One afternoon last summer, Burlington Mayor Ian Baltutis was sorting through novels and paperbacks in his used-book store when he answered a call on his cell phone. A campaign donor had a request.
The city council had just voted to apply for a $25 million federal grant to revamp one of its busiest, most unsightly thoroughfares. It runs from Interstate 40/85 to downtown Burlington, a city of 55,000 residents about 20 miles east of Greensboro.
Sam Hunt, a former state legislator and state transportation secretary who owns a business along the corridor, told the mayor he wanted the application withdrawn, Baltutis told The Assembly.
“That’s not how that works,” Baltutis, who was running for a fourth term, recalled telling Hunt. “This is a community-developed plan.”
Hunt asked for his $5,600 campaign donation back and threatened to fund other campaigns instead.
Two months after the call, Hunt got his wish about Maple Avenue.
The city council, which had supported the road renovations three years in a row with unanimous votes, rescinded the plan in September with a 3-2 vote.
Then Baltutis, who was first elected mayor when he was 30 years old, lost his reelection bid in November.
Seventeen groups, businesses, and politicians, including then–U.S. Rep. Mark Walker and two state legislators, had written separate letters of support for the Maple Avenue plan. A steering committee of citizens held public meetings and workshops, and conducted a survey. The city spent nearly $200,000 to hire a consultant to help develop the plan and submit applications.
Dejuana Bigelow, who was involved in the Maple Avenue community discussions, was disappointed when the grant proposal was withdrawn.
“That area needs help,” Bigelow, who ran unsuccessfully for city council last year, said in an interview. “One man was so tied in with our officials that he had enough pull to actually change the minds of the people on our city council.”
Hunt disputes that he asked Baltutis to withdraw the grant application, but confirmed that he called the mayor to oppose the plan and asked for his campaign contribution to be returned.
Hunt said the Maple Avenue plan had morphed from a beautification project to a boondoggle that would have reduced the number of lanes, increased congestion, and hurt businesses along the road. Hunt, who originally supported the project, said few people in Burlington knew that it went far beyond sprucing up the road’s appearance.
“It was sold as a beautification, but it became an obliteration of Maple Avenue,” Hunt told The Assembly recently. “I make no apologies for getting involved and helping defeat this plan. It isn’t just defeated. It’s dead and buried and gone.”
That irks Baltutis. “Democracy relies on the fact that everybody’s voice matters equally, and one person saying, ‘This is what I want, and you better do it’—it’s not how democracy works,’” the former mayor said.
But maybe that is how democracy works in a small city in North Carolina, at least sometimes. How Hunt, a Democratic Party giant who has a stretch of highway named for him in Alamance County, helped killed the Maple Avenue proposal shows how a single wealthy, influential person with political savvy can influence public policy—and win.
If you drive in North Carolina, Sam Hunt has shaped the way you do it.
The Alamance County native spent eight years in the North Carolina House from 1985 to 1992, and gained expertise in transportation matters. He sponsored bills to increase the speed limit to 65 mph on the interstate and create the Highway Trust Fund, which imposed taxes and fees on fuel, highway use, and title-and-registrations to fund transportation projects.
“He was quite an effective legislator,” says former state Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, a Republican. Democrats held the legislative majority then, but Hunt and some renegade Democrats joined forces with Rhyne and Republicans to oust Democratic House Speaker Liston Ramsey in a historic coup in 1989.
“He was a direct person,” Rhyne said of Hunt. “We never had to guess where he stood, which is a valuable thing when you’re working together.”
Hunt left the General Assembly in 1992 after a recession forced him to focus on his business. He had helped his father open Hunt Electric Supply in 1971, which now operates nine stores across the state.
“Power and money are hard to come by, and I hate to give up either one,” Hunt told the Greensboro News & Record then. “But if it comes to giving up either, I’d rather give up power than my business.”
Soon after he left power, Hunt regained even more of it. In 1993, Jim Hunt, who was elected governor again after having served two terms in the 1970s and 1980s, tapped Sam Hunt to head one of the most powerful agencies in state government: the Department of Transportation. (The two men are not related.)
After two years, Sam Hunt left that position to serve as the unpaid chairman for the governor’s re-election committee.
Few were surprised when Gov. Hunt appointed Sam Hunt as his transportation secretary. Sam Hunt had established himself as an effective politician, a successful businessman, and a committed fundraiser.
According to state and federal election reports, he and his wife, Vicky, have donated almost $420,000 to candidates from both parties over the past four decades.
The couple contributed $12,000 to Jim Hunt’s election effort in 1992. And as co-chairman of the governor’s campaign in Alamance County, Sam Hunt helped bring in more than $130,000 in contributions from the county, according to the News & Record.
A former legislative colleague described Hunt as a strong-willed operator who knows how to get things done.
“If I had Sam on my team, I’ll put him as a linebacker, so he can go smash people,” says former Rep. David Diamont, a Democrat from Surry County and a high-school football coach. “Sam always had a strong opinion about things, and he always worked hard to get what he wanted.”
Diamont was also part of the coalition that ousted Ramsey as Speaker—as was Roy Cooper, who is now governor.
One night years ago, Diamont, Hunt, and a few of their legislative colleagues drove to a UNC basketball game. They were late, and there was no parking.
“Sam just drove right up in the daggone median, and we all just got out and went in,” Diamont recalled, laughing. “It’s like it was his home or something. That was sort of Sam.”
Maple Avenue is one of four gateways into Burlington off Interstate 40/85. For many, it is the preferred route to downtown, about 2.5 miles away.
It’s not much to look at. It includes thick overhead utility cables, run-down buildings, wide stretches of surface parking lots, large billboards, a disorienting intersection, and some abandoned businesses. The city’s land-use plan in 2015 described the corridor as “bleak and uninviting.”
The road has a posted speed limit of 45 mph near the Interstate, changing to 35 closer to downtown. It carries about 20,000 cars per day at the intersection of I-40/85, with less traffic as a driver gets farther from the Interstate.
And it can be dangerous. A row of homes sits just a dozen feet from the road—perilously close, given that over 2,300 cars have crashed on Maple Avenue in the last decade.
Vanessa Diggs, a retired teacher and a community organizer, bought her house on Maple Avenue 18 years ago. Diggs, who grew up in a subsidized apartment with five siblings, had always wanted the one-and-a-half-story house with white siding.
“When I was a little girl on the bus ride back and forth to school, I would say, ‘This is going to be my house,’” said Diggs.
In 2018, Diggs attended a public session on the Maple Avenue plan. “We were really excited about it because it was going to bring our community together, and our property values would’ve gone up,” she said.
She and her husband have always worried about the speed of traffic, and the plan called for fewer lanes to force drivers to slow down.
“This is like a racetrack out here,” said her husband, Billy Diggs, as he sat across the living room from her and talked over the sound of cars whizzing by.
The plan called for reducing most of the five-lane road to two lanes, and creating pedestrian and bike paths. Trees, median landscaping, and street furniture would be added to transform the road, making it less of a highway and more like a welcoming city street.
“Transformational change requires a clear, collective vision and support of stakeholders,” Walker wrote in a 2019 letter supporting the project. “We are pleased to see that dozens of stakeholders worked together to solidify a plan that aims to spur economic development.”
Hunt told The Assembly that most people didn’t know that the plan would reduce the number of lanes. But that’s always been part of the plan, according to Burlington transportation director Mike Nunn. “It was widely publicized,” Nunn said in an interview.
The current road, Baltutis said, reflects what was considered best practice decades ago.
“I think he’s still in that mindset,” he said of Hunt. “The road ends up being not safe, and it depresses property values, and it’s not actually good for business.”
The city wanted $25 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the first 1.5 miles of the project, hoping to tap into federal grants for communities with large projects. Last year, that program funded about $44 million in projects in Durham, Charlotte, and High Point.
The total cost of the Maple Avenue plan was estimated at $50 million. The city would not have been required to match the federal money. It had not adopted a plan for how it would get the remaining funding, although it had listed options, including seeking money from the state.
When the project failed to move forward last year, Vanessa Diggs didn’t think much of it. The application had been rejected again, she thought.
Now, she is vowing to mobilize her neighbors after learning that the plan was withdrawn before the federal government had made a decision.
“Since 2017 you’ve had us [believe] this is going to happen for our community, and now it’s withdrawn, and you didn’t come back and ask us anything,” said Diggs, who is Black. “With all of the things—with the crime, the safety issues, and with building up this community—you owe us resubmitting that application, because we are a priority.”
Hunt, now 80, spends about half his time at his house in Palm Beach, Florida. But he still has his home in Burlington and remains active in the community.
In late June 2021, he asked Mayor Baltutis for a left-turn lane to be added to the Maple Avenue plan to allow vehicles to enter his business. Baltutis, himself a businessman, considered it a reasonable request, and because it didn’t require drastic changes to the plan, it was accommodated by the city.
It wasn’t enough.
About three weeks later, Baltutis received another call from Hunt, who firmly opposed the plan and asked for his campaign contribution back. Baltutis stood by the grant request and did not return the contribution.
Unable to convince the mayor, Hunt began a campaign to kill the plan. He later confirmed that he invited the city manager to his office on Maple Avenue to express his displeasure.
He met again with the city manager, his assistant, and Burlington’s transportation director to air his frustration about the plan, this time in a conference room at the city manager’s office.
Then he reached out to the men who had the power to do something about it: three members of the Burlington City Council who had previously voted for the project.
“Much of the information contained in the Grant Application is either misleading, unverified or untrue,” Hunt wrote in an email to the council members, which was obtained by The Assembly. “The plan also damages other businesses, by reducing access for those located on the connecting streets. … This plan is a result of the Consultant’s desire to propose a plan that U.S. DOT likes without regard to what is good for our city.”
On September 21, council member Harold Owen made a motion to rescind the grant application. The motion passed with the support of two other council members, Jim Butler and Bob Ward. All three had previously voted in favor of the application.
A few hours after the vote, Hunt commended the three men. “You did the right thing. Talk soon,” he said in an email to them that was obtained by The Assembly.
Baltutis and council member Kathy Hykes backed the plan. Hykes said dozens of people who lived or worked along the road supported the plan; some had even upgraded their properties in anticipation of the project.
“I’m disappointed that this is even coming up,” said Hykes at the meeting. “I’m really puzzled by it.”
Two of the three council members who voted to rescind the grant application were running for office last year in what would become one of the most expensive municipal elections in Burlington’s history.
Not long after Hunt talked with Baltutis the second time, Hunt’s wife Vicky and son, Sam Hunt IV, donated to Owen, a former Burlington city manager who was seeking a second term on the council. Sam Hunt had already donated the maximum amount for the primary to Owen just a few days before.
All three Hunts contributed again to Owen for the November election. Owen raised over $63,000, of which 45 percent came from Hunt and his family, according to an Assembly analysis of campaign-finance reports.
Butler, who ran for mayor against the incumbent Baltutis, raised almost $69,000, and received $11,600 from Hunt, his wife, and his son. Baltutis raised just over $47,000.
Hunt said there was nothing unusual about making large campaign contributions to Owen and Butler. He pushed back against suggestions that the donations had influenced council members to rescind the grant application.
“That’s the most absurd thing anyone could ever say,” he said. “I wanted to see Ian beat.”
Hunt said he expected the council members to listen to his concerns, but doesn’t believe his donations played a major role in their decision to reverse their positions.
“I have a long history of giving very generous campaign donations over the last 40 years to many candidates that I feel will be good elected officials at the city, county, state, and federal level—including large donations, which I now regret, to the former mayor,” Hunt wrote in an email to The Assembly.
In an interview in the mayor’s office, Butler and Owen said their decision to withdraw the application had little to do with Hunt’s opposition or his donations.
Both men said they’d always had reservations about the plan, chief among them the absence of support from the state Department of Transportation. DOT staffers were involved in developing the Maple Avenue plan, but the department did not take a position on it. “The department normally refrains from directly supporting local plans,” DOT said in a statement released to The Assembly.
Besides, the grant had very little chance of success, said Butler, adding that the city had failed with it twice before.
Butler and Owen echoed some of Hunt’s concerns about the plan. It would have been too expensive, they said, and tweaks had been made to it that they hadn’t been aware of before they’d voted. And even though the federal grant would not have required any matching funds from the city, both men said they were concerned that the city would be forced to fund the rest of the project.
“This is not a political issue, this is a practical issue,” Butler said. “Our former mayor tried to make it a political issue and pin it on Sam Hunt. That was not fair. It’s not fair to anyone. There were multiple people who did not want this project.”
Owen said that it’s not the first time Hunt has contributed to his campaign, and that Hunt’s interest in the city goes well beyond Maple Avenue. Hunt and his wife have been generous donors to community causes, including spearheading efforts to modernize the animal shelter in Burlington.
“It’s unfortunate that this thing is coming up now about political contributions or things of that nature, and it appears it may be coming from someone who may have an ax to grind,” says Owen. “But that’s just not the case here.”
Butler and Owen say they still support the revitalization of Maple Avenue. But they could not say when they’ll resend the application.
Baltutis moved to Burlington from Minnesota to study business entrepreneurship at Elon University in 2006. After graduation, he spent three years working at the Honda plant in nearby Swepsonville.
In 2013, he helped establish a cooperative brewery and restaurant in downtown Burlington and served as co-op president. A friend urged Baltutis, a political novice, to run for mayor that year; he ran and lost. In 2014, he ran for the state legislature and failed again.
In 2015, when he was 30 years old, Baltutis ran again for mayor. This time he won, becoming the youngest mayor in Burlington history.
“I personally knocked on thousands of doors across the community and had great conversations with folks,” Baltutis said. “I didn’t see that from previous administrations and previous leadership.”
He was reelected in 2017 and 2019.
Then came the Maple Avenue dust-up. But that wasn’t the only issue at play in the races last fall for mayor and city council, which are nonpartisan positions.
The field included a potent mix of establishment candidates and those with more progressive views, leading to the most expensive municipal elections in Burlington history and the highest turnout in decades.
Butler, Owen, and former mayor Ronnie Wall ran as the law-and-order candidates and were endorsed by Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson.
Baltutis and two other candidates—Dejuana Bigelow and former county commissioner Bob Byrd, who ran on a more progressive agenda—were portrayed by opponents as liberal activists.
Burlington, which is about 28 percent Black, had no Black member on the council. Bigelow, who was trying to change that, ran for a council seat against Owen, who raised three times more money than she did.
“I feel like people supported me because I’ve been in the community,” she said. “But we underestimated … how much money plays a part, because people from my community usually don’t come from money.”
As an Alamance commissioner, Byrd was the first to advocate for removing the Confederate monument at the courthouse in Graham. He also opposed the 287(g) program, a partnership between the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allowed the sheriff to detain undocumented immigrants.
On October 29, a few days before the election, Wall’s campaign texted voters and urged them to vote. It said, “Stop the activists from taking over our local government and vote Butler, Wall, and Owen.”
After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, Baltutis joined protesters in Burlington marching against police brutality, and called for the removal of the Confederate statue in Graham.
“I feel it’s the role of our elected leaders to actually push themselves out of their comfort zone, and get out and understand the community to really represent it,” he told The Assembly.
A series of fliers were distributed to voters during the city election campaign. One of them showed a picture of Baltutis among protesters, raising a clenched fist.
“This is what can happen when you don’t vote,” it said, warning of “a partisan political activist with a left-wing agenda.”
Burlington overwhelmingly voted Democratic in the 2016 and 2020 elections for president. But last fall, Baltutis and his running mates, Bigelow and Byrd, were soundly defeated.
Inside the tidy offices at Hunt Electric Supply Co., a 1997 resolution naming a portion of Interstate 40/85 “Sam Hunt Freeway” hangs next to a plaque recognizing the Hunts for a $3 million gift to Elon University.
In a hallway that leads from his office to a conference room, photographs with former legislative colleagues and framed newspaper clippings fill the walls. A cartoon depiction of Hunt calls him “King of the Road.”
During an interview in the conference room, Hunt highlighted occasions from over the years where he said his intervention has benefited his county.
In 1987, when he was a state representative, he spearheaded efforts to prevent a hazardous-waste-treatment facility from operating in the county. He also led a campaign to pressure county commissioners to partly fund an animal-adoption center in 2002.
Both times, he said, he researched the issues, mobilized the community, and launched a campaign to force officials to act.
He said he used the same strategy to defeat the Maple Avenue plan. “If somebody wants to say that Sam Hunt is so powerful that he could just snap his fingers, well, I didn’t just snap my fingers,” he said. “I’ve got the facts.”
Hunt produced and distributed a slick, 24-page booklet with a point-by-point rebuttal of the proposal and an eight-part explanation, with photos, of why drivers dislike traffic circles, which were part of the plan.
At times during the interview, Hunt stood up to point at one of two large maps of the Maple Avenue plan hanging on facing walls.
The project could not have proceeded without approval from the state transportation department, which controls a portion of the corridor, Hunt said. And he said the cost of the project was grossly underestimated.
But the main sticking point was eliminating three lanes. The plan didn’t have the popular support city officials claimed it did, he said.
Hunt said more people should get involved in the political process. He does not view himself as a powerful man wielding undue influence over local officials, but instead as someone who understands how to develop a strategy and mount an effective battle plan.
“I don’t apologize for knowing how to do things,” Hunt said. “I picture myself as someone who has learned over 40 years how to put a campaign together, and end up in the spotlight and the place you want to be.”
Ahmed Jallow, a former reporter for the Burlington Times-News, is a freelance writer based in Raleigh.