Politics & Government

He was a political power broker who helped shape NC’s reputation for moderation

Bert Bennett
Bert Bennett

Bert L. Bennett Jr., who for 40 years was North Carolina’s most important Democratic Party power broker helping shape the state’s reputation for moderation, died Monday at age 97 in Pfafftown.

Bennett, a Winston-Salem businessman, used his extensive statewide network to elevate Democrats Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt to the governor’s office.

At a time of growing unrest about integration in the South, Bennett championed candidates who pushed for racial reconciliation and who supported the advancement of public education.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey once called him “the Lord God Almighty of politics” in North Carolina.

“Bert Bennett was the most important man in modern-day politics in North Carolina,” Hunt, the former four-term governor, said Monday. “He was progressive personally, but a strong, no-nonsense leader in business who was highly successful.”

“I believe his leadership and support for fair and progressive candidates had perhaps more to do with the development of a progressive North Carolina than anything that has happened in modern times.”

Few who met him would imagine that he was such a force in the progressive movement.

A tough, salty former naval officer, Bennett kept on his desk a carved wooden fist with its middle finger extended.

Bennett, a tall, lean man, was a member of a prominent Winston-Salem family and a product of Woodberry Forest prep school, and was on good terms with the powerful figures at Wachovia bank and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco who ran the city.

But politics was in his blood. He won a race for student body president at UNC Chapel Hill in 1939, where one of his classmates was Sanford.

During World War II, he rose to the rank of captain and was aboard the LST 335 bringing troops to Omaha Beach on D-Day.

In 1947, Bennett joined the family business, Quality Oil Co., which started out owning hundreds of Shell Oil service stations but now includes hotels, convenience stores, a transport division and real estate development.

It was in 1959, when Bennett agreed to manage Sanford’s gubernatorial campaign, that the two began a partnership that would dominate Democratic politics in the state for the rest of the century.

Sanford, a Fayetteville attorney, was the moderate in the race that included I. Beverly Lake Sr., a segregationist.

Bennett was not particularly ideological and was more conservative than Sanford. But he shared Sanford’s sense of wanting to move North Carolina forward and his love of the political game.

Later, recalling his first meeting, Bennett said: “The only thing I asked him was did he want it bad enough. The hell with what he brought with him. If he didn’t want it bad enough, forget it. He was a worker. You have got to work. You can’t oversleep or over-drink, or run around with women. You have to work it.”

Bennett ran the Sanford organization like he operated his far-flung gas stations, and his management style was more like that of a no-nonsense CEO than that of a back-slapping politician. He brought a briefcase and yellow legal pads to meetings, not cigars.

“Bennett was a tough, no-nonsense manager,” Gary Pearce, a former Hunt aide, wrote in a Hunt biography. “He had cold blue eyes that could impale a person. He presided over meetings with crisp efficiency.”

But if Bennett could be brusque, he also had an ability to command loyalty from his network across the state — remembering family names and developing personal relationships.

Hunt learned from Bennett to never start meetings without first asking about people’s personal lives, according to Pearce.

Bennett was troubled by segregation.

“I wanted to see change,” he said. “I think we helped bring a wrong into a right.”

Bennett liked to tell the story of when he and Sanford had spent long days on the campaign trail. Sanford received a call from his wife Margaret Rose, saying he needed to spend more time with his two young children. Bennett scribbled on a napkin a question for Sanford: “Terry, what makes you stay in this business?” Sanford jotted a reply and pushed the napkin back to Bennett that was short and to the point: “To keep the SOBs out.”

John Bennett, a Charlotte business executive, said his father had a genuine interest in everyone he met. “He was an unusual man (especially for his time) as he was without prejudices and treated everyone the same — with equal interest, compassion and generosity,” he said.

Bert Bennett put together an organization that would be the core of the Sanford and Hunt campaigns. It included local business leaders, sheriffs, county courthouse cliques, black ministers and others. Like similar Democratic organizations it was oiled by the promise of political patronage and there was continuous pressure from courthouse politicians.

When Hunt was governor, Bennett helped move businessman Joe Pell to Raleigh as the governor’s patronage chief.

Besides helping elect Sanford, Bennett also encouraged Sanford to break with most Southern Democrats and endorse Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy during the 1960 Democratic presidential primary. Most Southern politicians endorsed Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas.

“History knocks seldom and when it does, you better open up,” Bennett told Sanford.

Sanford endorsed JFK and seconded his nomination, a controversial position in one of the most heavily Protestant states in the country.

Serving as state Democratic chairman in the fall, Bennett worked closely with Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother and campaign manager, in helping North Carolina go for Kennedy.

When Sanford took office, Bennett continued to be a major influence in helping shape the administration, according to Joel Fleishman, a former Sanford aide.

Sanford pushed his progressive program of creating a community college system, major improvements to the public schools, the creation of the N.C. School of the Arts, a governor’s summer school for bright students, one of the nation’s first anti-poverty programs, and new attitudes toward racial integration.

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Among other things, Bennett was the political enforcer.

“Bennett was on his way to achieving near perfection in the party discipline, from Washington to the county courthouse,” write Sanford biographers Howard Covington and Marion Ellis.

Nothing was too small to escape Bennett’s attention.

The biographers note that Bennett threw the support of his young college politicos behind the son of an ally running for student body president. Another time, he asked Carl McCraw, the head of First Union National Bank, where he was a board member, to check on a teller he heard was telling customers about the virtues of an opposition candidate.

Bennett helped freeze out a competing Democratic faction headed by Bob Scott, the son of former Gov. Kerr Scott, helping create a party rift that would play out through the decades.

Although he considered trying to succeed Sanford as governor in 1964, Bennett concluded he didn’t have the burning desire necessary for such an undertaking.

Instead, Bennett and Sanford backed federal Judge Richardson Preyer, the moderate candidate who lost in the Democratic primary to Dan Moore.

This would not be Bennett’s only loss. He also failed to win a state Senate seat in 1966.

In 1968, after Sanford failed to get on the ticket as Humphrey’s vice-presidential running mate, Sanford and Bennett moved to Washington to run the Citizens for Humphrey-Muskie Committee, the nuts-and-bolts part of the campaign. Bennett helped organize all 50 states, and while Humphrey closed much of the gap, he still lost to Republican Richard Nixon.

In early 1971, Hunt sat down at his kitchen table at his Wilson County farmhouse and wrote a letter in long-hand to Bennett, expressing an interest in running for statewide office.

As a college student, Hunt had worked on the Sanford campaign, and Bennett had spotted him as a potential candidate. Bennett agreed to back him for lieutenant governor.

“There is no question about the eagerness,” Bennett said. “He had this burning desire. When you are a natural and you work like hell — that is a hard combination to beat.”

Bennett used his organization to help elect Hunt as lieutenant governor in 1972 and governor in 1976, 1980, 1992 and 1996. The only defeat was in 1984, when Hunt failed in his effort to defeat Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

The man who handed Bennett his biggest loss, Tom Ellis, Helms’ chief strategist, died last week, also at age 97.

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Given his drive and talents, Hunt might have been elected governor on his own. But without the Bennett organization, it would have been far more difficult. Or as Hunt once succinctly put it: “No Bert Bennett, no Jim Hunt.”

In turning his attention to the 35-year old Hunt, Bennett declined to become involved in Sanford’s 1972 presidential campaign, saying the race “doesn’t ring a bell with me.”

Hunt would become one of North Carolina’s most important governors, with a broad array of initiatives including the Smart Start preschool program, raising teacher salaries to the national average, creation of the Centennial Campus at N.C. State University and the School of Science and Math in Durham.

Bennett was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Lillian Joyner Bennett, and daughter Joy. He is survived by his children Bert, Graham, John, Louise, Terry, Ann and Jim, 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, July 19, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Wake Forest University, Forsyth Technical Community College or St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.