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The Making of a Southern DemocracyNorth Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory$

Tom Eamon

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781469606972

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9781469606989_eamon

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Breaking New Ground

Breaking New Ground

(p.228) Chapter Ten Breaking New Ground
The Making of a Southern Democracy

Tom Eamon

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the major cleanup Charlotte pursued after a blast from Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, a storm that had continued to wreak havoc when it moved inland from the South Carolina coast. Despite its severity, the damage was a mere hiccup for what had become one of America's most dynamic cities. Most political observers assumed that George H. W. Bush would coast to reelection in the 1992 presidential election and that Jesse Helms would be elected to a fourth term in the Senate in 1990, probably defeating a moderate white Democrat. The conventional wisdom said that the Democrats had a permanent majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Republicans appeared to have the long-term advantage in electing presidents, an electoral vote lock based on strength in the South, the Midwest, the West, and parts of the Northeast.

Keywords:   elections, Charlotte, Hurricane Hugo, South Carolina coast, George H. W. Bush, Jesse Helms

There were few hints of a dramatic political turn. The middle class prospered. Inflation slowed. The urban South led the nation in economic growth. North Carolina's cities and resort areas boomed. Charlotte pursued a major cleanup after a blast from Hurricane Hugo in September 1989, a storm that had continued to wreak havoc when it moved inland from the South Carolina coast. Despite its severity, the damage was a mere hiccup for what had become one of America's most dynamic cities. Most political observers assumed that George H. W. Bush would coast to reelection in the 1992 presidential election and that Jesse Helms would be elected to a fourth term in the Senate in 1990, probably defeating a moderate white Democrat. The conventional wisdom said that the Democrats had a permanent majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Republicans appeared to have the long-term advantage in electing presidents, an electoral vote lock based on strength in the South, the Midwest, the West, and parts of the Northeast.1

North Carolina had a Republican governor, but Democrats still held the upper hand in the state legislature. Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Joe Mavretic temporarily led a coalition of Democrats and Republicans after the 1989 coup, but few observers thought that the Republicans could win a legislative majority on their own. Before the decade was out, old notions about political norms would be challenged as never before.

Underlying economic and social forces reshaped the state, which was on the cusp of moving from majority rural to majority urban. From 1980 to 1990, North Carolina's population had grown from 5,881,776 to 6,628,637—enough that it gained a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Metropolitan areas—mainly in the urban crescent close to Interstate 85—and resort communities led the way. The rural nonfarm population grew fast (p.229) in zones twenty to forty miles from cities. New houses filled old farm fields. Early twentieth-century dwellings met the wrecker's ball or decayed except in a few cities, where the grander ones became valued trophy properties. At mainstream restaurants, blacks and whites often dined together. And no longer did the presence of an interracial couple automatically evoke raised eyebrows or icy stares from the whites in the room.

The Gantt Challenge

Harvey Gantt's campaign was the central story of the 1990 election season. Through the 1980s, blacks had little chance to win statewide Democratic primaries. They might lead in the initial primary, only to lose the runoff. In 1990, Gantt, a former mayor of Charlotte, hoped to change this dynamic. He sought the Democratic nomination and the challenge of facing Helms. The leading white progressive Democrats—the Sanford and Hunt crowds—feared that Gantt's race and liberalism made him a sure loser.2

Hunt had no appetite for talcing on Helms after the 1984 bloodbath. Instead, he eyed a 1992 race for governor, when Jim Martin would be ineligible to run again. Congressional Democrats did not want to vacate their safe seats to pursue a losing cause. William Friday, the retired president of the state university system and host of a popular public television interview program, might have been the Democrats' dream candidate. At seventy, he remained full of energy. He was a keen student of politics who had managed to stay above the partisan fray. Democratic money sources, notably organized labor from outside the state, promised to pour money into a Friday Senate campaign. His polling numbers looked good. Friday was intrigued by the idea until he received a visit from a former UNC student and personal friend who worked for the Raleigh law firm of top Helms strategist Tom Ellis. The young attorney warned Friday that the Congressional Club had a thick hie him. Friday believed that the attorney had approached him as a friend and not as an agent of the Helms's forces. He decided not to run, fearing that a bitter race would tarnish his sterling reputation and that of the university.3 While never politically close, Friday and Helms long maintained a friendly personal relationship.

Harvey Gantt was a World War II baby, born near the front edge of the baby boom on January 14, 1943, in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father worked in the busy shipyard. At the time, South Carolina vied with Mississippi as a symbol of the lost Confederate cause and a defender of white supremacy.

Gantt and his parents believed that he could achieve the American Dream. He was a first-rate student and athlete, quarterbacking his high (p.230) school football team. He helped integrated Clemson University in 1963, maintaining a poise throughout the process that won praise from an unlikely North Carolina source—conservative television commentator Jesse Helms, then an outspoken critic of the push for desegregation.4

Gantt graduated from Clemson in 1965 and joined a leading Charlotte architectural firm. He enrolled in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and earned a master's degree in city planning in 1970. Gantt returned to Charlotte, where he founded an architectural firm and dabbled in politics. In 1979, after serving on the city council, he challenged Jim Hunt's friend and ally, Eddie Knox, for the mayoralty. Knox won that contest, but Gantt ran again and took over as mayor after the 1983 elections. He won another term before losing to Republican Sue Myrick in 1987. He then began to contemplate a race for the U.S. Senate. He was a man of bold ambitions and dreams, undeterred by setbacks.5

Democrats in the Hunt-Sanford mold, still fearing that Gantt or any African American would lose in a race against Helms, finally settled on a second-tier candidate, Mike Easley, the Brunswick County district attorney. Easley had developed a reputation as a scrappy prosecutor who relentlessly pursued drug dealers. He was a political moderate; as a rookie, he had less to lose than did more seasoned politicians. The exception to establishment support for Easley was Charlotte, where much of the business and political leadership backed Gantt for the nomination. Gantt espoused economic populist themes and a woman's right to choose on reproductive matters. He tried to project an image of soundness and moderation as opposed to the “extremism” of Helms. Easley's subliminal message was that he could beat Helms, while Gantt could not. Easley boasted of being tough on crime, an issue that the Republicans had dominated in the late 1980s.

In the first primary, Gantt led Easley, 260,179–208,934. The other four candidates together had 223,283 votes, more than half of which were for John Ingram. Easley called for a runoff, and history suggested that he had a good chance of winning. Three of the eliminated candidates were white; the exception was the Reverend Bob Hannon, who had received just 7,982 votes. As a moderate white, Easley might have expected to get most white votes. Yet surveys between the two primaries indicated a lead for Gantt. There was reason to believe that the polls were misleading. A year earlier, preelection polls had shown Douglas Wilder, an African American, with a big lead in the Virginia gubernatorial race, but he barely won the election. In Gantt's case, however, the polls were on target: He defeated Easley in June, 273,567–207,283, marking the first time an African American had won a statewide Democratic primary in North Carolina.

(p.231) Gantt's victory reflected both his personal appeal and the changing composition of the Democratic primary electorate. Despite an aloof bearing, Gantt had charisma. He lacked a dramatic speaking style but came across as a thoughtful man who could communicate. Unlike some blacks with a dynamic presence, Gantt did not seem to scare off white voters. Both on television and in public addresses, Gantt was more eloquent than Easley. Easley possessed political smarts, but at this stage, his public persona was no match for Gantt's.

Gantt had carried other advantages into the primary. His connections in Charlotte and local pride made the city his base of support. In Mecklenburg County, he took 80 percent of the vote, a powerful showing that helped him take 66 percent of the vote in the populous piedmont region, far more than enough to overcome Easley's 52 percent lead in the coastal plain and 57 percent in the mountains. Coastal plain voters were polarized, with whites voting overwhelmingly for Easley and blacks for Gantt.6

The total vote had dropped from 693,496 in May to 480,850 in June. Gantt's vote, however, rose by more than 13,000. Gantt voters were more energized than the supporters of other candidates. The gradual leftward shift in the Democratic primary electorate also aided Gantt. More and more, conservatives were gravitating to the Republican Party. With fewer local races to draw them to the polls—the typical motivator in a runoff primary—conservatives had no powerful incentive to vote. In the racial atmosphere the 1960s, the presence of a serious black candidate would have drawn white voters. Such intense emotions had died down by 1990, at least among registered Democrats. And conservative Democrats could vote for Helms in November. Democratic primaries were no longer as important to the final choice as in earlier days.

The Helms forces relished the opportunity to run against Gantt. As summer turned to fall, however, there was reason to think that they had miscalculated. Early in the summer, some polls had Gantt narrowly ahead, though history suggested that the polls would turn around after the Helms campaign began its attacks. Neither campaign geared up until August. From June 20 to August 25, Helms appeared at only one campaign event in his home state. A long and tortuous congressional session kept him in Washington for much of September. Melvin Watt, Gantt's campaign chair, and other Charlotte-based lieutenants decided to run their own show rather than to go through the Democratic Party, a decision that required planning and preparation time. Not wishing to get in the way, the party apparatus also held back on its efforts. The campaign followed more of a British-model short election season than the late-twentieth-century (p.232) American model of a long, drawn-out campaign. When the battle began in earnest, Gantt still led in published opinion polls. At the same point in the 1984 campaign, Hunt had been running slightly behind Helms.7

Still, Gantt had handicaps. Few, if any, serious candidates for top office in North Carolina had been as liberal on both economic and social issues. Gantt would have been more ideologically suitable in Massachusetts or Minnesota than in North Carolina. He backed the expansion of the federal government's role in the economy, and while many North Carolina Democratic candidates supported abortion rights, few had been as outspoken as Gantt. Gantt also made known his sympathies for gay rights.8 He backed affirmative action for racial minorities. Gantt unapologetically spoke against the death penalty.

Gantt's race was paradoxically both an asset and a handicap. On the plus side, liberals could rejoice that an African American—and one who had made history in the civil rights movement—was carrying the banner in the crusade against Jesse Helms. Perhaps no white male could have captured as well the hearts and minds of the Helms haters, both in and out of North Carolina, as Gantt did. Self-proclaimed progressives, especially among college students and the highly educated, also saw Gantt as a breath of fresh air. Gantt drew large crowds.9

Yet the color of Gantt's skin remained a handicap when seeking high political office in a southern state, and public opinion polling probably did not reveal the extent of that handicap. While the results of the Democratic primary had suggested that Gantt's image played well among some white voters, Helms's strategists suspected that many white North Carolinians—including a few people who had voted for Hunt in 1984—would vote against Gantt or any other African American. Some would admit it, while others would rationalize a race-based vote on other grounds.

The Helms campaign initially appeared reluctant openly to play the race card. Attacking Gantt because of his race or for his liberal positions on race-related issues such as affirmative action might have been simpler if he had been a white liberal or a white moderate. Undecided voters, notably moderate to conservative white women and young people, might be turned off by overtly racist appeals. Helms strategists sought the right balance.

In mid-August, the Helms's campaign, again directed by the Congressional Club, released a barrage of radio ads aimed at eastern North Carolina audiences. These ads attempted to portray Gantt as someone on the wrong side of the great cultural divide—a North Carolina version of George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, or Michael Dukalds. The ads attacked Gantt for (p.233) his opposition to capital punishment, his ties to gay and lesbian political groups, and his opposition to Helms's efforts to keep “taxpayers' money [from] going to pornographers.”10

Helms's campaign later unleashed two ads that were more overtly racial, one designed to turn out voters and the other to sway voters. The first was the “white hands ad,” which almost immediately achieved classic status. A pair of white hands crumpled up a job rejection letter as the announcer said, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”

The ad probably converted few voters from Gantt to Helms, and indications showed that some voters—not just Gantt supporters—were turned off. The ad was pulled after only a few days.11 But it did stir up interest in the issue of quotas and race. While no polling data prove this with certainty, the “white hands ad” likely drew people to the polls who otherwise would not have voted, and those voters likely supported Helms. Court decisions, most notably the 1978 Bakke case, had ruled quotas unconstitutional, but many whites believed that businesses and universities maintained informal quotas under the guise of affirmative action.12 Throughout his career, Helms positioned himself as the chief warrior in the fight against quotas, real or imagined.

The other ad, while less dramatic, might have been more effective because it cast doubt on Gantt's character yet highlighted affirmative action and Gantt's race. In 1985, Gantt bought and sold part of a Belmont television station, WZY. The ad alleged that he had taken advantage of a minority preference provision in federal law designed to help blacks going into business and then had sold his interest at a handsome profit. A follow-up ad said that Gantt had used his “minority status” to “become a millionaire.” While apparently within the letter of the law, the deal had indeed raised eyebrows at the time.13 Helms hammered on the theme on the last few days of the campaign.

Abortion remained an issue. The Gantt forces, backed by the National Abortion Rights Action League, had attacked Helms's past advocacy of federal constitutional amendments that would have banned all abortions, presumably even in cases of incest or rape. Rather than attempting to defend Helms's position, his campaign portrayed Gantt as an extremist on the issue and a captive of abortion rights groups and charged that Gantt favored late-term abortions for sex selection. Gantt denied the charge, but the Helms's campaign had set a trap that they sprang after Gantt's denial. Helms strategist Earl Ashe had routinely sent out film crews to tape Gantt's press conferences. At one, Gantt had reaffirmed his pro-choice position, (p.234) adding, that the reason for an abortion “is really left to the woman … whether it's sex selection or whatever reason.” An ad produced by Ashe showed that footage of Gantt several times, including in slow motion, catching him in what seemed to be a contradiction. Like other Helms ads, this one ended, “Harvey Gantt, extremely liberal with the facts.”14

Like the ad attacking Gantt's television station deal, this one raised questions about his honesty. The TV license ad had also reminded voters of Gantt's race. The abortion ad conveyed the message that Gantt was a liberal, out of touch with North Carolina's Christian values.

Despite Helms's advantage, Gantt had a lot of money to spend on television and radio. Both candidates attracted donations from all over the country. Overall, Helms outspent Gantt $17.96 million to $7.81 million. As in the more costly 1984 Helms-Hunt Senate race, money was not the decisive factor in the outcome. But years later, classes would still watch the Helms ads as classics. Gantt's were forgotten.

During the campaign's closing days, Helms, finally released from the long captivity of what seemed a never-ending Senate session, returned home to take charge of the campaign. He crisscrossed the state with a vigor almost matching his campaign against Hunt in 1984. But by the time of his homecoming, Helms had already begun to move ahead in the polls. Helms finished the task. Gantt's rise had almost seemed a Cinderella story, but he was an astute and hard-driving politician backed by a smart team. Helms strategist Carter Wrenn later said that the Gantt campaign of 1990 was superior to the campaigns against Helms waged by Nick Galifianakis, John Ingram, and Jim Hunt.15

Gantt ran almost as well against Helms in the 1990 general election as Hunt, the most formidable of North Carolina's Democrats, had six years earlier. That a liberal African American could win just over 47 percent of the statewide vote was a tremendous change. Gantt received nearly 36 percent of the votes cast by whites and nearly 99 percent of the votes cast by blacks.16 Gantt also appeared to have won a majority of the small American Indian vote, significant in lowland Robeson and Hoke and several mountain counties.

The milieu of each election is different. When Hunt ran in 1984, the party's presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, was a drag on other Democrats. In contrast, 1990 had no presidential race, and the country as well as the state were trending toward the Democrats. The party not only gained seats in the U.S. Congress but picked up 7 seats in the N.C. House (and lost only 1 in the N.C. Senate). Most white party leaders worked for Gantt, though many of them would have preferred if Easley or Hunt had been the (p.235) nominee. Large numbers of Democrats had defected from Ingram when he ran against Helms in 1978. When Hunt ran in 1984, blood overflowed from the bitter gubernatorial primary. By 1990, beating Helms had become a passion among active Democratic Party members.

Lauch Faircloth, one of the few high-profile Democratic defectors, had long been associated with the party's progressive wing. Faircloth had come to like Helms and was still bitter about what he considered a betrayal by Sanford and other establishment Democrats in 1986, when Faircloth had wanted to run for senator but was pushed aside by Sanford. Other prominent former Democrats, especially erstwhile legislators, quietly backed Helms, but most of them had defected from party candidates on earlier occasions. Overall, however, the party leadership was unified.

Helms took all three of the state's major geographic regions, winning nearly 52 percent of the vote in the coastal plain and piedmont and 56 percent in the mountains. However, Gantt ran better not only than Mondale but also than the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis. Statewide, Gantt ran 5 percent better than Dukakis had in rg88: George H. W. Bush had won 54 percent in the coastal plain, 59 percent in the piedmont, and 61 percent in the mountains. Helms was decidedly weaker than Bush had been in the metropolitan counties: Bush did not take a majority of the vote in Durham County (45–8 percent) but easily prevailed in Forsyth (59.2 percent), Guilford (56.7 percent), Mecklenburg (59.6 percent), and Wake (57.1 percent). In 1990, however, Helms came out ahead only in Forsyth County, where he won 51.9 percent of the vote; his second-best showing was in Guilford (47.4 percent). He was routed in Mecldenburg, where he garnered only 41.8 percent and even in his own home county, Wake, where he received only 43–7 percent of the vote. These counties were among the state's most cosmopolitan and had grown substantially since Helms was first elected in 1972. Mecldenburg and Wake now had many white migrants from northern states. The most urban counties could not control statewide election outcomes, but liberals hoped that the urban trend provided a hint about where the state would head in the future.

The key to Gantt's loss, as with Hunt's earlier loss to Helms, was a poor showing among white voters in smaller cities and rural areas. In Gantt's case, the defection of whites in eastern North Carolina and the northeastern piedmont—counties where blacks comprised a large part of the population—was massive. No Democratic candidates except Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 had run so poorly among whites in these counties. In most of the coastal plain counties, where Democrats were a big majority of the registered voters, Gantt (p.236)

Breaking New Ground

Map 8. Results of the 1990 senatorial election–Democrat Harvey Gantt versus Republican Jesse Helms

(p.237) polled below 25 percent of the white vote. The pattern was the same in all the counties of the rural northeast piedmont near the Virginia border. Because of near unanimous support from blacks, Gantt still carried some of these counties, but he did not receive the margins needed for a statewide victory.17

Gantt's weakness among whites in counties that were more than onethird African American conforms to a thesis outlined by V. O. Key Jr. in his 1949 book, Southern Politics in State and Nation. Key said that whites in counties with a large black presence represented a bedrock of opposition to racial equality.18 By the time Key died in 1963, civil rights for blacks had become the most burning American domestic political issue. Candidates defending racial segregation—George Wallace of Alabama in 1962 and I. Beverly Lake of North Carolina in 1960—had run best among whites in heavily black counties, who most feared any change in the racial status quo.

By 1990, whites, including segregationists of the past, favored (or at least tolerated) desegregated public facilities and voting rights for blacks. However, not all of those white voters were comfortable with the pace of change. Helms's 1990 campaign—or its symbolism—aroused old animosities. Many coastal and northeast piedmont whites were enthusiastic Jessecrats—Democrats who admired Helms's bold attacks on Washington bureaucrats, the late Martin Luther King Jr., and the current gay rights movement. Voting for Helms had become their habit.

Like Hunt six years earlier, Gantt did poorly among whites in the socially conservative small-town industrial belt of the western piedmont, the emerging Republican spine. The “white hands ad” had been aimed at economically insecure white voters who feared losing their industrial jobs. Earlier in the campaign, many of those voters had not seemed energized, but in the end, they voted in large enough numbers to provide Helms a big victory in the textile belt.

Despite Gantt's loss, black political activists hoped to break the color line in other spheres. It was time to draw new congressional districts.

Early 1990s Congressional Redistricting: the Political Quagmire

Though U.S. census data are used for many purposes, the constitutional requirement for a census every ten years was initially for the purpose of determining how many members each state would elect to the U.S. House of Representatives. North Carolina had dropped from twelve to eleven seats after the 1960 census, though it remained the tenth-largest state. (p.238) From 1980 to 1990, its population grew from 5,881,766 to 6,628,637, enough to regain that seat. The biggest population gains were in areas fanning out from Charlotte and Raleigh. In general, the urban crescent—the area that follows Interstate 85—had grown faster than the state average. Other parts of the state, aside from those on the outer fringes of metropolitan areas, homes of military bases, resort areas, and college towns, had grown modestly or not at all. Even without the additional seat in Congress, the state legislature would have needed to reshape congressional districts to reflect population shifts. While any state welcomes a gain in U.S. House seats, the process of redrawing districts can be a painful one for rural counties that feel more and more overshadowed by the big cities.

In 1991, race emerged as the dominant issue in the redistricting process. Urban black political leaders and many black voters believed that minorities were underrepresented in Congress and the state legislature and that blacks—22 percent of the state's population in 1990—should have the opportunity to win one or ideally two seats in the state's U.S. House delegation. Not since George White left Congress in early 1901 had a black North Carolinian sat in the U.S. House. Mickey Michaux had come close in 1982, only to lose in the Democratic runoff primary.19 Pressure had subsequently mounted for the creation of a majority-black district. Race, not the rural-urban divide, now dominated the politics of reapportionment.

On the surface, the creation of even one minority district faced obstacles. Each new congressional district would need roughly 552,000 residents. Most of the country's existing majority-black districts had been in large metropolitan areas with concentrated black populations—Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. North Carolina lacked a city center of such magnitude. Blacks were concentrated in midsize cities—Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Winston-Salem. The counties with the highest percentages of African American residents were located mainly in the central and northern coastal plain or the Virginia border region of the northeast piedmont. But most of them were adjacent to other small counties with white majorities. Even if counties were split between districts, a practice contrary to tradition in North Carolina (but supported by federal courts and the U.S. Justice Department), the creation of a compact majority-black district by combining rural counties seemed impossible.

Another roadblock was formed by the state legislature's principal political goal of protecting sitting members of Congress, especially Democrats. All of the incumbent Democrats had moderate to liberal voting records. If large numbers of blacks were removed from their districts—a necessity in attempting to create a majority-or near-majority-black (p.239) district—conservative Republicans might defeat Democratic incumbents. Majorities of whites had already voted for Republican Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and Bush in 1988. Democratic representatives in overwhelmingly white districts would face a dilemma: If they adhered to their centrist mildly progressive voting records, they would be out of sync with the views of their more heavily white new constituencies. If they moved to the political right, the Democratic House leadership in Washington and local Democrats would be irritated. Moreover, even sharp moves to the right might not pacify Republican-trending white voters in the districts.20

Nor were the sitting white Democrats eager to have districts that were 40 or 45 percent black, a more realistic goal than a true black majority. (Tim Valentine's Second District had been at this level, and Walter Jones Sr.'s First District was close.) Near-majority-black districts could make the incumbent more vulnerable to a challenge from an African American candidate in the Democratic primary, where African Americans would likely cast a higher percentage of the votes than in a general election. The ideal situation from the standpoint of a white Democrat in eastern North Carolina—and elsewhere in the state where possible—was a district of 30–35 percent black and 65–70 percent white, the perfect blend to protect a mildly progressive centrist Democrat on both the left and right flanks.

The rumored retirement of two incumbents provided some flexibility in drawing districts. For several years, First District Representative Jones had considered retiring for health reasons. Second District Representative Valentine was in better health but had contemplated returning to Nash County. But whatever their decisions, the pent-up demand for more minority representation would not die. Pressure for change intensified as civil rights advocates promoting greater black power gained unlikely allies in Washington—the Bush administration Justice Department. The new alliance made political sense. Civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wanted more minorities in Congress. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, now Republican-dominated at its top levels, wanted more majority-black districts because concentrating blacks would leave adjoining districts whiter and consequently more Republican, resulting in an overall benefit to the party.

This approach represented a new twist on an old strategy. In the 1880s and 1890s, the conservative white Democrats who dominated the North Carolina legislature had created a district extending from the northeast piedmont to the central coastal plain, where blacks (then Republicans) (p.240) were a majority of the population—the district known as the Black Second. The legislature sought to make other districts whiter and more Democratic (conservative). The members of the Bush Justice Department, unlike the 1880s North Carolina legislature, accepted the concept of racial equality, and (or perhaps because) they saw it creating an opening for Republican advances. They would find an ally in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Congress had overwhelmingly adopted the Voting Rights Act despite the opposition of the entire North Carolina delegation. The measure had been designed to remedy the long-standing problem of the southern states' attempts to bar or to discourage black voter registration. The act had banned literacy tests in six southern states and parts of North Carolina on the grounds that the literacy tests were used to keep blacks from registering regardless of whether they could read and write (a provision Congress later extended to cover the entire United States).

Under Section 5 of the 1965 act, known as the preclearance provision, local and state jurisdictions covered by the act were required to secure the approval of the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before implementing any new voting or election law. Over time, the U.S. Justice Department interpreted the preclearance provision as covering the drawing of electoral district boundaries, including district lines for congressional districts, state legislative districts, and city council wards, and city proposals to annex territory. However, the federal courts rendered conflicting decisions on precisely what constituted discrimination or the “dilution” of minority voting under Section 5.21

Congress grappled with the issue in 1982, when it debated the extension of the Voting Rights Act. Congress ultimately extended the act for another twenty-five years. In 1982, Congress dealt with the electoral district issue by amending Section 2 of the Act. Under the new language, state or local jurisdictions were, as a precondition for approval of election changes, required to show that they had not discriminated in the past ten years and that they had made efforts to improve their rates of minority voting. Congress also adopted a “results standard,” stating in Section 2 that a violation had occurred when the “totality of circumstances” indicated that the election process was not equally open to all voters regardless of race and that minorities had less opportunity than other voters to participate and to elect representatives of their choice. The Senate Judiciary Committee report listed factors that might suggest a violation of Section 2: a history of polarized voting (most blacks voting for one candidate and most whites for another candidate); the degree to which minorities were denied access to the slating process (the selection of party nominees); a history of racist (p.241) political campaigns; and a few or no minorities having been elected to office from the area in question.22

One U.S. Supreme Court case from several years earlier, although it dealt with seats in the N.C. House and Senate, provided a degree of guidance for congressional redistricting. Plaintiffs in Thornburg vs. Gingles (1986) argued that seven North Carolina legislative districts diluted black voter strength and consequently violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In an opinion invalidating six of the seven districts, the Court outlined three standards for determining whether racial voter dilution had occurred. Two of these standards appeared applicable to congressional redistricting: (1) a racial minority must show that it is politically cohesive and (2) that the majority (whites in this case) vote as a bloc against the minority's preferred candidate.23

After months of contentious debate and legal maneuvering that involved the state legislature, state attorney general's office, and U.S. Justice Department, the state legislature adopted a new congressional district map that gave African Americans a good shot at winning in two districts: the irregularly shaped First, which incorporated heavily minority areas across a wide swath of the coastal plain and northeast piedmont, and the Twelfth, which extended from Durham to Gastonia. The Twelfth, one of the most oddly shaped districts in American history, roughly followed Interstate 85 and portions of Interstate 40 with bulges in predominantly black areas along the way.

Robinson Everett, the erudite and politically moderate attorney and Duke law professor who had fought the plan tooth and nail through the federal courts, called it “political pornography.”24 Everett would continue his efforts against racial gerrymandering, but for the moment the proponents of black-majority districts had the upper hand. The new districts were crudely drawn and may have violated the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, but civil rights advocates saw such districts as justified after a century of deliberate and at times brutal suppression of blacks' attempts to exercise their citizenship rights.

In February 1992, the Justice Department formally approved the new plan. Forty-three percent of the state's blacks lived in either the First or the Twelfth District. Blacks seemed certain to win in the Twelfth and to have a good shot at winning the First. State Republicans criticized the new plan, which, despite isolating many blacks into two districts, had tried to protect sitting Democrats as best it could. (Jones had already decided to retire.) State-level Republicans and some Democrats, turned off by what they saw as the raw politics of the plan, later embarked on an extended court battle. (p.242) But the new map was ready to go for the upcoming 1992 primaries and general election.25

Melvin Watt, Harvey Gantt's campaign manager in 1990 and a Yale-educated lawyer, had connections with both the civil rights movement and the Charlotte power structure. He secured the Twelfth District nomination in 1992, after facing competition from a figure probably better known statewide, Mickey Michaux of Durham, the longtime legislator who had almost won the former Second District seat in 1982. Larry Little, a Black Power and civil rights advocate active in Winston-Salem politics, also ran. Watt, propelled by heavy support from Charlotte, the district's largest city, won with 47 percent of the vote to Michaux's 28 percent and Little's 15 percent. In 1989, North Carolina law had been changed in response to civil rights advocates, including Michaux, and the U.S. Justice Department. If the top finisher in a primary had more than 40 percent of the vote, he or she automatically became the nominee.

The race in the rural First District was a spirited affair. Multiple African American candidates threw their hats into the ring, the best known of whom was Eva Clayton of Warren County. She had been a member of the Warren County Board of Commissioners since 1982 and had served as its chair during much of this period. Clayton's husband was a lawyer in Warrenton. Eva Clayton had worked with Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality in an effort to build the new black town of Soul City in Warren County, though that project never reached fruition. Active in local antipoverty efforts, she had served as the assistant secretary of administration for community development in 1977–81 under the Hunt administration.26

Her leading opponent in the 1992 Democratic primary was Walter Jones Jr., the son of the retiring member of Congress from the First District (who died in September 1992). The younger Jones was a veteran state legislator from Pitt County and like his father a political moderate. In the first primary, Jones defeated Clayton, taking 38 percent of the vote to her 31 percent. But in the runoff primary, the white Jones faced the same challenge that blacks had faced in earlier elections. Candidates of one race—in this case blacks—united to support the candidate of their race over the candidate of another race. Eva Clayton prevailed in the runoff, 55 percent to 45 percent.

1992: A Partisan Standoff

At the beginning of 1992, George H. W. Bush was the odds-on favorite for reelection, though his standing in the polls had declined from its lofty level (p.243) in the spring of 1991—the highest that any president had experienced. The Democratic field seemed weak after New York governor Mario Cuomo and other heavyweights decided not to seek the nomination. By late 1991, the forty-five-year-old governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who had held that post for more than a decade, emerged as the Democratic front-runner. He never lost that status despite rumors of adultery, draft evasion during the Vietnam War era, and youthful experimentation with illegal drugs. Clinton was attractive, an able speaker, and a political centrist who blended liberal and conservative ideas. In Arkansas, he had been adept at building biracial coalitions, a necessity for any southern Democratic governor. Clinton knew how to appeal to swing voters across the country and offered the hope that some southern states might come back into the Democratic column. In 1992, North Carolina had moved its presidential primary from March back to May so that it would come at the same time as the state's other primaries and consequently save money. Even before Clinton won the North Carolina Democratic primary, he was the presumptive nominee.27

Like most modern political conventions, the 1992 Democratic National Convention was a public relations extravaganza on behalf of the certain nominee—Bill Clinton. Clinton tapped Tennessee senator Al Gore, a 1988 contender for the presidential nomination, as his running mate. Gore, a moderate liberal, had an aloof bearing but possessed a keen intellect. The choice was popular with North Carolina Democrats, who hoped a next-door neighbor would help the party's ticket win the state.

The Republicans nominated Bush for a second term in August. Having made a pledge at the 1988 convention—“Read my lips, no new taxes!”—Bush had alienated many Republicans and conservatives when he later approved new taxes as part of a spending compromise with the congressional Democrats.

The country's mood had turned sour during a mild economic recession in 1992, though the mood might have been bleaker than the actual economic conditions merited. Then came Texan H. Ross Perot, the rich, short, and colorful entrepreneur who seemed frank and unadorned. Perot called for balanced budgets and a renewal of the national spirit. He directed his wrath at Bush, whom he blamed for the national malady. Perot secured a ballot position in every state and made his biggest splash in the late winter, spring, and early summer. Polls showed him competitive in a three-way race. Near convention time, Perot withdrew from the race and gave Clinton a left-handed endorsement, saying the Democrats “had their act together.” Perot remained on the ballot and left open the option of resuming an active candidacy. But he had already inflicted heavy damage on (p.244) Bush—irreparable damage, as it turned out.28 Perot resumed his campaign on September 30.

There was little doubt about the identity of Democratic nominees for top North Carolina offices in November. Terry Sanford, who would be seventy-five at the time of the 1992 election, hoped for a second Senate term. Polls suggested that he had a good chance of winning reelection. Sanford was popular among his fellow senators and, despite his liberal record, retained an element of goodwill in North Carolina. Helms remained uncomfortable with his longtime nemesis occupying North Carolina's other Senate seat, but the two old warriors usually were civil to one another.

The Congressional Club sought a candidate to oppose Sanford. When Campbell University president Norman Wiggins declined to run, Congressional Club strategist Tom Ellis made overtures to Lauch Faircloth. Soon thereafter, Ellis asked Faircloth to challenge Sanford.29 With the promise of Congressional Club backing, Faircloth agreed to run against his former friend. Faircloth defeated Charlotte mayor Sue Myrick in the Republican primary and readied for a campaign targeting Sanford's liberalism.

Jim Hunt announced that he would run for governor. His defeat by Helms eight years earlier had been shattering: If Hunt had won, he might have occupied the same sort of national position as Bill Clinton did in 1992. Twenty-two years after that bruising senatorial election, Hunt still found it a difficult subject to talk about. Asked about the loss in a 2006 interview, he looked pained and responded, “I was devastated. On the Monday morning after the inauguration [of Jim Martin as governor in January 1985], I went to my new law office. The phone did not ring all morning. Now that really hurt.” Hunt said that he agonized over his defeat for months, thinking it to have been an unfair outcome. But over a period of time, he became more philosophical, realizing that life had to go on. As a partner in Poyner and Spruill, a Raleigh law firm, he soon was making money, by far the most he had made during his life. But he also remained active in state civic affairs and in national as well as state Democratic activities.30

Though he had not yet turned fifty, Hunt had assumed the role of elder statesman, almost as much of a ball of fire as he had been years before. But the change of lifestyle did give him an opportunity to think and reflect as he spent much time on his Rock Ridge farm and commuting from Rock Ridge to Raleigh. Hunt worked hard for the Democratic ticket in 1986, 1988, and 1990 and stayed in close touch with the state's corporate leaders. As a private citizen, Hunt continued his interest in education. He might have achieved more affection and respect during those years than he had gained as governor. Ironically, Hunt's loss to Helms probably widened (p.245) his long-term impact on North Carolina politics, government, and public policy.

After eight years, Martin was constitutionally ineligible for reelection, and he had already signaled that he was tired of politics.31 But for the mandated limit, he would have been the Republicans' best bet for victory. Democrats yearned to recapture the governor's office and feared that Republican lieutenant governor Jim Gardner would be hard to beat. Hunt was the only Democrat who would have an edge over Gardner, and by the early 1990s, the former governor was ready to return to office.

Hunt first had to win the Democratic primary, where his strongest challenger was Attorney General Lacy Thornburg, a credible candidate who, like his predecessors Robert Morgan and Rufus Edmisten, had been a people's champion in the office. But Thornburg was no match for Hunt, who took 65 percent of the vote and ninety-six of the state's one hundred counties.

Gardner prepared for battle. For years he had been controversial within his own political party. Gardner was brash and unwilling to step aside for others. His political career, like his business career, had been an up-and-down affair.32 But more and more, the Republican Party unified around him as Martin's heir apparent. Gardner's election to the lieutenant governorship in 1988 had been a big breakthrough for the party. He was a good fundraiser. Nevertheless, ill feeling lingered from the meanspirited 1972 Holshouser-Gardner gubernatorial primary, in which pro-Holshouser establishment Republicans blamed Gardner for the negative tone. Nor had old-time Republicans forgotten Gardner's on-and-off flirtation with the 1968 presidential candidacy of George Wallace when Gardner was the GOP standard-bearer in the gubernatorial race. Despite such breaches of etiquette within the party, Gardner had paid his dues. He had campaigned tirelessly at party rallies, served a term in Congress, and run a competitive race for governor. He had also supported the Martin administration in its battles with a Democratic legislature except when Martin proposed a tax increase. And bucking Martin in that instance enhanced Gardner's claim to be the logical nominee of a generally antitax party.

The Hunt-Gardner matchup was not a genteel affair. The stakes were high for both candidates. For Hunt, this election could provide redemption, and he thought it was an opportunity to complete the tasks he had begun in the 1970s—state economic and educational development. For Gardner, the governorship would be the culmination of a long and uneven political career—the achievement of a goal that had seemed within his grasp back in 1968. Like Hunt, Gardner spoke of the need for economic development (p.246) and a favorable business climate. But many voters had a better notion of how Hunt would perform as governor. This time, both Hunt and Gardner campaigned for their parties' presidential candidates, Clinton and Bush. A month before the election, Hunt was the favorite to win the governor's race and Sanford the favorite in the U.S. Senate race.

The bombshell of the 1992 senatorial campaign in North Carolina came less than a month before the election. Doctors at the Duke Medical Center advised Senator Sanford that he needed immediate open-heart surgery. It could not wait until after the election. The public was not told the full story, but Sanford had an infected heart valve, and his life was in peril. Among the first to send get-well wishes was his opponent, Faircloth. The dynamics of the contest changed as on-the-fence voters expressed doubt about Sanford's stamina.33 After mid-October, Faircloth was the slight favorite in the race even though a recuperating Sanford returned to the campaign trail on a limited schedule just before the election.

On November 3, the North Carolina winners were Republicans Bush and Faircloth and Democrat Hunt. The state's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, which had grown from eleven to twelve, now would have eight Democrats and four Republicans. As expected, two African Americans—Eva Clayton in the First District and Melvin Watt in the Twelfth—won the two newly drawn black-majority districts. The Democrats gained three seats in the N.C. Senate for a 39–11 majority, while the Republicans gained 3 seats in the N.C. House, leaving the Democrats with a 78–42 advantage. There had been no fundamental shift in the partisan balance. But the election did provide hints about where the state and country might be headed. It was also the first time since the Civil War that a Democrat had won the presidency without North Carolina's electoral votes.

The big story in the national election was Clinton's victory. He won a plurality of the national popular vote—43 percent, compared to 37 percent for Bush and an impressive 19 percent for Perot. Bush's total was the second-lowest percentage garnered by any major-party presidential candidate in the twentieth century. All the polling data suggested that Perot voters would have split evenly between Clinton and Bush if Perot had not reentered, though some of them would have still voted for Perot or not voted at all.

Clinton won an electoral vote landslide over Bush, 370–168. Perot won no state and consequently no electoral votes. Clinton built his victory on his strength in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and the Far West, with one of his strongest showings coming in California, which had voted Republican in (p.247) eight of the previous nine presidential elections. In the South, the Clinton-Gore ticket won Arkansas (Clinton's home state), Tennessee (Gore's home state), Louisiana, and Georgia. The only state that the Clinton campaign had targeted for victory but lost was North Carolina.34 Bush led in the state with 1,134,661 votes (43 percent) followed by Clinton with 1,114,043 (just under 43 percent) and Perot with 357,864 (14 percent). Clinton had a tiny lead in North Carolina's Election Day exit polling. In the twentieth century, North Carolina had been closer only in the election of 1956, when Democrat Adlai Stevenson edged out Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Support for both Bush and Clinton was evenly spread across the state, with Clinton narrowly leading in the coastal plain and Bush narrowly leading in the mountains. Bush's modest 36,000-vote lead in the piedmont provided his victory margin. Clinton, however, won the Durham, Greensboro, and Raleigh areas. He also took the central cities of Charlotte and Winston-Salem but lost their suburban areas and hence the counties of Mecklenburg and Forsyth.

Winning the U.S. Senate race with 50 percent of the votes cast to Sanford's 46 percent (and 4 percent for various minor party candidates), Faircloth did best in historically Republican mountain counties and in the conservative small-town industrial belt of the piedmont. Faircloth swept most midsized cities of the coastal plain. Sanford, however, led narrowly in the coastal plain at large as a consequence of his strength in rural counties, especially those with large black populations. While Faircloth was more outspokenly conservative than in the past, ideology was not the key to the outcome. The party bases stuck with their candidates—Republicans and conservatives for Faircloth, Democrats and liberals for Sanford. Nor was Sanford's liberal voting record crucial in the end. However, Sanford was the only member of the North Carolina congressional delegation to oppose the 1991 resolution that authorized President Bush to send troops to Kuwait and Iraq. The ensuing Persian Gulf War had been quick and popular, but it was likely Sanford's aging heart that took him from the Senate.

Hunt received 1,368,246 votes (52 percent) for governor. Gardner trailed with 1,121,955 votes (43 percent), and Libertarian Scott McLaughlin had 104,983 votes (4 percent). Hunt had a solid victory, even if his support remained below his levels of 1976 and 1980. Hunt led Gardner in all major regions of the state, narrowly in the mountains and solidly in the piedmont and coastal plain. Hunt easily carried every major metropolitan area but lost the midsize towns of the industrial western piedmont—Gastonia, Hickory, Kannapolis, and Salisbury.

Hunt was poised to begin an unprecedented third fouryear term as governor and was likely already eyeing a fourth. If the losses of Clinton and (p.248) Sanford had little impact on the races of statelevel Democrats, Hunt's position at the top of the state ticket surely redounded to the benefit of his party. Hunt had solid Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature, and he had campaigned for a lot of these Democrats, both veterans and newcomers. While tensions would always exist between the governor and the legislature, they were now the lowest in recent memory. Former lieutenant governor Jimmy Green, who had been a constant irritant for Hunt in the 1977–85 period, had retired from politics and was bogged down in legal difficulties stemming from his longtime operation of a tobacco warehouse.35

Hunt solidified his ties with the business leaders who mattered the most in building the modern North Carolina economy—bankers, utility executives, developers, and computer and software magnates. At this point, Hunt was not a pioneer in the mold of his political heroes Kerr Scott and Terry Sanford, but no governor since O. Max Gardner had been as adept at exercising the levers of power. Hunt saw himself as a governor for the demands and realities of the rapidly approaching new century, not the 1940s or the 1960s.

Earthquake on a Blue Moon

General elections featuring no race for president, U.S. senator, or governor are called blue moon elections, taken from the expression “once in a blue moon,” meaning a rare occurrence. But such elections are hardly as rare as their name implies. North Carolina had had blue moon elections in 1970 and 1982, and another was coming up in 1994. Normally, the blue moons had been the least consequential of elections. The stakes were lower, the campaign was less fervent, and the voter turnout was light. Early in 1994, there was little reason to expect a break from the past pattern.

But as the 1994 elections approached, discontent was in the air. Republicans saw an opportunity to recover from setbacks of the early 1990s. Republican U.S. House of Representatives minority leader Newt Gingrich and his allies drew up a pact they called the Contract with America, pledging that if they won the congressional elections, they would lower taxes and reduce the size of government, completing the campaign begun by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.36 Economic conservatives had been displeased with former president George H. W. Bush and his compromises with Democrats, especially the tax increase. They hoped to undo the damage and to stop Clinton in his tracks.

For the most part, social conservatives had stuck with Bush, applauding his stands against abortion and for the death penalty. Many of them loathed Clinton. One of Clinton's early announcements, probably speeded (p.249) up by inquiries from the media, was a new policy that permitted gays to enlist in the U.S. military. Though Clinton had promised this change during the campaign, the pledge did not gain a lot of attention until the new executive order was announced. The reaction was swift and negative—from segments of the military, conservative talk show hosts, and the religious Right. Congress attempted to undo Clinton's order. Ultimately, a compromise known as “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” enabled gays who kept their sexual preference under wraps to serve in the military.

If Clinton enraged the Right, he disappointed much of the Left. His most publicized campaign pledge was to provide health care insurance for all Americans, a program involving government mandates, insurance company participation, and government subsidies. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton chaired the health care task force. When it failed to gain traction, partly as a consequence of political miscalculations by the administration and partly as a consequence of a well-financed opposition campaign, liberals turned sour on Clinton. Disenchanted voters often sit out the next election.

Clinton's popularity eroded in North Carolina after his narrow 1992 loss there—a reflection of outrage over the idea of gays in the military and a general sense of moral decline. And as in the country at large, liberals and Democrats were not energized; however, Governor Hunt and top state Democratic officials remained popular. Their popularity was expected to rub off on the incumbent Democrats, at least those seeking to retain state and local offices. Hunt, however, had no spot on the ballot in this blue moon election. His presence might have provided a shield at least for statelevel Democratic candidates.

Just after dark, the tremors began in North Carolina and across much of the country. For the first time since the 1952 election, the Republicans became the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives, with 230 seats to the Democrats' 204. The Republican Party also won a majority in the U.S. Senate, 53–47. While the Republicans had controlled the Senate for the first six years of the Reagan administration (1981–86), their 1994 senatorial victory was a stunning reversal of the 57–43 Democratic advantage for the first two years of Bill Clinton's term.

The North Carolina House delegation went from eight Democrats and four Republicans to eight Republicans and four Democrats: David Funderburk over Richard Moore in the Second District, Richard Burr over A. P. “Sandy” Sands in the Fifth, Walter B. Jones over Martin Lancaster in the Third, and Fred Heineman over David Price in the Fourth. Republicans Funderburk, Burr, and Jones won with votes to spare. Heineman, whose accent betrayed his New York roots, squeaked by Price 77,773–76,558. Two (p.250) surviving Democrats, Charlie Rose of the Seventh District and Bill Hefner of the Eighth, won by margins under 5 percent. Meanwhile, Helms had two years left in his Senate term, while Faircloth had four years remaining.37

The outcome of the N.C. House of Representatives election marked an equally dramatic turn in state party fortunes. The Republicans won a 68–52 House majority. Even a 61–59 Republican edge would have constituted a major upset and a shift in the balance of legislative power. Suddenly, top Republicans emerged as key House leaders: Harold Brubaker of Randolph County as Speaker, Leo Daughtry of Johnston County as majority leader, and Carolyn Russell of Wayne County as Speaker pro tem. Democrats barely managed to retain a 26–24 majority in the N.C. Senate, a dramatic fall from their 39–11 position going into the race. Had there been a 25–25 tie, Democrats would have maintained de facto control, as the Democratic lieutenant governor Dennis Wicker had the constitutional authority to break ties. For the first time in the century, the Republican Party was entitled to choose a majority of members on all House committees. Not since the Republican-Populist coalition after the 1894 and 1896 elections had the Republicans been in such a strong position at the beginning of a legislative session. The House of Representatives revolt of 1989 and subsequent brief party coalition had been fueled in part by Republican votes, but insurgent Democrats provided much of the impetus.

The state Republicans stressed what they saw as a need for lower taxes to promote the economy. Most of their candidates supported both the public schools and the university system, but they advocated increased efficiency. Like Hunt, Republicans backed accountability in the school system with mandated tests to measure the results. The Republican Party also presented itself as an agent of change—a popular theme for those out of power since the advent of democracy. Over the years, North Carolina Republicans had portrayed the state Democrats as the tired, worn-out party, representing the status quo. Accusations intermittently arose—sometimes veiled, at other times openly expressed—that the Democrats perpetuated a climate of corruption, in which big contracts went to companies in cahoots with the party and bags of money were passed out to influence votes on the county level. These charges often lacked specificity and were whispered rather than leveled directly, but many voters suspected that the Republicans' accusations contained at least an element of truth.38 Voters might still like Governor Hunt or the legendary Democratic commissioner of agriculture, Jim Graham, but nevertheless favor a shakeup in Raleigh.

For all the local concerns, the big shift in North Carolina also reflected the national climate: distaste—temporary for some voters—for President (p.251) Clinton, the mobilization of both religious and antitax conservatives, and the relative apathy of pro-Democratic liberals, including black voters. In 1994, no state broke from its partisan moorings more widely than North Carolina. The state was a leader in the revolt, not simply following the national trend. The Republican Party had achieved major breakthroughs in the elections of 1972, 1980, and 1984, but the magnitude of the victory was at least as great in the blue moon election of 1994.

1996: A Sense of Déjà Vu

Election sequels, like movie sequels, are rarely as gripping as the originals. Nor does great drama typically result when elections feature entrenched incumbents who are prohibitive favorites for reelection. The 1996 race for Jesse Helms's seat for the U.S. Senate would be a sequel with plot lines much like those seen in 1990. The 1996 races for governor of North Carolina and president of the United States featured incumbents—Hunt and Clinton—who had the advantages of organization and political inevitability. Clinton had problems in North Carolina, but polls conducted early in the year put him far in front of possible Republican candidates in the match for the national popular and electoral votes. The political chattering classes spoke of the incumbents' vulnerabilities, but only the boldest and most partisan seriously expected upsets.

Harvey Gantt had for years been building support for another run against Helms. White establishment Democrats, including Terry Sanford and some in the Hunt camp (though not Hunt himself, at least publicly), promoted the candidacy of former pharmaceutical executive Charles Sanders. Sanders was a respectable candidate—a physician, a talented business entrepreneur, and smart enough that he was probably Gantt's intellectual equal. Establishment Democrats believed that Gantt's time had passed and that a fresher—and white—contender would offer better prospects of beating Helms. Sanford-style Democrats and Helms strategists agreed on at least one point: the white moderate would stand a slightly better chance of ousting Helms than the more liberal and politically tarnished Gantt.39

But neither the Helms backers nor the white moderate progressive Sanford Democrats could control the primary outcome. By the 1990s, many old-time conservatives had stopped voting in Democratic primaries. In 1990, Gantt had demonstrated his appeal to the blacks and white liberals who now wielded enormous influence in Democratic Party primaries. Gantt supporters could also point to his strong showing against Helms in the 1990 general election. Gantt backers believed that he could fare better against Helms than Sanders by boosting turnout among blacks, the young, (p.252) and liberals. The primary campaign was a gentle one, with attention focusing on which candidate might do better against Helms rather than on policy differences between Gantt and Sanders.

Gantt prevailed, 308,837–245,297. Gantt led Sanders in fifty-eight counties, including all of the more populous ones except for Buncombe (Asheville) and Onslow (Jacksonville–Camp Lejeune). The stage was set for a rerun of Gantt versus Helms.

Governor Hunt had seemed unscathed by the big Republican gains in the 1994 election. He subsequently outwitted Republican legislators by proposing even bigger tax cuts than they offered. The mid-1990s thus witnessed one of the biggest outbreaks of tax-cutting fever in North Carolina history, certainly a contrast to earlier and later days. Hunt, like Clinton at the same time, pushed for welfare reform to get people off the welfare rolls and into the workforce. The effort had tangible results, both for the welfare system and for Hunt's political image.40

In the United States as a whole, the midto late 1990s were one of the most prosperous periods ever. While the boom was driven in part by wild speculation in technology software—the “dot com” boom—a lot of new jobs were created by the American and North Carolina economies. This prosperity benefited Hunt, who could argue that his tax-cutting package had helped boost the economy.

Hunt's Republican opponent, Robin Hayes, was an heir of one of North Carolina's legendary industrial families of the old economy—the Cannons of Kannapolis. In the fall 1996 campaign, Hayes stressed his economic conservatism, but he found it difficult to combat Hunt on the big issues of the 1990s: tax cuts and welfare reform. Hayes tried to gain traction by stressing social conservatism—opposition to abortion and support for family values—and drew support from much of the organized, evangelical Christian Right. But for politically moderate evangelicals, Hunt was an attractive alternative to Hayes. As always, the incumbent governor attended church regularly and came across as pious. He blended his religious fervor with his enthusiasm for education and economic development. He was a known quantity and better than ever at making the voters feel good. Hayes later evolved into a skillful campaigner, but in 1996 he was inexperienced and often came across as stiff despite an appealing smile.

Helms Versus Gantt II

The 1996 Helms-Gantt race lacked the flair and venom of their 1990 matchup. Most campaign watchers expected another Helms victory, despite his fading health and polls showing a close election. Gantt's effort (p.253) lacked the spark of his 1990 campaign, partly because he was already well known and no longer able to offer a fresh face and new ideas. His reputation had been hurt by bitter attacks from the Helms's forces in the scorched earth 1990 donnybrook.

Despite Helms's fragile health, the challenge of a campaign seemed to provide him with a second wind. Furthermore, the travails of illness and surgery had introduced Helms to a man who became one of his closest friends and a political counselor. Bertram (Bert) Coffer, an anesthesiologist, met Helms during preparations for his surgery in the 1980s. He went to Helms's Hayes-Barton house in Raleigh for a preoperative consultation. Coffer professed amazement at the humility shown by the senator and his wife, Dorothy. Coffer appreciated their warmth and seeming modesty as his own origins had been humble. His family's Lee County homestead had lacked creature comforts such as electricity until 1947, late even by rural North Carolina standards.41

After the surgery, Coffer offered to assist Helms in any future political endeavors. The doctor also organized anesthesiologists into a potent political force. When Helms was depressed or “in a funk,” as Coffer put it, in a 1996 interview, the family would call in Coffer to help out. The senator had more trust in Coffer than in anyone else outside the immediate Helms family.42 Coffer acted as treasurer of the Helms's campaign in 1996, but that title understated his role. Without Coffer's friendship and counsel on both personal and political matters, Helms's political career might have ended in 1996.

By 1996, Helms had broken with the Congressional Club over fundraising techniques and other matters. Helms thought that club leaders were more interested in maintaining their power base than in helping his campaigns. For their part, club leaders believed that Helms neither understood nor appreciated modern campaign techniques. To a point, Helms and the Congressional Club had simply tired of one another. Helms and his Senate office staff knew that they required seasoned hands to run the campaign. For all his people skills and ability to connect, Helms still did not comprehend all of the nuts and bolts of putting together campaigns.43

The 1996 campaign had no trouble coming up with a talented team, including some staffers who had ties to the Congressional Club and earlier campaigns. Terry Edmondson, who had risen through the ranks of the Rocky Mount–based Hardee's fast-food chain, acted as campaign chair and a major fundraiser. Edmondson had impeccable conservative connections, and he knew how to organize. David Tyson, a Congressional Club veteran who had broken with Carter Wrenn, was also a leading strategist in (p.254) the 1996 campaign. Overall, the campaign lacked the strategic and organizational discipline of earlier ones run by the Congressional Club, but it was nonetheless effective.44 Helms outspent Gantt, $14.59 million to $8 million.

Starting in late 1995, the campaign tried to soften Helms's image and to stress his record of constituency service. These ads continued into 1996, but as time passed Gantt came under fire both in attack ads and in Helms's speeches. One intriguing line of attack—given Helms's disdain for Bill Clinton—was the campaign's attempt to portray Helms's positions on key issues as closer to Clinton's than to Gantt's. Specifically, campaign ads noted that both Clinton and Helms favored capital punishment, while Gantt opposed it. Another ad said that Clinton and Helms opposed gay marriage and that Gantt did not. Their accusation on the capital punishment issue was true, but the one on gay marriage was dubious. Though Gantt opposed discriminating against homosexuals, he had not specifically endorsed the idea of gay marriage. But the point was made: Gantt was more liberal than Clinton and out of touch with conventional North Carolina values.

The “white hands ad” from 1990 was not resurrected. Helms's strategists did bring back the campaign ad claiming that Gantt had used his minority status to buy a share in a television station “under false pretenses” and then sold it at a huge profit to a white-owned company. The state Republican Party printed leaflets with the pictures of Gantt and the state's two black members of Congress, Eva Clayton and Mel Watt, suggesting that such a triumvirate in Washington would be extremist and dangerous. Helms's forces said the line of attack was fair, as the three were ultraliberal on policy matters. Critics saw it as a revival of a racist campaign technique used in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s against whites who were moderate on racial issues.45

The Gantt campaign was populist in rhetoric, if not always in spirit. But many working-class whites—people who benefited from programs such as social security and Medicare—generally turned a deaf ear to Gantt's message. They found Helms's social populism more appealing—patriotism, morality, and support for capital punishment. Gantt backed abortion rights, gay rights, and environmentalism. More and more, the old Roosevelt–New Deal Coalition seemed to have collapsed. Blue-collar white southerners—most of whom did not belong to labor unions—had favored Republicans Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. At the same time blacks, both middle class and working class, overwhelmingly supported candidates who were both economically and socially liberal. Many black voters were deeply religious and fundamentalist and opposed abortions and homosexual rights. However, they saw the (p.255) Democrats as the good guys on matters of fundamental human rights and equality. The civil rights movement had caused many whites to leave the Democratic Party but had drawn in many blacks. The struggle for equality and recognition was a holy crusade. In the southern United States, the old liberal dream of a coalition of the average people and poor rising up to overthrow the rule of the affluent had long had tough sledding.46 Whether the old liberalism was even relevant to the South or nation of the late 1990s remained an open question.

Not Caught in a National Tide

With 49.2 percent of the national popular vote, Clinton won a near landslide electoral victory in 1996. Republican Robert Dole received 40.7 percent and independent Ross Perot 8.4 percent. Republicans and media critics such as commentator Rush Limbaugh gleefully pointed to Clinton's failure to win 50 percent, but such a feat is difficult to accomplish when a race features a strong third-party or independent candidate. (Ronald Reagan had won a bare majority, 50.7 percent, in his great victory of 1980.) Clinton's electoral vote lead over Dole was 379–159, with Dole's strength concentrated in the South, the Great Plains, and the northern Rockies. Dole took North Carolina with 1,225,938 votes (48.7 percent), while Clinton and Perot followed with 1,107,848 (44 percent) and 168,059 (6.7 percent), respectively. Despite trailing Dole in the cumulative electoral vote of the eleven states constituting the old Confederacy, Clinton narrowly led Dole in the region's popular vote, carrying Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Tennessee. But North Carolina and Georgia were among the few states in which Clinton had done less well relative to the Republican candidate than he had in 1992. In North Carolina several factors were in play: Clinton's failure to target the state and advertise in 1996, resentment over the administration's antitobacco stand during its first term, and a Bible Belt mentality resenting Clinton's sexual peccadilloes and stands in favor of abortion rights and gay rights. Reflecting a gradual trend toward the Democrats and growing liberalism in a few urban centers, the counties of Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Guilford (Greensboro) narrowly favored Clinton. These counties had voted Republican in many elections of the preceding three decades. However, Dole carried the broader piedmont region and the mountains. The coastal plain was almost evenly split, with a large black vote for Clinton canceling out a big white majority for Dole.

Helms defeated Gantt, 52.7 percent to 46.9 percent—a gain of a fraction of a percentage point for Helms over his 1990 vote. Some Perot backers and a few Dole backers voted for Gantt, but a few Clinton supporters voted for (p.256) Helms—likely economically populist white Democrats unwilling to vote for a black, but neither polling data nor raw election data prove that. Over-all, Gantt received 66,627 more votes than did Clinton. As in 1972, 1978, and 1990, Helms led in all of the state's major geographic regions. As in 1990, Helms's leads were narrow in the piedmont and coastal plain, while Gantt led in the major urban areas of Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Fayetteville, Greensboro, and Raleigh.

Many North Carolinians suspected that the election was Helms's last hurrah.47 But as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and a member of the majority party with great parliamentary skills, he had never been more influential in Washington. The Clinton administration would have to deal with him on a day-to-day basis. With no Republican governor to stand in his way, Helms was symbolically the leader of the North Carolina party. With physical and mental decline setting in, however, he would become more and more dependent on aides to handle the details.

The Gantt campaign had been competently run. He worked closely with the state Democratic Party organization, hoping to capitalize on the strength of the other leading Democratic candidate, Hunt, whom nearly all politicos thought was bound for a big reelection victory—perhaps as much as 60 percent of the vote. Though the governor had firm control over the Democratic Party machinery, he still had key people for whom he came first and the party second. So while Hunt had good words for Gantt and encouraged the party apparatus to support Gantt's campaign, he still maintained a safe distance. Hunt's top operatives knew their mission was to provide the governor with a huge reelection margin and would not let Gantt get in the way of that objective.

1996: A Partisan Standoff

Aside from the senatorial and the state presidential outcomes, Democrats found much to cheer in the 1996 election. Hunt beat Hayes for governor, 56 percent to 43 percent—not the 60 percent for which Hunt's campaign had hoped but nonetheless a powerful morale boost for the Democratic Party after its 1994 debacle. Partly reflecting Hunt's coattails and partly reflecting a recovery from their 1994 low point, the Democratic majority in the N.C. Senate grew from 26–24 to 29–21. The Republican majority in the N.C. House shrank from 68–52 to a tenuous 61–59. Hunt was now better positioned to exploit divisions simmering in the Republican ranks.

The state's congressional delegation changed from an 8–4 Republican majority to a 6–6 partisan tie. The Democrats won the rematch in the Fourth District—Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and southern Durham—where (p.257) former representative David Price ousted freshman Fred Heineman, 76,558–72,773. Price, a professor, was a better match stylistically for the district than the rough-hewn Heineman. Price had been caught off-guard in 1994. Yet the 1996 rerun was a hard-fought battle, as a portion of the recent arrivals in Raleigh from the north related to Heineman's plainspoken style and antitax conservatism.

The other party change came in the conservative Second District, where in early 1995, Republican David Funderburk might have looked forward to a long tenure. Despite the district's historically Democratic roots, Funderburk's steadfastly conservative stands on both economic and moral issues were in tune with the voters' tastes. The Second District's boundaries encompassed such towns as Dunn, Rocky Mount, and Smithfield where both mainstream conservatism and fringe groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the more upscale John Birch Society had thrived since the 1950s.

By the autumn of 1996, Funderburk faced two challenges, one over which he had no control, the other a dispute over who did have control. Longtime state legislator and then superintendent of public instruction Bob Etheridge won the Democratic nomination to oppose Funderburk. Etheridge, a political centrist with progressive tendencies, came across as a plain old country boy, but one who was passionately interested in educational opportunities as well as agriculture. Though more diplomatic and cautious, he possessed some of the populist spirit of the former governor Kerr Scott. Despite the Second's more recent swing to the right, Scott's brand of populism and rural road paving was part of the area's legacy, even decades after Scott's death. In North Carolina, a candidate who can combine the progressive and populist appeals is hard to beat.

Funderburk's integrity had been called into question in the aftermath of an October 21, 1995, incident in which Funderburk's Ford swerved across the center lane. A van driver in the correct lane lost control of his vehicle while trying to avoid Funderburk's car. The van tipped over, injuring its occupants. Funderburk and his wife, Betty, asserted that she had been driving the Ford, while witnesses and the State Highway Patrol officers at the scene said that Funderburk was driving. Regardless of who had the controls, the occupants of the Ford did not stop to check on the injured people in the van. Nor did Funderburk or his wife place a 911 emergency call on his cellular phone. Instead, he called his lawyer.

Funderburk initially was charged with lying to law officers and reckless driving. He and prosecutors struck a bargain in which he agreed to plead no contest to charges of reckless driving in exchange for the dropping of the lying charge. Public opinion held that the congressman was driving (p.258) and that Betty Funderburk, playing the role of dutiful wife, was taking the blame to save her husband's political career. Having been elected as the candidate of morals and family values in 1994, David Funderburk was now a scarred man.48 In the November 1996 election, Democrat Etheridge prevailed over Funderburk.

After six years of battle in the 1990s, the major political parties remained closely matched. However, a fundamental change had taken place in national politics. Between 1968 and 1988, the Republicans had won five out of six presidential elections, appearing to have a lock on the electoral college. Democrat Clinton's 1992 victory broke the lock. The electorate was closely divided. But after 1994, Republicans had success in Congress unparalleled since the 1920s.

What kept the Republicans in such a strong position was the transformation of the American South from overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning to Republican-leaning. Liberal Democrats believed the change reflected underlying racism. However, the shift had wide-ranging causes. Political scientists Earl Black and Merle Black have pointed to a variety of factors: the rise of middle-class society, concerns about taxes, religious values, and migration trends.49

In North Carolina, the Republicans maintained their edge in statewide contests for national office—president and U.S. Senator. More than in 1990, the Republicans were a force to be reckoned with in legislative politics. In the 1996 election, they maintained their majority in the N.C. House of Representatives, first won in 1994. But Governor Jim Hunt was the political captain, much as he had been in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A frail if reenergized Senator Jesse Helms would not be around forever. Neither political party seemed likely to gain a monopoly on North Carolina politics. A two-party system had arrived. But, as had long been true, the state's agenda was often driven more by people and factions than by parties.

The most intriguing political story in the 1990s involved Harvey Gantt, the man who could not quite win. Gantt's mobilization of black and white voters signaled that change was coming. That an African American could run a competitive U.S. Senate race against any white candidate, hinted that the state was no longer a captive of its history.


(1) . The electoral lock concept was widely accepted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), Earl Black and Merle Black argue that the Republicans had the upper hand in national politics largely as a result of the South's transition from a Democratic to a Republican region in presidential politics.

(2) . At this stage, the fears harbored by white moderates that a black could not win a high-profile statewide race seem to have been based on “realistic politics,” not the moderates' racial prejudices.

(3) . William Friday, interview by author, January 4, 2007.

(4) . Marion A. Ellis, “Harvey Gantt,” in The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900–2000, ed. Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis (Charlotte: Levine Museum of the New South; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 294.

(5) . Ibid.

(6) . The geographic pattern of Gantt's 1990 primary win over Easley bears remarkable similarities to Barack Obama's general election win over John McCain in 2008. Gantt ran powerfully in metropolitan areas and in counties that were 40 percent or more black.

(7) . For perspective on early polls, see Jim Morrill, “Gantt and Helms Both Like Poll,” Charlotte Observer, June 16, 1990.

(8) . Gantt's position on gay rights issues was a milestone in state politics. He was the first serious statewide candidate for top office to embrace equality and access for homosexuals.

(9) . In this respect as well, Gantt in 1990 seemed a precursor of Obama in 2008. Despite lacking Obama's charisma, Gantt possessed a magnetism rare in North Carolina politics.

(10) . See William A. Link, Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (New York: St. Martin's, 2008), 369–71, 374.

(11) . While the “white hands ad” does not quite have the notoriety of the “mushroom cloud ad” produced by the Lyndon Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964, it should make any list of the five most powerful political TV ads.

(12) . University of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978). In Grutter v. Bollinger (539 U.S. 306 [2003]), the Supreme Court narrowly upheld more generalized racial and admissions goals that included no specific point system or quota.

(13) . Link, Righteous Warrior, 377.

(14) . Ibid., 371.

(15) .Carter Wrenn, interview by author, March 9, 2007. Wrenn told Helms biographer William Link that he and all the Helms campaign leaders had at the time wanted Gantt to get the nomination because they believed he would be the weakest candidate (Link, Righteous Warrior, 366). But Wrenn's remarks to me suggest that the Helms forces had underestimated Gantt.

(16) . 1990 Exit Poll for North Carolina, Voter News Service.

(17) . See Thomas F. Eamon and David Elliott, “Modernization versus Traditionalism in North Carolina Elections,” Social Science Quarterly 75, no. 2 (June 1994): 358–62.

(18) . , Southern Politics in State and Nation (New York: Knopf, 1949), 5–11.

(19) . See Thomas F. Eamon, “From Pool Hall to Parish House in North Carolina,” in Strategies for Mobilizing Black Voters: Four Case Studies, ed. Thomas E. Cavanagh (Washington, D.C.: Joint Center for Political Studies, 1987), 101–36.

(20) . White Democrats had to play a balancing act even in their current districts. But some, such as Walter Jones and Charlie Rose, had gained influential committee posts as a result of seniority, enabling them to do a lot for their districts.

(21) . Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 332–38.

(22) . Under the Department of Justice party guidelines, nearly all southern congressional and legislative districts would have been found wanting, often in violation of one, two, or three of the guidelines.

(23) . Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986).

(24) . For the most thorough coverage of the North Carolina redistricting dispute and its origins, see Tinsley E. Yarbrough, Race and Redistricting: The Shaw-Cromartie Cases (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), especially chap. 2 (titled “Political Pornography”), 21–51. In oral arguments concerning Shaw v. Reno at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 20, 1993, Everett alluded to the term. Ibid., 63.

(25) . Ibid., 20.

(26) . Charles Clay, “Eva Clayton,” in North Carolina Century, ed. Covington and Ellis, 468–70.

(27) . The scheduling of the North Carolina presidential primary was a matter of cost, convenience, and practicality versus national influence. The more practical considerations have usually outweighed the possibility of national influence.

(28) . There is a widespread myth that Perot's general election candidacy cost Bush the election. In fact, all polls in the fall of 1992 showed Clinton prevailing in a two-way race. If, however, Perot had not conducted a slash-and-burn campaign against Bush in the spring and summer of 1992, Bush might have won. Perot permanently turned some voters against Bush.

(29) . Tom Ellis, interview by author, October 20, 2006.

(30) . Jim Hunt, interview by author, November 13, 2006.

(31) . In February 1990, a Raleigh News and Observer article suggested that Martin's tax-payer-funded research office had gathered information on political opponents. Martin, then suffering from a respiratory ailment, left his sickbed to hold a news conference. He denounced the News and Observer and Democratic critics. Martin said he would leave politics when his second term expired. He kept his word.

(32) . See Rob Christensen, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events That Shaped Modern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 256–57.

(33) . Sanford's heart surgery was the defining event of the senatorial contest. Sanford's record in Washington was unexciting, but he also had not aroused major animosities.

(34) . Afterward, Clinton strategists wished that they had targeted Florida instead of North Carolina. That would be their strategy in 1996.

(35) . Green was eventually indicted and convicted on corruption charges, though he never went to prison. Future governor Mike Easley was the prosecutor in the case.

(36) . Black and Black, Rise of Southern Republicans, 338.

(37) . The national GOP tide was the driving force. But voters detected a whiff of corruption and blamed the Democrats for it. Angry citizens seemed more motivated to turn out than did others, as is often the case in midterm elections.

(38) . I have heard many accusations of corruption and fraud, but firm proof and indictments and convictions have been rare.

(39) . Gantt had no record of serious political corruption, but the 1990 campaign had been bruising. He was no longer an untarnished fresh face.

(40) . Hunt had survived the setbacks of 1994 remarkably unscathed. But his postelection rhetoric could have come from a Republican playbook. The Hunt-led tax cuts of 1995 damaged the state's finances in the next few years.

(41) . Bert Coffer, interview by author, October 20, 1996.

(42) . Ibid.

(43) . Helms lieutenants and advisers often spoke of the senator's lack of attention to the fine points of campaigning. Yet he was one of the best at staying on message (Link, Righteous Warrior, 388–93; Wrenn, interview).

(44) . While the 1996 voting pattern resembled that of 1990, the campaign was less suspenseful. There was never a point when Gantt seemed an even bet to win despite Helms's increasingly obvious frailty.

(45) . Although the Congressional Club was not running the 1996 campaign, the leaflets might well have come from an earlier campaign playbook. Overall, the 1996 Helms (p.364) campaign had a softer tone—both overt and covert—on racial themes than did the campaigns of 1972, 1984, and 1990. But the leaflets were a throwback to earlier Helms campaigns and even to the 1950 Willis Smith–Frank Porter Graham campaign.

(46) . Ironically, Helms had greater success than Gantt in making a populist appeal, another example of social populism triumphing over economic populism.

(47) . For a discussion of Helms's physical and mental decline, see Link, Righteous Warrior, 385–87, 419–20, 477–80.

(48) . The Funderburk incident was yet another illustration that in politics, smart people do incredibly stupid things. The clumsy response to the incident rivaled the driving itself as an act of poor judgment.

(49) . Earl Black and Merle Black first outlined these points in Politics and Society in the South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). Events of the next two decades further enhanced the strength of their arguments. While Clinton made inroads in the 1990s, the basic points outlined in Black and Black's book dominated southern politics throughout the twentieth century.