Gov. James Holshouser Jr.: 1934-2013

Competency was Holshouser’s mantra

June 21, 2013 


As he prepared for his first appearance before a Democratic-majority General Assembly, Jim Holshouser, the newly elected Republican governor, made a critical decision, not fully appreciated in 1973 or even today. He decided not to cut taxes.

At the time, he didn’t make a big deal about his decision. He simply went before legislators and called on them to use available revenues to launch public school kindergartens statewide, to purchase land for new state parks, to begin a system of rural health clinics, to provide additional funds for community colleges and universities and to reduce the size of public school classes.

“They’ve out-liberalized us,” state Sen. Ralph Scott, the brother of the populist Democratic Gov. Kerr Scott, who was a powerful legislator as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said after Holshouser’s speech.

Holshouser came into office at a moment when North Carolina was in sound fiscal health, with growing revenues. As he arrived, some Democrats attempted to put him in a political box. Out-going Gov. Bob Scott, son of Kerr and nephew of Ralph, proposed repealing taxes on soft drinks and tobacco that he himself had gotten enacted. The Democratic-controlled Advisory Budget Commission also advocated a tax-cut package.

By resisting pressure to cut taxes and reduce expenditures, Holshouser’s performance ran contrary to the fiscal policies often associated with Republicans of his time. And his performance stands in stark contrast to the governing dynamics of statehouse Republicans in power today.

Holshouser framed the Republican Party of the 1970s as a center-right coalition. Throughout his life, he remained a loyal Republican, even as the party, especially in the South, moved from more rightward than centrist. He supported and mentored emerging GOP leaders. Even as the new Republican governor and the Democratic legislature generally agreed on budgets and policies to move the state forward, Holshouser did not shrink from his role as a partisan leader of his party. He clearly used his appointive power to put Republicans into state government offices – and his administration also brought in young executives freed for government service by their companies. And he jousted with legislative Democrats, who had no doubt about his Republicanism.

Stunned by the election of the first GOP governor in seven decades, Democratic lawmakers introduced an array of legislation that became known as “stripping bills” – that is, measures designed to strip the chief executive of power and authority.

For example, Democrats moved to keep county election boards under their own party’s control, rather than have Holshouser put Republicans in charge. Holshouser made the dramatic gesture of personally appearing before a legislative committee to argue that the legislation was “working against me – not just an abstract office but against me personally.”

As it turned out, the partisan “stripping bills’’ did not pass. Holshouser’s push-back worked. And Senate Democrats, led by then-Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt, who of course had his sights set on the governor’s office, had little interest in reducing the power of the governor.

Holshouser’s personality contributed to his style of governance. He could be a tough partisan when he felt it was 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. He was not a rousing orator, and he had little influence on some key decisions, such as creation of the medical school at East Carolina University.

His administration did not set off innovative sparks of policy. As the first GOP governor after seven decades of Democratic rule, Holshouser’s guiding concept was to demonstrate that Republicans could govern competently.

The Holshouser years illustrated what sometimes seems lost in today’s polarized and personalized politics.

Let’s call it two-handed politics. With their left hands, Democrats and Republicans fought over partisan advantage. But, while they had their political fights, with their right hands they worked to forge budgets and public policies that expanded educational opportunities and enhanced the quality of life of North Carolinians.

Ferrel Guillory is director of the Program on Public Life in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. As chief capitol correspondent for The News and Observer in the 1970s, he covered the Holshouser administration.

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