John A. Williams, Jr., who died this week, was one of the big reasons Jim Hunt was a successful governor.
John A. looked and talked like your kindly grandfather. But he was tough as a Mafia don.
Few people remember that Hunt had a sometimes-rocky first year, especially when it came to managing his staff and Cabinet departments.
So Hunt brought in Joe Pell and John A. Both men were in their sixties. They had made their money, and they were independent. And they had been in and around politics and business all their lives.
Pell handled politics, patronage and the staff. Williams handled the budget, the Cabinet and the legislature.
John A. had a way of getting into the little group of powerful legislators that always resolved the budget at the end of the session. That was crucial in the days when the governor didn’t have the veto.
Even though he was more conservative and tight-fisted than Governor Hunt and many of us young liberals, he would always find the money for whatever project Hunt was excited about that day.
And if you crossed the Governor, John A. would cut you off at the knees.
I remember one Democratic legislator who explained – during the tough fight to raise the gas tax in 1981 – that he was sorry, but he had promised his constituents that he wouldn’t vote for the tax. Governor Hunt said he understood. John A. said he understand, too. The next day, money for a community college in the legislator’s district mysteriously disappeared from the budget. It went instead to the district of a “yes” voter.
I’m finishing a biography of Governor that will be published this fall (knock on wood). The more I study Hunt’s 16 years of success in the governor’s office, the more I realize how important John A. is to the story.