Ex-NC Gov. Jim Holshouser dies at 78
RALEIGH (AP) — Jim Holshouser, who was North Carolina’s first Republican governor elected in the 20th century and then gave early support to Pat McCrory, the first GOP governor of this century, died Monday at age 78.
Holshouser had been in declining health before he died at First Health of the Carolinas Medical Center in Pinehurst, his family said in a release through McCrory’s office. Holshouser missed McCrory’s inauguration in January due to pneumonia, but he had been active in public life until a few weeks ago, serving as an emeritus member on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and working at a law firm.
The Watauga County native endorsed McCrory in the Republican primary for governor in 2008, speaking at his kickoff campaign event. McCrory lost in the general election, but won four years later. Holshouser served on McCrory’s transition team as a bridge from the past — when Republicans were feeble in state politics — to today, when the GOP controls both legislative and executive branches.
“I probably wouldn’t be governor without his initial support but more than anything guidance,” McCrory said in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. “He was probably one of the most genuine public servants I’ve ever known … What he said was his word and didn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body.”
Holshouser, a state legislator, became North Carolina’s youngest governor at age 38 when he was swept into office amid President Richard Nixon’s 1972 electoral landslide. He defeated Democratic candidate Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, father of former White House chief of staff and UNC system President Erskine Bowles, to become the first Republican in the Executive Mansion since 1901.
Although his gubernatorial goals were far-reaching, Holshouser struggled during his four years against overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. After the 1974 elections that followed Nixon’s resignation, Republicans held just 10 of the 170 legislative seats.
Consequently, he never presented an ambitious program to the legislature and the achievements of his administration were modest. He is remembered for establishing rural health clinics, laying out the plan for a criminal justice information system and reorganizing state government. He appointed North Carolina’s first female Cabinet secretary. He also supported the Coastal Area Management Act, which laid the groundwork for protecting coastal resources from encroaching development, and spoke out against the death penalty for religious reasons.
One success, he once said, was a simple demonstration: “North Carolina could operate for four years with a Republican governor without the world coming to an end and without causing a major political crisis or anything like that.”
His four terms in the legislature built the basis for a good relationship with the heavily Democratic General Assembly, Holshouser said.
“I’ve always believed you should try to figure what is right governmentally and then try to be smart enough and savvy enough to make it right politically,” he said. “Politicians just look at the polls and do what is popular. I’ve taken some unpopular stands.”
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat who served four terms and was lieutenant governor when Holshouser was governor, said he last spoke to Holshouser a few weeks ago about their efforts to preserve a voluntary public campaign financing program for appellate court judges that’s on the chopping block at the legislature.
“He was a good strong Republican but he was also a good strong advocate for public education and for the environment and for fair treatment of all people,” Hunt said in an interview Monday. “I worked with a lot of governors over my lifetime and I know I have never known one who was a finer human being.”
James Eubert Holshouser Jr. was born in Boone, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on Oct. 8, 1934. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Davidson College and a law degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
He opted for a career as a lawyer under the influence of his father, who was a judge and U.S. attorney, and later got into politics.
“My parents raised me to get involved,” Holshouser once quipped, “it just got out of hand.”
He served in the legislature from 1963-67 and 1969-72. The 31-year-old Holshouser became state chairman of the Republican Party in 1966 and continued to lead the party until 1972.
Holshouser’s 1972 victory in the GOP primary over Jim Gardner demonstrated factional strains within the state party. A year later, Holshouser and moderates engineered a takeover of the state GOP party structure, leading to the ouster of a chairman backed by Gardner and then U.S.-Sen. Jesse Helms, an outspoken conservative also first elected in 1972.
In 1976, Helms served as state chairman for Ronald Reagan’s Republican presidential bid while Holshouser was a Southern leader for President Gerald Ford. At the GOP’s state convention that year, Holshouser was booed and delegates snubbed him when he sought to be a part of the state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention. The incumbent governor was kept out of the delegation.
Under state law at the time, Holshouser was ineligible to succeed himself as governor and was succeeded by Hunt in 1977. After leaving office, he practiced law in Southern Pines and later teamed up with Democratic former governor and U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford to form a Raleigh law and government relations firm. Holshouser spent years on kidney dialysis before receiving a kidney transplant in 1986.
Ironically, Holshouser later worked for Gardner as his legislative liaison when Gardner was lieutenant governor.
Holshouser joined other living former governors in 1996 to support a state constitutional amendment approved by voters giving North Carolina governors veto power.
Holshouser’s wife, Pat, died in 2006. Survivors include a daughter, Ginny Mills.
His funeral will be at 1 p.m. Friday at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southern Pines, with visitation Thursday night at the church, according to state Rep. Jamie Boles, who operates the funeral home providing the arrangements. State officials ordered flags at government buildings be lowered in his honor until his internment.
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