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Jack Hawke helped shape modern NC GOP

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CHUCK LIDDY - 2000 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
Jack Hawke, former Republican Party chairman for North Carolina and longtime Republican consultant, died Monday at age 72.

RALEIGH When Jack Hawke was a Duke University law student in the 1960s, North Carolina was a Democratic pond. But Hawke, who died at age 72 on Monday, spent much of his life working to change that.

For nearly 50 years, Hawke lived and breathed Tar Heel Republican politics – as a strategist, as a party chairman, as a two-time congressional candidate, as a campaign manager and as the head of a conservative think tank.

“I think if you looked at where the Republican Party is today in the state of North Carolina, the architect of that was Jack Hawke,” said former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner of Rocky Mount. “He had a brilliant mind. He had a vision that North Carolina could be a competitive two-party state. He never wavered from that.

“If you look around today and see a Republican governor and Republican legislature, we can all thank Jack Hawke.”

On Tuesday morning, GOP Gov. Pat McCrory had difficulty talking about Hawke, who was the chief strategist for his two gubernatorial campaigns. It was Hawke who tutored the former Charlotte mayor on state politics. And some think McCrory’s first year in office would have gone smoother if Hawke had not been battling brain cancer.

“He was not just an adviser,” McCrory said. “He was a mentor and a friend. He was like an uncle-father figure for me. He was a man with an extremely positive outlook on life. He had a big impact on my life in the last six years. I am going to miss his laugh, and I am going to miss my arguments with him. We always challenged each other. I loved him a great deal.”

While Hawke was on a first-name basis with all the state’s modern GOP governors – McCrory, Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser – he also knew and mentored a couple of generations of Tar Heel GOP activists.

Hawke was among the first wave of transplants who helped transform Tar Heel politics. The son of a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania – his accent never seemed to soften – he came South to go to law school.

He was still in law school when he worked on Gardner’s unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1964. Two years later, he managed Gardner’s successful campaign – a major upset that sent home Democratic Rep. Harold Cooley, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and one of the most powerful men in Washington.

It was a campaign that would remain a Hawke favorite. Hawke went to Washington as chief of staff for Gardner, who was the cutting edge of conservative politics in North Carolina before the rise of Sen. Jesse Helms.

Hawke could not win election himself, losing close congressional elections to Nick Galifiankis in 1970 and to Ike Andrews in 1972.

His campaign driver for the 1972 race was 16-year-old Art Pope, who is now McCrory’s budget director and a major Republican fundraiser. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Hawke later led the Civitas Institute, a conservative advocacy group started by Pope.

Happy warrior

Hawke’s style was always the happy warrior. He was a natural extrovert with a ready smile, a sunny disposition and a quip. His trademark expression: “Fan-tastic.”

“He was always so positive and enthusiastic, even in the face of adversity, in bad results as well as good results,” Pope said. “He was knowledgeable. He was able to present advice, even when it was not appreciated, in a positive fashion. He can tell the bad news along with the good news.”

Even when he delivered bad news, Pope said, Hawke always had a plan of action.

“He never held grudges that I knew about,” Gardner said. “And in politics that is a hard thing to do sometimes.”

He was devoted to his wife, Grace, and their five children and was a little league baseball coach. In recent years, they lived in Zebulon.

Rough politics

But Hawke could also be a tough politico. During Gardner’s campaign for lieutenant governor in 1988 against Democrat Tony Rand, a defense attorney, he accused Rand of being cozy with drug dealers. Hawke arranged for a speed boat of the type that Rand had received as payment to be hauled around to Rand rallies. When Rand sued, Gardner later issued an apology.

Rand would later say such tactics were “pretty typical of his modus operandi – slash and burn.”

During the 1990 Senate race, in which Republican Sen. Jesse Helms was in a tight race against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, an African-American, the state GOP under Hawke’s leadership mailed 125,000 postcards into black neighborhoods warning of possible voter fraud and providing misleading information about registration. The state GOP later settled a Bush administration Justice Department suit, denying any wrongdoing but promising not to use any similar “ballot security” program in the future.

But Hawke thought he had been on the receiving end of some pretty rough politics, too, blaming his 1978 federal prosecution on partisan politics.

He had been found guilty of trying to use his post as co-chairman of the Coastal Plains Commission to illegally obtain a federal government loan for a business in which he had an interest. The conviction was overturned on appeal in 1980. But it made him unelectable as a candidate and politically radioactive.

Hawke’s political career was rescued in 1984, when Jim Martin asked him to manage his campaign for governor. In an interview Tuesday, Martin said he had his legal adviser do a background check and decided that Hawke had been “abused” by the prosecution and that he was an “honorable” person.

Martin later decided that politics, not government, was Hawke’s strong suit and recommended him for state GOP chairman, a post he held from 1987 to 1995, the longest run in state history.

“He had a superior understanding of the importance of organizing volunteers, getting them involved and giving them things to do,” Martin said. “He was a tactician – oiling the gears, turning the crank, making the machinery of a campaign work.”

Big tent Republican

Hawke was always a big tent Republican, seeking ways to build the party. He never stopped trying to reach out to African-Americans. He had nearly a father-son relationship with Thomas Stith, an African-American who is McCrory’s chief of staff.

Gardner said that Hawke was both a conservative and a pragmatist.

“I think Jack was basically a very strong conservative,” Gardner said. “He was more practical probably than I was.”

Hawke always thought that politics was an honorable calling.

“I have never in a long career seen the very bad side of politics,” Hawke once said. “I’ve never seen bribes offered or taken. I’ve never seen votes sold. I’ve never seen people desert their principles to do something for a contribution or for a kickback.

“I’m proud of being involved in the process. It gives you an opportunity to do something constructive and do something positive to make this a better world for people to live in.”

“I’m still an idealist after all these years.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532; Twitter: @oldpolhack
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