Gov. James Holshouser Jr.: 1934-2013

Former GOP Gov. Jim Holshouser, who broke decades of Democratic rule, dies at 78

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 18, 2013 

James Eubert Holshouser Jr., the first Republican governor of the 20th century and a champion of education, the environment and health care, died Monday after several months of declining health. He was 78.

Holshouser broke decades of Democratic rule when he was elected governor in 1972, during a GOP sweep that helped make North Carolina a two-party state. Although restricted then to one term, Holshouser would become a widely respected figure in education, religious and civic circles.

He died at First Health of the Carolinas Medical Center near his home in Southern Pines, where he continued to practice law until recently.

A wake will be held at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southern Pines from 6  to 8:30 p.m. Thursday with a funeral at the church at 1 p.m. Friday.

“James Holshouser was more than a friend and a mentor, he was a genuine leader,” Gov. Pat McCrory, who visited Holshouser on Sunday, said in a statement. “His passing is not only a loss for the state of North Carolina, but for the countless number of people who were personally touched by his guidance and kindness. Ann and I will have the Holshouser family in our prayers.”

When Holshouser, then a 28-year-old lawyer from Boone, decided to run for the General Assembly in 1962, the Republican Party in North Carolina was consistently losing.

The Republicans had not won a major political office in the state in the 20th century. GOP state legislators were powerless backbenchers. The last Republican governor, Daniel Russell, had narrowly avoided being lynched.

But within 10 years of Holshouser’s arrival in Raleigh to serve in the legislature, North Carolina politics would undergo a seismic shift. The GOP would be utterly transformed from an also-ran into a powerful force. By 1972, the Republican Party was on the march all across the state. The GOP was electing congressmen, legislators, county commissioners and sheriffs. A Raleigh television commentator named Jesse Helms had been elected to the Senate.

Few people played a greater role in transforming North Carolina into a two-party state than Holshouser – as legislative leader, state party chairman and then as governor.

At first glance, Holshouser seemed an unlikely political leader. A boyish-looking, mild-mannered man with chubby cheeks and an aw-shucks style, he seemed more like your next-door neighbor than someone who could help transform the state’s political landscape.

While prominent conservatives such as Helms and former U.S. Rep. Jim Gardner thundered from the right, tapping into the white backlash against civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Holshouser represented a softer brand of conservatism.

“He didn’t threaten anybody,” said Gene Anderson, his longtime political adviser. “Everybody who supported him thought he was on the same level. He was one of us.”

Mountain Republican heritage

Born in the Watauga County town of Boone in 1934, Holshouser grew up as part of the mountain Republican tradition.

During the first two-thirds of the 20th century, North Carolina – like the rest of the South – was a one-party state. The Democrats, as the party of white supremacy and segregation, had grabbed control of Tar Heel politics at the turn of the century. Winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to winning election.

But even during the years of Democratic domination, North Carolina had one of the strongest Republican Parties in the South. And most of the party’s strength was concentrated in the mountains and foothills in the west – a holdover from the Civil War when many non-slave-holding mountaineers remained loyal to the Union.

One of those lifelong mountain Republicans was Holshouser’s father, J.E. “Peck” Holshouser, who was U.S. attorney in the middle district during the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, and later an elected District Court judge.

The younger Holshouser did not develop an interest in politics until he was in law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Intrigued by the legislative debate over court reform, he would frequently travel to Raleigh to watch the General Assembly. Two years out of law school in 1962, Holshouser was elected to the legislature.

Unlike the dominant Democratic Party, one could rapidly rise through the small but growing Republican Party in the ’60s.

In 1965, Holshouser was elected House minority leader, making him the highest-ranking Republican in state government. His new role enabled him to move across the state, speaking at party functions and making important contacts. In 1966, Holshouser, age 31, while still serving in the legislature, began a 5 1/2-year tenure as state Republican Party chairman.

Holshouser’s advancement was quickened by the 1964 Democratic landslide led by President Lyndon Johnson, which depleted the GOP’s leadership ranks. While the Johnson landslide hurt the Republicans in the short term, it helped plant the seeds for a Republican revival across the South. Many conservative Democrats had crossed party lines for the first time to vote for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964.

All across the South, the system of racial segregation was beginning to crumble and with it, the familiar patterns of life. There was a conservative backlash against the civil rights movement, against the rapid expansion in social programs that were part of Johnson’s Great Society programs, and the civil unrest and counterculture that the Vietnam War spawned.

Holshouser chose to credit the GOP’s growth to the Vietnam War, and downplayed the importance of the opposition to the civil rights movement.

“Vietnam was probably the most wrenching experience in the history of the country except for the Depression in the ’30s and the Civil War,” he said. “People who were not part of the younger generation, which was so unhappy with the Vietnam War, viewed with great dismay what seemed to be happening with the fabric of society at that time.”

Leadership built up capital

Holshouser was at the party’s helm as it scored major victories in the congressional and legislative races in 1966 and again in 1968. And he built up chits with GOP leaders in every hamlet in the state.

In the fall of 1971, Holshouser decided to cash in those chits and enter the governor’s race. But at the time, he did not anticipate having to face Rocky Mount businessman Jim Gardner in the GOP primary.

Gardner was the Republicans’ golden boy of the 1960s – the handsome, charismatic co-founder of the Hardees hamburger food chain, the first Republican elected to Congress from Eastern North Carolina in the 20th century, and the GOP nominee who had come tantalizingly close to being elected governor in 1968.

If Gardner was the party’s show horse, Holshouser was the party’s workhorse. He was able to compensate for his lack of charisma with disciplined, driving work ethic and his broad knowledge of state government and politics.

Underlying his soft-spoken style was an inner strength that some people failed to recognize, associates say.

“When somebody thinks of tough, it’s somebody who you would go down an alley with,” said Anderson, his political adviser. “But Holshouser is the kind of tough, day after day. He didn’t always do the right thing, but he always did what he did for the right reasons. The whole deal was based on a Presbyterian belief in stewardship. It wasn’t the driving competitive thing as much as he thought he was supposed to serve.”

The GOP gubernatorial primary pitted the two emerging factions of the Republican Party – the traditional party centered in the western part of the state and the business leaders in the Piedmont and the more conservative Goldwater wing, many of whom were former Democrats from the eastern part of the state.

Gardner led the first primary 50 percent to 49 percent, but Holshouser had the momentum. Immediately after the primary, Gardner went on a two-week vacation while Holshouser was up the next morning shaking hands at a plant gate. In the runoff, Holshouser pulled off a stunning upset, winning the nomination 51 percent to 49 percent.

In the fall, Holshouser faced another surprise winner. Democrat Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, a Greensboro businessman, had upset Lt. Gov. Pat Taylor, who had been the party favorite. The Democratic primary had left the Democrats badly splintered.

Republican tide rising

A national Republican tide swept the state that year. Republican Richard Nixon would swamp Democrat liberal George McGovern 71 percent to 29 percent to become president. In the U.S. Senate race, Raleigh TV commentator Jesse Helms would easily defeat Democrat U.S. Rep. Nick Galifianakis.

“I have told some people that probably the person who had more to do with my getting elected governor than anybody else was George McGovern,” Holshouser said.

Holshouser won 51 percent to 49 percent and North Carolina had its first Republican governor since the horse-and-buggy days and its youngest in modern times at 38.

Although he faced a difficult task in staffing his administration because of the scarcity of Republicans with state government experience, Holshouser did bring a number of assets to the job.

As a veteran lawmaker, he knew the leadership of the Democratic-controlled legislature, deeply understood budgetary matters, and was willing to share the political credit.

Holshouser established a record as one of the South’s moderate Republican governors, along with Linwood Holton of Virginia and Winfield Dunn of Tennessee.

“The Republican Party in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee marched to a little bit different drummer than the Deep South states,” Holshouser said.

He supported creating a statewide kindergarten system. He backed the Coastal Management Act, regarded as national landmark environmental legislation to protect the state’s fragile seacoast. Holshouser helped start the rural health center program to provide more medical care in the countryside. He oversaw a major expansion of the state park system. He appointed several blacks and women to high-visibility posts in state government. And he supported creating black-oriented enterprises such as Soul City, the new town project started in Warren County by former civil rights leader Floyd McKissick.

When the Democratic legislature tried to reduce his authority – introducing so-called stripping bills – Holshouser pushed back, appearing before a legislative committee to denounce them.

“Holshouser’s personality contributed to his style of governance,” said Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst who covered the administration for The News & Observer. “He could be a tough partisan when he felt it needed. But he was also a genuinely nice guy, who understood that his election resulted from his being in the right place at the right time.’’

A conservative self-image

Although viewed as a Republican moderate, Holshouser said he has always seen himself as a conservative, but not an anti-government libertarian.

“Both in the church and in politics, I find people on the left view me as a conservative and people on the right view me as a moderate or maybe moderate-conservative,” Holshouser said. “I have never viewed myself left of center.”

While the Republican Party experienced breath-taking growth – GOP registration in North Carolina nearly doubled between 1966 and 1976 – two events challenged the party’s rise during Holshouser’s administration.

The Watergate scandal in Washington not only led to President Nixon’s resignation. But it had a catastrophic effect on the Republican Party in North Carolina – the home of Democratic Senator Sam Ervin, who led the congressional Watergate investigation. During the 1974 elections, the GOP lost two congressional seats, 40 state house seats, and 14 of their 15 state Senate seats, leaving Holshouser with few legislative allies during his final two years.

GOP efforts were also hindered by factional schisms between its traditional wing and the newer more conservative wing.

The schism became open warfare in 1976, during the North Carolina presidential primary between President Gerald Ford and his challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Holshouser and much of the party establishment backed Ford. But Reagan won a major primary victory that helped save his political career with the help of Jesse Helms and the party’s more conservative wing.

Emotions ran so high at the state GOP convention, controlled by pro-Reagan forces, that Holshouser was openly booed and denied a place as a delegate to the national convention.

Active in civic life

After leaving the governor’s office at age 42, Holshouser moved to Southern Pines, where he opened a law practice. He would remain active in Presbyterian Church and civic affairs, including serving on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, where the Davidson College graduate would become a champion of the university system.

He also formed a Raleigh law firm with Democratic former Gov. and Sen. Terry Sanford, called the Sanford Holshouser Law Firm.

Holshouser also had a private battle with kidney disease that plagued him much of his life. Before Holshouser ran for governor, his doctor had warned him that serving as governor could shorten his life. His kidney problems worsened after he left the governor’s office, forcing him eventually to undergo a kidney transplant in 1986.

His wife, Patricia, who after being first lady returned to nursing school and became a hospice nurse, died in 2006 of cancer. His daughter, Ginny, lives in Winston-Salem.

Looking back on his four years, Holshouser said he had one overriding goal.

“I felt like the first Republican governor was going to have to be somebody who could show the people of North Carolina that government would not fall apart under a Republican,” he said.

Even his critics agreed that Holshouser more than accomplished that goal, paving the way for future Republican growth.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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