As the founder of one of North Carolina’s largest companies, James Edgar Broyhill helped build high-quality, durable furniture. His son James Thomas Broyhill, who died February 18 at the age of 95, helped build something just as lasting: the North Carolina Republican Party.
For most of the elder Broyhill’s lifetime, the GOP was a minor player in state politics. Outside of a few counties, Republicans rarely posed any challenge to Democrats. North Carolina held highly competitive elections, mind you, but they were in the spring, the Democratic primaries.
Ed Broyhill, as the furniture magnate was called, never sought public office, though he served on the Republican National Committee for 28 years. It was his son Jim Broyhill who, after many years in the family business, decided in 1962 to try his hand at a different profession: politician.
It was the first election cycle after the 1960 census, which revealed that North Carolina’s slow growth had cost it one of its 12 U.S. House seats. The ruling Democrats resolved to sacrifice the only seat they didn’t hold, the Charlotte-area 8th District represented by Republican Charlie Jonas.
So they drew an audacious gerrymander, swapping precincts with the neighboring 9th District of Democrat Hugh Quincy Alexander. The Democratic maneuver backfired, however, as such schemes often do. Charlie Jonas was a skilled campaigner with lots of crossover appeal. And the 1962 midterms proved to be a good cycle for Republicans, nationally and in North Carolina.
Moreover, the GOP nominee for the 9th District, Jim Broyhill, brought not only a familiar surname but his own impressive talents to the campaign. He was smart, personable, and disciplined. Even as Jonas clobbered his Democratic opponent with 56% of the vote, Broyhill edged out Alexander by a margin of 50.5% to 49.5%.
As a GOP freshman in what was still the overwhelmingly Democratic capital of Washington, Broyhill leaned heavily on advice from Jonas, North Carolina’s “Mr. Republican,” as well as minority leader Charles Halleck of Indiana and future president Gerald Ford of Michigan. A decade later, it was Jim Broyhill’s turn to mentor the up-and-coming Republican who’d replaced Jonas in the Charlotte-area House district, Jim Martin.
In my biography of the future governor, Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans, I relate a conversation between the two men after the disastrous 1976 elections in which Jimmy Carter defeated President Ford and Republicans lost 49 seats in the U.S. House, four in the U.S. Senate, four governorships, and hundreds of other offices. By this time Broyhill was assisting minority leader John Rhodes in assigning Republicans to committees. Martin wanted to serve on Appropriations, as Jonas had, but Broyhill wanted him on the tax-writing committee, Ways and Means.
Martin protested that he didn’t know much about taxes. Broyhill suggested that his colleague, a former college professor, start studying up. He foresaw that tax policy would be a major issue in the coming years. Broyhill was right, of course. Martin became one of the earliest supply-siders, along with his friends Jack Kemp and Trent Lott — though unlike them, Martin served on the relevant committee and thus could mark up tax bills.
In 1986, two years into Jim Martin’s first term as North Carolina’s governor, it was his turn to tap Jim Broyhill, in this case to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Republican John East’s suicide. Both Congressman Broyhill and former Ambassador David Funderburk were seeking the GOP nomination (East had previously announced his retirement). By picking Broyhill for the open seat, Martin gave him an edge in the primary — and provoked the wrath of the Jesse Helms-aligned Congressional Club, which backed Funderburk.
Broyhill won the primary but lost the general election to Terry Sanford. Broyhill then served in Martin’s cabinet as commerce secretary. Both men were effective diplomats, working to heal the breach with the Helms wing.
Jim Broyhill and his generation of Republicans built a lasting legacy in North Carolina and beyond. R.I.P.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).