Politics 2004: Week of December 6

Tarheel Success

North Carolina was a tremendous state for Republicans this year–their across-the-board wins made all the sweeter by the Bush-Cheney ticket’s sweep of the home state of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards. Moreover, the Senate seat that Edwards gave up to seek national office fell to Republican Rep. Richard Burr by a handsome 52% to 47% of the vote. That win was all the more impressive considering that Burr (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 92%), had never run beyond his Winston-Salem-based district, while his Democratic opponent, Erskine Bowles, is the son of a past Democratic gubernatorial nominee and himself was his party’s Senate nominee in 2002.

State legislators Virginia Foxx and Patrick McHenry both easily succeeded fellow Republicans Burr and Cass Ballenger in the U.S. House districts they relinquished. Although Democratic Gov. Mike Easley romped to re-election, the GOP at the same time made inroads in statewide offices by expanding their ranks to three on the Council of State. With Democratic State Secretary of Agriculture Nell Scott Phipps, daughter of former Gov. (1968-72) Robert Scott, now in the same prison as Martha Stewart on malfeasance charges, Republican Steve Troxler won her office over Democrat Britt Cobb. Similarly, the office of state auditor was picked up by a Republican certified public accountant with the incongruous name of Les Merritt. Rounding out GOP statewide gains was the easy re-election of State Secretary of Labor Cherie Barry.

If there was disappointment for Tarheel State Republicans, it was in the races for the state legislature. Democrats increased their 27-to-23 seat edge in the state senate to 29 to 21. While the state house of representatives was previously tied with 60 seats for each major party, November 2 yielded a House in Democratic hands by a 63-to-57 seat margin. What makes these results interesting is that in the earlier tie situation, five house Republicans had broken with the remainder of the GOP caucus to make possible a power-sharing arrangement with Democrats that included co-speakers from each party. Now, the deal-making services of the so-called “Gang of Five”–notably co-speaker and State Rep. Richard Morgan–are no longer needed.

Efforts to purge the “Gang of Five” in the primaries last May were successful in only one case–that of State Rep. David Minor, who lost renomination in his Raleigh district to challenger Nelson Dollar.

Noting the effort of some Republicans “to do some cleansing,” Gastonia dentist and longtime conservative activist Bill Current, who won the open 109th District vacated by now U.S. Rep-elect McHenry, told me: “I hope some leadership emerges among House Republicans that keeps us from self-destructing.”

A legitimate concern, all right, But when one considers that the state elected its first Republican governor and senator since Reconstruction as recently as 1972 and gained significant seats in the state legislature only in the last decade, factionalism and internecine warfare can be viewed as luxuries of power. Conservative Democrats continue to realign themselves with the GOP and, as a result, the move of North Carolina into the solidly Republican column. Revered former Sen. (1972-2002) Jesse Helms was one of the first to make the trip from Democrat to Republican, changing parties, and did so only four years before his first election to the Senate. One of the more recent converts–and one who was a high-profile supporter of GOP candidates this year–is also someone formerly considered one of the Democratic Party’s brightest hopes for the future: Luther Hodges Jr.

Speaking for legions of erstwhile North Carolina Democrats, Hodges–namesake son of a former governor (1954-60) who also served as secretary of commerce under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson–told me earlier this year, ” I was a good Democrat in Washington, during the 1980s, but President William Jefferson Clinton made a Republican out of me. He and his character led the way.”

Evolution of a Revolutionary

Even before he completed his education and became active in politics, Luther Hodges appeared to be a young man destined for a political career. As his father was serving as governor and in the Cabinet, young Hodges graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1959) and Harvard Business School (’62). In contrast to other young Democrats who plunged into elective politics once the ink was dry on their degrees, Hodges threw himself into the private sector. He became chief executive officer of a Charlotte bank and went on to serve as chairman of Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce and Mecklenburg County Democratic chairman.

It was in 1974 that Hodges was first noticed by national political pundits. In a much-discussed feature story, Time Magazine highlighted “200 Faces for Tomorrow”–a potpourri of men and women under 50 who offered potential to be the political “movers and shakers” for the rest of the century. Those featured ranged from commentators Pat Buchanan and M. Stanton Evans on the right to freshman Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D.-Colo.) and New York Knicks great (and New Jersey Democratic Sen.-to-be) Bill Bradley on the left, Hodges was the lone North Carolinian in the “Time 200.” (Then-Federal Trade Commission Member Elizabeth Hanford, soon to be Mrs. Robert Dole and now a U.S. senator from North Carolina, was also on the list but, “she was considered a Washingtonian then,” Hodges recalled with a laugh.)

In 1978, Hodges was thought one of the Democrats’ three best hopes in the nation for halting the swing to Republicanism in the South. Fellow Harvard graduate and businessman Charles “Pug” Ravenel was supposed to unseat Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.), Rep. (1974-78) Bob Krueger was supposed to take out Sen. John Tower (R.-Tex.), and Hodges was poised to defeat Sen. Helms. In the North Carolinian’s words, “Ravenel, Krueger, and I were going to save the world from the far right.”

They didn’t. In fact, all lost and Hodges didn’t even make it past the nomination process. Although he raised more than $700,000 and led in the initial ten-candidate primary with 44% of the vote, Hodges was beaten in the subsequent, low-turnout run-off by State Insurance Commissioner John Ingram. Spending only $50,000 on the race, self-styled populist Ingram made much of his record as a fighter against business over utility rates. With four former Democratic state chairmen and numerous Democratic contributors refusing to help their nominee, Helms defeated Ingram with almost 55% of the vote.

Later that year, Hodges was tapped as deputy secretary of commerce by President Carter and, it was believed in Democratic circles that he would move up to his father’s old job as secretary and thus be prepared for a future political race.

“But when Secretary [Juanita] Kreps retired in ’79–and you have to hear this one Hodges recalled to me, the White House told me: ‘You’ll get it [the appointment as secretary] next year, after we’re re-elected,’ ‘but right now, we need to carry Illinois’. So they appointed [72-year-old Chicago insurance executive] Phillip Klutznik as secretary.” His appointment didn’t help, as Carter badly lost Illinois and his re-election bid.

Coming Full Cycle

As Hodges moved from the public arena back to banking and other business ventures–first in Washington, D.C., as head of the Bank of Washington, and then in Arizona–his doubts about the Democratic Party mounted. In his words, “I liked the work of the [moderate] Democratic Leadership Council, all right, but the national party was moving away from that and from Southern Democrats. The three biggest influences in the modern Democratic Party were labor unions, trial lawyers, and Hollywood. And Bill Clinton brought special interest money to the party such as had never been seen before.”

During his annual retreats with friends from his section at business school such as former American Express head James Robinson and New York Stock Exchange member Lefty Lewis, Hodges began to doubt the chances for eventual success of “the conservative Democrats, those good folks who tried to bring about progressive change in the South within the Democratic Party. It then became clear to him that “Today it is the Republican Party that better values individual contribution and rejects class-based politics and understands economics..” On race-based politics, he recalled “seeing Jesse Jackson for the first time at North Carolina State Teachers College, when he threw tomatoes at my father.” The acceptance of Jackson and his pro-affirmative action stance by national Democrats was hard to take, Hodges told me, “after three generations of affirmative action have failed.”

Finally, in 2000, then-Arizona resident, Luther Hodges became what he called “a proud convert” to the Republican Party and helped State GOP Chairman Bob Fanin raise funds for state senate candidates. Returning to Chapel Hill, N.C., last year, Hodges contributed and raised money for Senate hopeful Burr even when it seemed he would be facing incumbent Edwards. He also keynoted the state Republican convention in Charlotte this year.

Inevitably, Hodges is asked what his father would have said about the course he has taken.

“I don’t think my father would have any reservations about my changing registration,” he told me, “He, too, would be shocked at the behavior of a very liberal party that has closed its ears and minds to many of us who were loyal supporters and would be particularly shocked by the crass political leadership that exists with the Democrats.”