The bitter regional debate over brown lung disease has become an issue in Gov. Jim Hunt's campaign to become the first North Carolina governor to win reelection in over a century.
The Hunt administration's handling of compensation claims by textile workers contending they are disabled by byssinosis, or brown lung disease, has drawn fire from Hunt's opponent in today's Democratic primary, former governor Bob Scott, and from the Brown Lung Association (BLA), an organization of retired textile mill workers.
Byssinosis is a chronic lung disease that results from inhaling cotton dust.
The illness has disabled about 18,000 cotton mill workers in the Carolinas, over half the nation's total.
In April Hunt endorsed the recommendations of a commission he set up to study ways of eliminating delays in the state Industrial Commission's processing of brown lung claims.
The twenty-five recommendations seek to encourage quicker decisions by increasing the commission's staff and requiring more complete information and quicker action by attorneys, employers, insurance carriers and examining physicians.
But Hunt's opponent and the BLA have attacked the commission's work.
Scott, governor of North Carolina from 1968 to 1972, said Hunt limited the scope of the study commission to the problem of red tape on claims to shift attention from more basic inequities in his administration's dealings with byssinosis victims.
The Industrial Commission's handling of claims reflected "the policies of the governor, which are obviously and blatantly oriented toward big business, industry, and power," Scott said.
Florence Sandlin, the BLA representative on the governor's seven-member study commission, said the panel's recommendations failed to deal with the larger issue of the Industrial Commission's lack of "basic fairness" to mill workers.
The association's demands for an investigation of the state agency and the dismissal of its chairman, William Stephenson, led to Hunt's establishment of the study commission in December.
Scott said if he were governor he would remove the Industrial Commission from the state's "industry-oriented" Department of Commerce.
The most direct responce to Scott's charges has come from William A. Klopman, chairman of the board of the nation's largest textile company, Burlington Industries Inc. of Greensboro.
"The issue of byssinosis has become a very emotional one," Klopman wrote in a March letter to the Charlotte Observer, "and Gov. Hunt has wisely attempted to remove it from the political arena so that medically sound decisions can be made . . . The political diatribe of candidate Scott in no way helps clarify the situation. Instead, it could threaten the jobs of thousands of North Carolinians employed in the cotton textile industry."
Campaign contribution reporst filed with the state Board of Elections in Raleigh indicate the textile industry has not remained aloof from politics.
Hunt holds a virtual monopoly on campaign contributions from the industry's executives, with the top management of companies like Burlington, Fieldcrest Mills and the Hanes Corp. listed among his contributors.
James H. Martin Jr., president of Ti-Caro Inc. of Gastonia and a past president of the North Carolina Textile Manufacturers Association, was appointed to Hunt's brown lung study panel Dec. 27.
Four days later, Martin's company formed a political action committee, the Ti-Caro Committee for Good Government, with reported contributions of $1,000 to Hunt's primary campaign.
Former governor Scott is quick to acknowledge that he was on friendlier terms with textile executives and other industrialists when he was elected in 1968.
"I was part of the political machine that is now running Gov. Hunt," said Scott, who went to work for the N.C. Agribusiness Council when he left the Governor's mansion.
"They're the 'money people' in the state," he said. "That's why I can't raise the money he's got." The Hunt campaign has reported contributions nearly eight times greater than Scott's, $1.2 million to $152,000.
But for a constitutional amendment he secured in 1977, Hunt would not be running this year. A law passed when North Carolina returned to the Union in 1868 prohibited its governor from serving two consecutive terms. Scott has attacked Hunt's successful efforts to strike down the old statute as the kind of "abuse of power" the law was designed to prevent.