James Holshouser Jr.’s ‘gentlemanly style’

Jun. 18, 2013 @ 05:30 PM

James Eubert Holshouser Jr. was a transformative figure in North Carolina politics, a genial but tough mountain politician who led the rebirth of a Republican party marginalized for decades and then came to exemplify a strain of tempered partisanship that contrasts markedly with our present climate.

Mr. Holshouser’s death Monday at age 78 meant the loss of a public servant whose influence stretched across generations. Former colleagues – and adversaries – and younger leaders who he mentored remembered him warmly.

Jim Hunt, who served as lieutenant governor while Mr. Holshouser was governor and then went on to serve an unprecedented four terms as governor, praised his predecessor, political rival and friend.

“He was a good strong Republican but he was also a good strong advocate for public education and for the environment and for fair treatment of all people,” Hunt told the Associated Press Monday. “I worked with a lot of governors over my lifetime and I know I have never known one who was a finer human being.”

Mr. Holshouser’s election as governor in 1972 – an upset over Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles – was aided by the debacle of the Democrat’s national ticket. That was the year Richard Nixon coasted to election in a landslide over George McGovern, who carried only two states nationally.

That also was the year, of course, that North Carolina voters sent Jesse Helms to Washington for his first of what would eventually be five terms in the U. S. Senate.

The sharp differences in style and substance between Helms and Mr. Holshouser – and the fact that the state’s voters continued for more than two decades to simultaneously elect Helms and progressive Democrat Hunt – underscored what longtime political writer Rob Christensen termed in his 2008 book “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.”

Christensen, who has written about North Carolina politics for the News and Observer since Mr. Holshouser was governor, wrote in that book that Mr. Holshouser “represented a different strain of Republicanism from that of Goldwater, Gardner and Helms….With his gentlemanly style and his tinge of mountain populism, Holshouser had an ability to reach out to many swing voters that other Republicans missed.”

Mr. Holshouser was a staunch and loyal Republican. He endorsed now-Gov. Pat McCrory early in his initial run for governor in 2008. And there were bare-knuckled fights, especially early in his gubernatorial term, as long out of power Republicans sacked scores of Democrats as they took control of the executive branch.

But in recent years, Mr. Holshouser has been correctly remembered for his long ability to work across party lines, to champion progressive causes such as education and coastal protection. 

He exemplified a brand of moderation and cooperation that has been in achingly short supply in both parties in the more overheated climate of recent years.

He served this state admirably – no more so than signaling the dawn of a truly two-party competition for power, a competition that in the long run would better serve the state’s citizens than generations of one-party dominance.

We would do well to not just mourn Mr. Holshouser, but to honor his memory by emulating his spirit and sense of service.