The news that North Carolina State Sen. Hamilton Horton, Jr., died January 31 at age 74 after a long bout with cancer brought tears to the eyes of his fellow Republicans as well as of many Democratic opponents.
A former chief of staff to Sen. (1972-2002) Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.), Horton was, like his former boss and longtime friend, a committed conservative whose vast knowledge of parliamentary procedure was deployed to tie up liberal legislation. But even diehard opponents admired the Winston-Salem lawmaker’s oratory, encyclopedic knowledge of world history and elfin wit.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina and its law school, Horton served in the U.S. Navy Reserve and launched a thriving law practice in his home town of Winston-Salem. While friend Helms was still a Democrat in 1968, Horton won election to the state House as a Republican and moved on to the state Senate after one term. In short order, he became minority leader. But he left the legislature in 1974 to work in Washington as Helms’ chief of staff. When Helms was learning the Senate ropes and battling the Carter Administration on issues ranging from the Panama Canal giveaway to creation of the Department of Education, Horton was at his side.
In 1978, Horton took on Democratic Rep. (1974-94) Steve Neal. Hiking and canoeing more than 218 miles in the seven-county district, Horton hit hard at the incumbent and the Carter Administration for mounting inflation, welfare abuses, and Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano’s anti-smoking campaign that hurt the state’s farmers and his attempt to force the state’s university system to knuckle under to HEW guidelines. ("Califano is making war on North Carolina," declared Horton). But the race wasn’t very close in the Democratic-leaning district and Horton lost to Neal 53% to 47%.
Twenty years after he had left the legislature, Horton was returned to office in 1994. With his trademark bow-tie and ever-present Camel cigarettes, Horton used his intellectual and oratorical firepower to fight government spending in state budgets and change the way legislators drew districts. He was also a generous donor to conservative causes and a regular participant in the John Locke Foundation’s forums on public policy.
"If government could be downsized and made more responsive to individuals," Senate Democratic Leader Marc Basnight said of Horton, "He could cast that argument in the most eloquent and beautiful language — he could debate an issue more articulately than anyone I’ve seen in my 22 years in the Senate."