Where Stand The Two Jims | Eastern North Carolina Now

As the 2014 election cycle draws to a close, few states have drawn so much national attention as North Carolina, thanks to the tight Hagan-Tillis race, the dramatic turn in state government from blue to red, and our status as a presidential swing state in 2008 and 2012.

    Publisher's note: This article appeared on John Hood's daily column in the Carolina Journal, which, because of Author / Publisher Hood, is linked to the John Locke Foundation.

John Hood, president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation.
    RALEIGH     As the 2014 election cycle draws to a close, few states have drawn so much national attention as North Carolina, thanks to the tight Hagan-Tillis race, the dramatic turn in state government from blue to red, and our status as a presidential swing state in 2008 and 2012.

    For longtime residents of the state, however, national attention is nothing new. North Carolina has long produced more politics than can be consumed locally (to paraphrase a famous observation about the Balkans). For good or ill, we've given the rest of the country such fascinating political personalities as Sam Ervin, Jesse Helms, Elizabeth Dole, and John Edwards.

    As I've watched North Carolina's last four eventful years, another kind of continuity stands out. Our politics continues to bear the imprint of two former governors with the same first name: four-term Democrat Jim Hunt and two-term Republican Jim Martin.

    Hunt left office in 2001 but he never really left the political stage. At 77, he continues to be a major force in Democratic politics and left-of-center policy circles. This year, Hunt has helped set up liberal PACs and raised money for Democratic candidates. Through speeches and op-eds, he has criticized the fiscal policies, regulatory changes, and education reforms championed by Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP-led General Assembly.

    After Jim Martin left office in 1993, he moved more fully into private life and, later, retirement without maintaining a high political profile. But at 78, he has continued to counsel Republicans privately while assisting some right-of-center policy groups. Martin's chief influence on today's politics has been to recruit, train, and inspire many of the GOP's top officeholders, strategists, and other personnel — including McCrory's chief of staff, former budget director, and other aides.

    Both Jims enjoyed long, successful careers in politics. Hunt was elected lieutenant governor in 1972 and spent a total of 20 years in public office. His only electoral loss was in his epic 1984 battle with Helms. Martin's political career was even longer and started earlier, in 1966, when he was part of the first Republican slate to win control of the board of commissioners in North Carolina's most populous county, Mecklenburg. After six years on the commission, including two stints as chairman, Martin served 12 years in Congress before winning his first gubernatorial term in 1984.

    Jim Hunt proceeded and followed Jim Martin in the governor's office. Both Jim-to-Jim transitions were courteous and professional, although not exactly chummy. During his 1984 gubernatorial campaign, Martin had run on a Reagan-style platform of tax cuts to boost economic growth. Hunt disagreed with it, arguing that spending more on education and other state services would create more economic growth than reducing the tax burden would. In 1992, when the retiring Martin handed back the reins of power, he worried that Hunt and the still-dominant Democrats in the legislature might embark on a costly and unsustainable spending spree.

    In truth, the two men weren't always diametrically opposed in their choices. While Martin did accomplish a series of cuts in business and investment taxes, he also endorsed giving counties more ability to raise their sales taxes (hoping that would allow for lower property taxes, which he viewed as more economically burdensome) and proposed a gas-tax hike to fund an ambitious road-building program.

    As governor, Martin proposed the creation of an early-childhood program for at-risk children. Hunt would subsequently make his version of the idea, Smart Start, into his signature achievement. Shortly after the 1994 election, when Republicans captured the state house and nearly captured the state senate, Hunt moved swiftly to outbid them on tax relief. Indeed, the three largest tax cuts in modern North Carolina history occurred during Martin's tenure in the 1980s, Hunt's in the 1990s, and McCrory's in 2013.

    Still, the two Jims differ markedly in policy detail and emphasis. Martin favored last year's tax cut, which vaulted North Carolina from 44th to 16th in business tax climate according to the Tax Foundation. Hunt opposed it. Although neither is on the ballot this year, the philosophical divide between the two remains the central one in state politics.
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