Hawke learned his lessons
RALEIGH — At the precise moment I heard that longtime Republican strategist Jack Hawke had finally lost his battle with cancer, I was editing a book chapter about the 1984 race for North Carolina’s governor. It was a pivotal campaign in the state’s political history, as the Democratic Party fractured and the Republican Party elected a man, Jim Martin, who would become the GOP’s only two-term governor to date.
That 1984 race was also a career-maker for Jack Hawke, who served as Martin’s campaign manager and as chairman of the state GOP during most of Martin’s tenure.
Hawke didn’t design the campaign’s successful strategy. Then-Congressman Martin relied on his longtime consultant Brad Hays, brother Joe Martin, and mentor Bob Bradshaw for that. But Hawke was integral to the execution of the strategy, which sought to exploit Democratic divisions while attaching Martin at the hip to the reelection bid of President Reagan.
When reporters needed information or a quick quote, they frequently got what they needed from Hawke. He was quick-witted and often witty. And he returned their calls.
The 1984 campaign was hardly Hawke’s first. After undergraduate education in New Jersey, where he chaired the College Republicans, Hawke came to North Carolina in 1964 to attend Duke University’s law school. Like many other transplants, he decided to stay. In 1966, he managed Jim Gardner’s surprising congressional victory over House Agriculture Committee Chairman Harold Cooley, who had represented eastern North Carolina in Washington for more than three decades.
In 1970, Jack Hawke learned a valuable political lesson, this time as a candidate. He was the Republican nominee for the 4th Congressional District against Democratic incumbent Nick Galifianakis. Knowing that Hawke would be sensitive about being a transplanted Yankee, the Galifianakis campaign ran a newspaper ad alleging that Hawke had resided in North Carolina for only four years.
Hawke took the bait. He called a press conference, brandished the ad, and angrily accused the Galifianakis campaign of printing a lie — because Hawke had actually lived in North Carolina for six years. According to Galifianakis strategist Grady Jefferys, the Democrats knew that all along. They had tricked Hawke into calling more media attention to his “carpetbagger” status than their own ad could have done. The press conference “altered the dynamics of the race,” Jefferys later wrote. Galifianakis won 52 percent of the vote.
From this episode, Hawke learned not to snap at every piece of bait he saw — and not to get in the way when an opponent was self-destructing. Near the end of Jim Martin’s first gubernatorial campaign, these lessons proved valuable.
During the 1984 Democratic primary, several of Rufus Edmisten’s rivals had not-so-subtly questioned his personal character. He had braced himself for similarly rough treatment from the Republicans. In late October, he received a copy of a letter on Martin campaign stationery that referred to Edmisten’s alleged “boozing,” “womanizing,” and consorting with “gamblers and dopers.”
Just as Hawke had done in 1970, Rufus Edmisten took the bait. He called a press conference on Oct. 24 and angrily disputed what he called Martin’s “smut sheet.” That guaranteed several rounds of press coverage of the letter’s allegations during the last few days of the 1984 campaign.
As it happened, the Martin campaign hadn’t tossed this particular bait. The fake letter was concocted by former Charlotte News reporter Max Veale, dismayed at being fired as Martin’s press spokesman in July after being arrested for solicitation. His motive seems to have been to embarrass both candidates — Edmisten with the character attacks and Martin with the image of a dirty campaigner.
But Hawke, Hays, and the Martin campaign didn’t bite. They calmly but firmly denied all knowledge of the letter and then got out of Edmisten’s way. Their strategy, Hawke explained, was “to make sure the message gets out that nobody is circulating that stuff except Rufus Edmisten.”
Lesson learned. North Carolina politics will be a lot less colorful without Jack Hawke thick in the middle of it, as he was for five decades. R.I.P.