Before 1976, North Carolina had not had a two-term governor in a century. Governors were not allowed to run for re-election in the Tar Heel State, nor could they veto legislation.
A quarter of a century later, Jim Hunt redefined what it meant to be the governor of North Carolina. In fact, he very nearly became a major player in Washington during a long and successful political career.
Hunt, a native of Rock Ridge, N.C., and Democratic governor of the state for 16 years, is the subject of a new biography by Gary Pearce, one of Hunt’s longest-serving advisers. Although “Jim Hunt: A Biography” begins with Hunt as a child on a rural farm and his development at North Carolina State University, most of the book focuses on Hunt’s 40 years as one of North Carolina’s most prominent politicians.
North Carolina on the Map
Hunt’s career as a four-term governor was full of ambitious initiatives, most notably a push to allow governors to run for re-election, education reform and the creation of a technology industry hub now known as Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh-Durham area. The explosive growth of technology in the central part of the state is probably Hunt’s signature achievement, and it gave him and North Carolina plenty of visibility on a worldwide scale.
“Hunt was more than a salesman for North Carolina,” Pearce writes. “He became the state’s face to the nation and to the world. He gave North Carolina the image of a state that put a high value on brains and innovation.”
But it wasn’t all roses for Hunt. He portrayed himself as a moderate Democrat willing to work on bipartisan issues, yet he epitomized the role of a political flip-flopper long before John Kerry was tagged with the label in the 2004 presidential race. For example, Hunt spoke out in favor of both longer and shorter school days. He was able to shake off the stigma of being a flip-flopper in his runs for statewide office, but it doomed him in his only race for Congress.
No Objective Biography
The tone of Pearce’s book is reverential, even fawning, and it is clear to the reader that this is no objective biography. That’s no surprise; Hunt’s political successes gave Pearce a job, prestige and influence on policy, and Pearce clearly admires the former governor.
Pearce’s insider status and great respect for Hunt are clear positives — his access to Hunt and other former staffers in the governor’s office is excellent, and those interviewed are very candid — but the tone of the book makes North Carolina politics seem tame, collegial and cooperative nearly all the time. Pearce highlights Hunt’s accomplishments while glossing over legislative defeats and social problems, and readers are left wondering if Hunt’s tenure in office could really have gone that smoothly.