Old ties bind N.C. to Mass.

Old ties bind N.C. to Mass.

Staff WriterAugust 15, 2004 

On the surface, North Carolina and Massachusetts don't seem to have much in common except a coastline, a love of seafood and, soon, teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Which is why a national ticket involving a Boston Brahmin and the son of a North Carolina millworker seems an odd fit to some.

But in Democratic politics, there is actually a rich history between the two states that goes back more than 40 years.

The tradition started in 1960 when Terry Sanford, the Democratic nominee for governor, endorsed John F. Kennedy in the Democratic presidential primary. It was a gutsy move, because Kennedy's Catholicism was viewed with suspicion in the heavily Protestant South. Most Southern Democratic pols were taking the safe route, backing Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson.

The Kennedys' courtship of Sanford was vigorous and included a visit by Bobby Kennedy. But more important, Sanford and John Kennedy were the same age, both were World War II veterans and both saw themselves as a new generation of activists.

"History knocks seldom, and when it does, you better open up," Bert Bennett, Sanford's chief political adviser, told him. Sanford seconded Kennedy's nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Sanford paid a political price for his support, and it almost certainly cost him several points in the general election, though he still won.

The Kennedys tried to repay the political debt. Bobby and Ethel Kennedy attended Sanford's inaugural. Henry Hall Wilson, a Sanford ally, became a White House aide. The Kennedys may have helped North Carolina land the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one of the first major facilities in Research Triangle Park.

Sanford's predecessor as governor, Luther Hodges, became Kennedy's commerce secretary, even though he had backed LBJ in the Democratic primary.

Another New Frontiersman was Jim Hunt, a future four-term Democratic governor. He left law school in Chapel Hill, moved to Washington and worked for a year as college director for the Democratic National Committee during the Kennedy years.

Hunt traveled around the country helping to organize college campuses for the Kennedys and the Democrats.

"I learned a lot about how you do campaigns, and I learned how the Kennedys worked," Hunt told me. "I learned how you went at it full-bore. They meant business about politics."

Current Gov. Mike Easley, like Kennedy a Catholic, got his first taste of politics as a 10-year-old in 1960, following his father, a Nash County tobacco warehouseman, as he visited area tobacco farms, talking up both Kennedy and Sanford.

In 1999, when then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy of Maryland, Bobby's oldest daughter, spoke at the Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Raleigh, she said that North Carolina always had a special place in the heart of the Kennedy clan.

Of course, many Tar Heels dislike the Kennedys. Republican candidates often use them as political punching bags.

But in North Carolina Democratic politics, at least, hush puppies and baked beans have often gone together.

Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or robc@newsobserver.com.

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