Jack Hawke is not a household name. But he has impacted the entire state. Even Robeson.
A veteran political strategist, Hawke is the architect of the modern North Carolina Republican Party. He was the longest serving state chairman, from 1987 to 1995, and if you wanted to be a Republican governor, you called Jack Hawke. Hawke led the only Republican governors to victory since Reconstruction. He advised Gov. Jim Martin, then most recently Gov. Pat McCrory and countless other campaigns. He transformed the party with an encyclopedic knowledge of state politics and political acumen.
A cheerful political warrior who loved the game, Hawke was a political genius. He mentored political operatives across the state, including those in Robeson. He even took a special interest in political modeling being done here.
Jack’s health suddenly declined after the last gubernatorial race, when he was 72. He could barely help with the McCrory transition, which caused early bumps in the governor’s ability to get the new administration off the ground. Jack Hawke was that important to the team. Actually, those early days would have been more dependent on Hawke than the governor.
The current state GOP Chairman Claude Pope described Jack as having a tremendous devotion to North Carolina possessed with sheer political brilliance and a legendary sense of humor. The governor called him a trusted mentor, friend and father figure.
Jack mentored a generation of GOP operatives, as he was simply a kind man, never personally speaking ill of anyone. His knowledge of politics was vast. He orchestrated the first Republican majorities in the state House in one hundred years. North Carolina leans Republican due to his leadership known mostly by operatives, as Jack preferred being behind the scenes. Interestingly, Robeson factors heavily in determining that lean.
Most believe you have to campaign in 100 counties to win a statewide election. It isn’t true. Each county has a unique set of politics and only over a dozen really impact a state election. Robeson is not a battleground county, but numerically a decisive one nonetheless.
Though considered a “Democratic” stronghold, the term is a misnomer. In state and federal races, nearly half of Robeson precincts vote Republican. These are precincts that if targeted with good candidates elected David Edge and G.L. Pridgen as the first Republicans elected to county and state offices since Reconstruction.
By caveat, there are enough precincts countywide that either lean Republican or are toss-ups to affect a countywide race as well. Jack Hawke watched the success of these targeted approaches in Robeson during 2010 and was aware the local GOP is gearing up for countywide runs. Why would a prominent state operative like Hawke be interested in places like Robeson?
Robeson is a lynchpin of sorts for state Democrats. It has loyally delivered for Democrats even when the rest of the state votes Republican. But both parties have rewarded this loyalty with indifference.
Farsighted Democrats take Robeson for granted while nearsighted Republicans discount it. Jack Hawke and local Republicans are less myopic.
Robeson has a core of conservative Democrats. Working with conservative Democrats supported by growing unaffiliated ranks and a GOP base is the key to electing Republicans.
If Republican candidates become a consistently credible threat in Robeson, both parties paradoxically benefit. Jack Hawke and GOP officials understand how this impacts North Carolina.
Robeson historically is so democratically extreme, it is a barometer of sorts for state politics. The nation hinges on swings states. States hinge on swing counties. If Robeson becomes a battleground county with two viable parties, it automatically becomes a state powerhouse that candidates on both sides must patronize. Then everyone in Robeson wins.
Jack Hawke helped develop GOP strategies from Robeson to Raleigh. Those of us he mentored are fortunate to have benefitted from his knowledge. Possessed with impeccable political timing, Jack passed away on the eve of the recent general election. Typical Jack Hawke. North Carolina will miss him.
Phillip Stephens is the chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.