One of North Carolina’s few Republican governors of the twentieth century, Jim Holshouser, died yesterday after suffering from a long illness.
He was known for a wide range of progressive accomplishments, from establishing statewide enrollment for kindergarteners to setting up health clinics in under-served rural areas.
The former governor was known as a centrist who worked well with both Democrats and Republicans.
James Eubert Holshouser was born in 1934 in Boone, at a time when North Carolina as a whole was ruled by the Democratic party. But the western part of the state that had been loyal to the Union in the Civil War had remained Republican for generations. In an interview aired in 2004 on UNC-TV’s Biographical Conversations, Holshouser said his parents came from opposite sides of the aisle.
"My mother was a registered Democrat until I ran for the legislature the first time around and had a Republican primary, and my father’s family were Republicans and at the same time I don’t ever remembering a political argument at our house," said Holshouser.
Holshouser didn’t grow up in a political family. His father was an attorney and later a judge. His mother was a nurse and a homemaker. The future governor was a good student who graduated from Davidson College. He then went on to UNC law school, where his interest in politics was sparked by legislative debates over court reform. Two years after graduating, Holshouser decided to run for the General Assembly from his home district:
"It was sort of a rambunctious kind of decision in a way because I was just green as grass right out of law school, we had a Republican incumbent, and if I’d had political sense at the time I would’ve said you shouldn’t take on an incumbent particularly when you’re green as grass," he said in the 2004 interview.
But Holshouser won that race, and just three years later was elected House majority leader. As the state’s highest-ranking Republican, he traveled across North Carolina, gaining the visibility he needed to run for higher office. After serving as the state Republican Party Chairman, Holshouser ran for the governorship against Democrat Skipper Bowles in 1972 and won a narrow victory. Holshouser was only 38 years old.
Republican Congressman Howard Coble says at the time, Governor Holshouser looked ten years younger than he actually was.
"So he had that boyish charm about him. Of course he came also to the governorship as a seasoned veteran of the legislature where he was highly regarded by both parties as extremely fair," said Coble.
Coble served as Holshouser’s revenue secretary in the new administration. It was a heady time for the Republican party, which had elected North Carolina’s first Republican governor since Daniel Russell in 1897. But Holshouser’s administration got off to a shaky start after firing Democrats.
"They got some really bad publicity over some of the mass firings that occurred," said Rob Christensen, a veteran political reporter with the News and Observer. "They had some people who were inexperienced in running state agencies, so there were some incidences that were embarrassments to them because they didn’t have a deep bench and they had to put some people into positions that were not prepared for that kind of responsibility."
Christensen says those appointees managed to do all right in the end, but it took time. Holshouser got help from his then-lieutenant governor, Democrat Jim Hunt, who helped smooth things over. Hunt says things calmed down once constituents saw how politically committed and progressive Holshouser was.
"He supported raising teacher pay, he had promised that during the campaign, he proposed raises in teacher pay every year. His proposals resulted in North Carolina moving from near the bottom in average teacher pay among the states to 27th, near the midpoint," said Hunt.
Holshouser helped establish a statewide kindergarten system. He supported the Coastal Management Act, a nationally recognized environmental protection law to safeguard North Carolina’s coastline. And he appointed minorities and women to important state government positions. Holshouser had only one term as governor--back then the state constitution didn’t allow governors to serve longer. News and Observer reporter Rob Christensen says history has treated Holshouser well:
"As the years went by, he gained more and more respect from both Democrats and Republicans in part because his politics were moderate, and part of it was his personality, he was not a polarizing figure, he was more of a consensus politician, most people would agree, he was a gentleman, he was a very nice man, and people warmed to him, warmed to his personality."
After serving as the state’s 68th governor, Holshouser returned to practicing law. He continued his interest in education by serving on the UNC Board of Governors, among other organizations. Back in 2004, Holshouser said that his early involvement in state legislative politics helped shape who he was as a person.
"It taught me that you have to respect those who disagree with you. And doesn’t mean you got to agree with them, but you need to respect the fact and not assume that they’re just stupid or crooked because they think differently. That’s served me well my whole life I think," said Holshouser.
Governor Holshouser died on the 52nd anniversary of his wedding to his wife, Patricia. In a statement released by the Holshouser family, they say they are grateful for the governor’s example of wisdom, integrity, love, and servant leadership.