A Durham Dynamo: One man’s political career

By Anita Rao
UNC Staff writer
the Durham VOICE

82-year-old Nick Galifianakis stands in his law office in downtown Durham, a window-lit room with walls that tell the stories of his distinguished history of state and national service. A former member of the U.S. Navy, N.C. General Assembly and U.S. House of Representatives, Galifianakis said that what has kept him here is his pure love for his hometown. “It’s just home here,” Galifianakis said. (Staff photo by Anita Rao)

To truly describe her husband, 76-year-old Louise Galifianakis had to tell a story.

In a small shop in Asheville several years ago, she found a sculpture of the famous literary figure Don Quixote staring at a windmill he was trying to attack, and she said to herself, “My god … that’s my husband!”

Although her husband is unlike Don Quixote in that he is not ridiculed for attacks against imaginary enemies, Louise said that what Don Quixote and Nick Galifianakis have in common is their determination. “Nick is endlessly determined to fix the unfixables, no matter what others say,” Louise said.

82-year-old Durham native Nick Galifianakis explained that this determination is what has driven him to continue to serve his country and community. He spent three years in the Marine Corps, served in N.C. General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives, and still continues to practice law in Durham.

However, the Galifianakis family had a visible presence in the Durham area long before Nick’s political career. His parents, both of whom were first-generation Greek immigrants, raised their five sons in a small Greek community in Northeast Central Durham. Galifianakis said his parents helped found the Durham Greek Orthodox church and also opened the Lincoln Café, a historic eatery that served African-Americans far before the mandatory desegregation legislation of the 1960s.

“Through watching my parents, I have always known there was tremendous potential in Durham,” Galifianakis said.

Galifianakis went to Durham public schools, attended Duke University for college and law school, and began practicing law in Durham in the late 1950s. In 1960 he also began teaching business law at Duke. Although he never had any intentions of entering politics, he said he soon “just got pushed into it.”

Galifianakis laughed as he reminisced about an afternoon in February 1960 when he got a surprise telephone call from the chairman of the N.C. State Board of Elections. The chairman notified him that 36 of his colleagues had filed money on his behalf to put his name on the ticket to run for the General Assembly.

“At first I honestly thought it was a cruelty joke!” Galifianakis said. “In North Carolina at that time it was preferred that politicians were Anglo-Saxon and Baptist, and I did not qualify at all in that regard and never thought I would have a chance.”

But he decided to run, and vividly remembers the responses he got from people when he first began to talk about his candidacy. He said the president of a central Durham bank told him he had “no hopes of winning,” and a man he met in rural Durham County dismissed him because he thought Galifianakis was a Jewish name and said “people ’round here don’t cotton up to Jews!’”

“I ran for the General Assembly the year Kennedy was running for president and the first African American man was running for Durham City Council, so many people around here were already asking, ‘What is this country coming to?’” Galifianakis said. “But then they were even more perplexed when they heard the name Galifianakis.”

However, despite some local pushback, he won the election. Galifianakis is filled with stories about his early political days and explained that he entered politics at a time of rapid growth and transformation in the Durham area. He handled some of the first pieces of legislation that created Research Triangle Park and also became heavily involved in reforming psychiatric hospitals.

He served three terms in the General Assembly and continued to practice and teach law throughout that time. Louise said she did not see him too often in those days and through watching him juggle his multiple responsibilities, she quickly learned that he has the “sickest work ethic” she has ever seen.

Galifianakis later served three terms in the U.S. House and is the first and only Durham-born U.S. congressman. In Congress, he became heavily involved in establishing important legislation on tax exemptions and credit card usage. But his neighbor and longtime friend John Semonche, a legal historian and UNC-Chapel Hill history professor, said Galifianakis always remained different from others in Washington, D.C.

Galifianakis was the first congressman to open local offices in his home district so that he could be easily accessible to his constituents, and he also chose to write all of his own legislation. “A lot of people say, ‘I want a bill that does this or that, and I want it on my desk in the morning,’” Galifianakis said. “But I preferred to write it myself because I wanted to know it well and be able to explain it.”

He frequently traveled back to Durham to handle local issues and said there were many tough moments during his tenure. He recalls intervening in a major public housing uprising as well as dealing with Ku Klux Klan members who came to his office to solicit help in a racially motivated murder.

“The struggle in that job is that there is no chart to look at or formula to follow to know how to act in certain instances,” Galifianakis said. “Nobody could guide me.”

Louise said that because of her husband’s depth of intellect and skilled mediation, it may have often appeared that he handled everything with great ease, but she watched him put hours of deliberation into each decision.

Galifianakis’s formal political career ended with his losing the U.S. Senate race to former Senator Jesse Helms in 1972. Semonche, who is in the process of recording stories with Galifianakis in hopes of eventually writing a book about him, said that Galifianakis lost the race during a historical transition from “old politics to new politics.”

“New politics is a matter of sound bites, television ads and categorizing your opponent as someone undesirable,” Semonche said.

He said the Helms campaign slogan, “Jesse Helms: He’s One of Us,” tried to ostracize Galifianakis by emphasizing his Greek heritage and liberal voting record. But even throughout this negative campaigning, Semonche said Galifianakis continued to be “the ideal politician.”

“He never puts on airs or a false public face, and I joke with him that he has never met a person that was not a ‘good person,’” Semonche said. “Nick likes everyone.”

After leaving politics, Galifianakis returned to Durham to practice law, and his long-time friend and current personal assistant, 84-year-old Evelyn Overby, said she does not think the political scene damaged his kind personality or charismatic demeanor. Overby has known Galifianakis since high school and said he has always been a “warm Southern gentleman.”

Semonche agreed, and said that for this reason he plans to title Galifianakis’s biography, “Mr. G Goes to Washington and Returns Almost Unscathed.”

At age 82, Galifianakis still owns his own law firm and continues to be generous with his time and resources, earning him the office nickname “Pro-Bono Politician.”

“He takes a true personal interest in his clients, makes everybody a friend and will see anybody that comes into this office,” Overby said. “He just can’t seem to turn people away.”

Galifianakis smiled as he shared that his clients joke about him dying stretched out on his law desk. “I’ve been grateful that I’ve had the energy to keep doing good work,” he said.

Louise and many of his other family members are encouraging him to retire so that he can have time to relax. But Louise said that knowing him and his pragmatic skills, kind heart and warm sense of humor leave her with one lingering regret.

“I wish in some ways that he could be in political office now,” she said. “He brings a sanity and clarity to things that nobody else seems to be doing in Washington.”

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One thought on “A Durham Dynamo: One man’s political career

  1. I wish there were more politicians like Nick nowadays – people brimming with local pride and who really care about people and taking care of the issues more than “playing the game”. The fact that he does pro bono work even after his career in politics is over shows you the true measure of this man. Great article.

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