DG MARTIN COLUMN: The ugliest word, or the sweetest

Published 2:41 pm Wednesday, August 4, 2021

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It may be the ugliest word in the English language.

Or the sweetest when it describes a politician’s response to a perceived wrong.

D.G. Martin

In 1984, after two terms as governor, Jim Hunt was running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Jesse Helms. A host of ambitious Democrats lined up to succeed him. Competitors in the gubernatorial primary that year included Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green, Insurance Commissioner John Ingram, Hunt’s Secretary of Commerce Lauch Faircloth, Hunt’s Deputy Secretary of Human Resources Tom Gilmore, Attorney General Rufus Edmisten and former Charlotte Mayor Eddie Knox.

Even though Hunt was consumed with his own campaign, all these candidates for governor, especially those who had worked closely with Hunt in government and politics, hoped for some favorable attention and help from the popular Hunt.

None was more hopeful or expectant than Knox, who had been Hunt’s political friend beginning in college days at N.C. State, where they were close allies. Knox managed Hunt’s campaign for student body president. Their alliance continued as both mounted successful political careers, including Hunt’s statewide campaigns for lieutenant governor and governor.

Knox was a close second to Edmisten in the primary. As the two lined up to compete in a run-off and with Hunt’s other closest political allies no longer in competition, Knox hoped Hunt would give him the much-needed help he would have to have to beat Edmisten. It did not come, and Knox lost by almost four percentage points.

Knox seethed.

A few weeks later, appearing with Helms, Knox let it be known that he had changed his loyalties. He would be supporting Helms rather than Hunt in the upcoming election. Hunt lost by four percentage points. Later Knox formalized the break by changing his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

We cannot know for sure whether Knox’s actions were revenge or some other political calculation.

But, looking back, we can see it marked the end of his promising political career that some believe could have led to much higher office, including the presidency. Instead, he returned to his Charlotte law practice where he still puts his considerable skills to work for his clients.

In that 1984 primary, Faircloth came in a respectable third place, leading him to consider running for the U.S. Senate in 1986. The seat was “open” in the sense that the incumbent John East was ill and later died. But there was no rush of prominent Democrats to contend for the seat.

Former governor and Duke University President Terry Sanford had considered running, but dropped out in September 1985 when party leaders were not encouraging, apparently looking for a “fresh face.”

Faircloth at this point felt some encouragement from Sanford.

With Sanford out, Faircloth became the leading contender and set about organizing his campaign, gaining support, especially from conservative Democrats.

Reacting to Faircloth’s seeming success and fearing that he was too conservative, party leaders reassessed their decision to discourage Sanford. They persuaded him to enter the contest. He immediately became the favorite.

These actions pulled the rug out from under Faircloth, who withdrew from the campaign. Sanford went on to win the primary handily and won election to the senate.

Faircloth quietly seethed.

His opportunity for revenge came six years later in 1992 when Sanford stood for reelection. Faircloth had become a Republican and had the support of Sen. Jesse Helms and the powerful conservative Congressional Club. With Sanford fighting illness at the end of the campaign, Faircloth won by four percentage points.

Revenge. Ugly. And sweet.

Note: The author was the Democratic nominee for the 9th District U.S. House seat in 1984 and 1986.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch” at 3:30 p.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Tuesday on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.