Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Another of Jim Hunt's wise old men dies

When I turned to the obituaries in my N&O this morning and read about the death of John A. Williams -- known for decades in Raleigh as simply "John A." -- I knew there would be many who mourn his passing and others who may just breathe a sigh of relief. Williams, a successful businessman, was not just one of a number of people who helped Jim Hunt become a successful governor in his first two terms in office. He was also one of those who enforced party discipline where it was needed -- and was quite willing to knock a few heads to get things done.

Hunt turned to John A. and Joe Pell during his first term, when the wheels of his government were threatening to come off, and between them the two graybeards brought discipline, order and focus to a young governor's administration. Pell, a nursing home chain operator, and Williams knew what a bright young governor needed -- some wise counsel from old hands, the ability (in Pell) to soothe bruised feelings and keep the political machine running and the backbone (in Williams) to make sure that votes got delivered in the legislature and that what Hunt wanted in the budget wound up there.

Pell was as smooth as John A. was direct. Pell once told me that he had majored in catching hell, and that's pretty much what his job with Hunt was all about. Someone would be mad as fire at Hunt about something, and Joe would call him and they'd talk for a couple of hours and before the day was out, things would be pretty much patched up. Pell died in 1997.

Gary Pearce, Hunt's press secretary at the time, has a good story about John A. here.

Jack Nichols, a Raleigh attorney, had this remembrance:

"My favorite John A story: Ran (Coble)and I were young lawyers at DHR (Department of Human Resources); he had been there almost a year and had recruited me to come work with him for Dr. (Sarah) Morrow. In fact, I was still in my probationary period. The State and DHR got sued in the Willie M. lawsuit. Dr. Morrow convenes a meeting of her Assistant Secretaries, staff, Division Directors, a couple of lawyers from the AG's Office and me and Ran; there must have been 25 people meeting to decide how the State would respond to this lawsuit. The meeting convenes in the 4th Floor Conference Room in the Albemarle Building, which had a series of long conference tables which were easily 30-40 feet in combined length. John A. joins the meeting, Dr. Morrow convenes it, and suggests that everyone around the table introduce themselves and where they worked. John A. added, 'And tell us whether or not your position is exempt.' The people around the table reacted visibly. He had effectively told everyone who was exempt that they would be voting with the Governor and him on the decisions that would be coming out of the meeting. Just one example of how he knew the levers of power and how to get decisions out of State government."

Me, I just liked to listen to him. John A's office in the old Capitol was a quiet place, and every now and again I'd drop in and ask him how things were going. John A. would smile a twinkly, grandfatherly smile, say something like, "Now, you can't print this, but…" and then tell a tale of hardball politics in language that fairly smoldered with heat and radiated satisfaction at giving some poor soul his due.

They'll be telling John A. stories in Raleigh for the next few days, I expect.


Ann said...
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Ann said...
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