PFAFFTOWN (AP) A powerbroker in North Carolina Democratic politics for 40 years who helped guide the elected careers of former Govs. Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt while pressing a forward-thinking mantra among state leaders has died.
Bert Bennett Jr. died July 16 at age 97 at his Pfafftown home from natural causes, Salem Funerals & Cremations manager Mosby Vogler said.
Bennett, a Winston-Salem native and partner in the family’s service station and oil business, managed Sanford’s 1960 gubernatorial campaign in which he defeated segregationist I. Beverly Lake Sr. in a Democratic primary runoff. Sanford went on to become a U.S. senator, presidential candidate and Duke University president.
Bennett later used the political organization he managed for Sanford to help Hunt get elected lieutenant governor in 1972, then on to the first of four terms as governor in 1976.
While southern states wrestled with integration in mid- to late 20th century, Bennett worked with candidates pushing for racial reconciliation and improving public education. He also encouraged Sanford to endorse John F. Kennedy for president in 1960 in an era when a Roman Catholic candidate faced obstacles to winning in the solid Protestant south.
“Bennett was the most important man in modern-day politics in North Carolina,” Hunt told The News & Observer. “He was progressive personally, but a strong, no-nonsense leader in business who was highly successful.”
Bennett was elected student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as an officer who helped land troops during the D-Day invasion.
Bennett was state Democratic Party chairman in the early 1960s, and he and Sanford helped operate Hubert Humphrey’s unsuccessful 1968 Democratic presidential campaign.
Phil Carlton, a former state Supreme Court justice and close Hunt ally, told the Winston-Salem Journal he first met Bennett while working on Sanford’s campaign. Bennett “was very unique. He was the most unselfish politician I ever met. He never asked for anything and he didn’t want anything.”
Bennett’s candidates suffered some defeats, including Richardson Preyer in the 1964 Democratic gubernatorial primary and Hunt in his epic 1984 U.S. Senate race with conservative icon Jesse Helms.
Bennett’s wife of 63 years, Joy, died in 2012. They had eight children, 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.