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Jack Hawke loved politics, just everything about it

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2013 

When, in his 20s, Jack Hawke, from Pennsylvania and fairly new to North Carolina, was running a 1964 congressional campaign for a Rocky Mount businessman named Jim Gardner, he didn’t get it. He was blissfully unaware (at least, it seemed so) that North Carolina was a one-party state and that the Republicans could have held a state convention in a corner booth at a Rocky Mount restaurant.

And so this young Don Quixote carried on, helping the articulate, successful Gardner (most prominently linked to Hardee’s) again in 1966 against U.S. Rep Harold Cooley, a man with more than three decades in Congress and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Some of Cooley’s people thought the idea of challenging the congressman was a joke.

Hawke didn’t get the joke, and treated it like a real campaign, and in 1966, Gardner won a seat in Congress.

A few years later, Hawke a brash young fellow brimming with self-confidence and blessed with a great smile, ran for Congress himself. That turned out to be a little too brash.

The guy had guts. He’d go anywhere and meet anybody, undeterred that in the late 1960s, many North Carolinians were not thrilled with a fast-talking Northerner. Some thought him an opportunist, a guy who’d probably move on if he couldn’t win an office in North Carolina.

But Jack Hawke didn’t move on. In time, he became the chairman of the state Republican Party, and perhaps more than any individual, helped to build it into a winner.

And by the time of his death at 72 earlier this week, Jack Hawke was certifiable as a true North Carolinian, and for that matter, when it came to Republican politics, an institution. It’s hard to believe, remembering him as that dark-haired young whippersnapper, that it’s been nearly 50 years since he broke into Tar Heel politics.

Hawke was no fan of the press in general and particularly of The News & Observer, but whatever he may have said about an organization, you had the feeling his grudges weren’t personal. He returned calls. He’d have lunch. He was good company and could take a ribbing. Even when his candidates (there were many, including current Gov. Pat McCrory) took a hit in revelations in news stories or opinion pieces on editorial pages, Jack would meet you on the street and shake your hand and talk to you.

He could also be tough. When Republicans in 1994 swept into control of the U.S. House under Newt Gingrich, Hawke looked as if he might explode with glee on Election Night. He was not, shall we say, restrained in victory, and took joyful shots at Democrats. When it came to campaigning, Hawke was criticized by some for playing it too rough. He looked at it as a competition not meant for the faint of ego.

Of course, given the way Democratic powers in the General Assembly had treated Republicans for years, some of them had it coming. There were in those days times when a perfectly harmless bill would be introduced in the legislature, would appear to have support and then suddenly would die once a Democrat put the word out on the sponsor: “Y’know, he’s all right, and nothing wrong with the bill...but he’s a Republican.”

In the years he helped manage campaigns for everyone from Gardner to Jim Martin and McCrory, Hawke probably spend more time with good ol’ boys than the Dukes of Hazzard. But he never adopted a drawl. He was smart enough to know people would spot a phony.

When Pat McCrory took the governorship last year, Hawke sat with him at a couple of early press conferences, beaming in that same way he did in 1994. Victory made him happy, but so did just the pursuit of it.

At the time of his death, he could pretty much say he’d seen his Republican Party triumph in a way many who were around in the 1960s, who suffered through defeat after defeat, would never have dared dream. But Jack Hawke did.

He deserved to bask in that dream a little longer. And though the Democrats who battled him didn’t enjoy the wars, they’ll miss having him in the game.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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