Helms, somebody he had so little respect for and thought was so wrong for the state, that clearly was the low point of his career."
The Hunt/Helms battle chews up a pretty good portion of the biography not too surprising given the intense national interest in the race at the time. But if Jim Hunt lost that race, he won others most notably four terms as Governor and won smaller battles along the way, playing a hard nose political game if needed. Pearce recounted in the biography the Governor's recollections of efforts to increase the gas tax back in 1980 in order to pay for repairs to a secondary road infrastructure that a private study said was crumbling.
Reads from page 138 "The battle raged "
Pearce says that incident showed how "comfortable and confident" Hunt was in exercising the powers of the Governor's office and it was a power he helped to expand by getting gubernatorial succession. He did it by choosing not to follow his predecessor's methods in trying to acquire succession.
"One of the things Hunt did on succession, and this was his first year as governor, was he realized all the governors before were sounding a little holier-than-thou about it so they would say I'm for gubernatorial succession but no, I don't want it to apply to me. I want it to apply for my successor. Nobody had a stake in pushing it through. What Hunt realized was the only way to get succession passed was the legislature didn't want it, they didn't want a strong governor the only way to get it passed was to give his supporters across the state a reason to be for it, and he had an enormous, deep network in every county in the state. Back then that's a lot of how politics was done and he had built the best organization. So he said, alright, I'm going to be for succession and I want it to apply to me, so that famous, powerful Hunt network had a reason to fight for it, and it was a tough fight in the legislature and it was a tough fight to get it passed in a statewide referendum, but he got it done."
Getting a gas tax passed and gubernatorial succession were among achievements in his first two terms, and then he was defeated in his bid for the U-S Senate. But he came back eight years later and win two more terms as Governor where he pushed many education initiatives that won him praise in some circles as "America's Education Governor." Hunt's ability to come back from his 1984 Senate loss might be what most impressed Gary Pearce. He said he's seen some politicians suffer a defeat and "never really get over it," but Hunt got back to work, closing out his 2nd term by pushing through a deal giving land to N-C State University for what ultimately became their Centennial Campus, then moved into the private sector for eight years before coming back in 1992 to win a 3rd term as Governor. Pearce ascribes Hunt's successful second act to a trait he says is not seen in all politicians.
"There are a lot of politicians and lord knows I've met a lot of them in my years, a lot of politicians who just want to be something they want to hold an office, they want the glory, they want people to applaud and all that. Hunt was really in politics because he wanted to do something. The things we talked about, particularly education and economic development and more opportunities for people. He was prepared to use every tool at his disposal to get it done."
Gary Pearce is the author of "Jim Hunt: A Biography" which is published by John F. Blair. I'm George Olsen.