Now out of the job longer than the time he served as chief executive, four-term North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt sounds like he’s still living in the Executive Mansion when pitching his agenda for the state’s politicians.
Rather than cut income taxes significantly again this year, Hunt said in an interview, the Republican-controlled Legislature should do “big things” with additional dollars the state is taking in. The Democrat pointed to education projects he championed like Smart Start and moving teacher salaries to the national average – a goal of his last gubernatorial term.
“We’ve got the resources to do it,” Hunt told The Associated Press at his office inside the library named for him at North Carolina State University. “This is an amazing time, the national economy’s come back and we’ve benefited from it … but this can be a very special time if we grab it, if we take advantage of what’s out there for us.”
Reaching his 80th birthday in May, Hunt is slowing down a little physically. But one of North Carolina’s most influential politicians of the 20th century remains engaged in 21st-century policy. Hunt’s laser-like focus on getting rising political stars in North Carolina and nationwide to embrace education investments still burns bright.
No one has been North Carolina’s governor as long as Hunt, who at 39 was elected governor in 1976 and again in 1980. After losing an epic and expensive U.S. Senate race to Republican icon Jesse Helms in 1984, Hunt returned to the stage eight years later and got elected to an unprecedented third four-year term in 1992, followed with re-election in 1996.
Hunt dismissed talk about making history with his gubernatorial longevity, keeping his focus on the present and future of North Carolina and the nation.
“I’m optimistic, but very concerned that we are not building the kind of North Carolina that we ought to be,” Hunt said, addressing matters of poverty and race. “I’m concerned about not just material things, but are we doing the right things morally?”
Public education, especially in a child’s earliest years, remains the great equalizer to Hunt. State leaders need to put aside partisan differences and unite behind investing in education, he said, which is a key component to creating a workforce that will keep attracting high-paying jobs to North Carolina. As lieutenant governor in the early 1970s, Hunt said, he and GOP Gov. Jim Holshouser backed funding full-day kindergarten classes statewide.
Still, not surprisingly, he favors the education spending ideas of current Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, with whom Hunt said he speaks every couple of weeks. Cooper hosted a birthday celebration for Hunt at the mansion this month. While Cooper and legislative Republicans have been fighting in courtrooms this year over laws that erode Cooper’s powers, Hunt joined then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory as a plaintiff in recent litigation against legislative leaders that ultimately expanded executive branch powers.
“The state needs to have a strong, effective governor, whatever the party,” he said.
When not spending time with his wife, Carolyn, on their Wilson County farm or visiting with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Hunt remains involved in big-picture work.
The Hunt Institute in Durham trains elected officials nationwide to understand and advance education policies. And he’s chairman emeritus of N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues, which stemmed from an annual forum he began 30 years ago and brought in big speakers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich.
The Hunts haven’t left politics behind. The ex-governor has helped raised money for Democratic candidates, while his wife, a former Wilson County school board member, could be found working the early-voting polls in Wilson last November.
Sounding like a father for an entire state, the ex-governor said he knows “what our potential is, maybe more than most folks.”
“I know the people of North Carolina and I know how they feel,” he added. “I know what their aspirations are. I know what their goodness is. And I just want to see us be our very best.”