Attorney James Calvin Johnson Jr., who died Sunday at 73. was one of the strongest, most tenacious and visionary civic leaders in Cabarrus County history.
The former state senator and state representative spent a lifetime serving the residents of Cabarrus County. He was a maverick with a sense of humor who ran as a Republican and Democrat over the course of 45 years in public service.
Johnson was running for the North Carolina Senate in District 36 against Republican incumbent Fletcher Hartsell after winning the Democratic primary earlier this year over Mike Helms of Mount Pleasant, 51-49 percent.
The race was the latest in a political career that saw Johnson serve in the Senate (1985-1990), the State House (1967-1971) and as attorney for Cabarrus County (1966-1970).
Earlier in his career, Johnson was a judge, presiding in the Domestic Relations and Juvenile Court (1963-66) and prosecutor, working as attorney for U.S. District Court in North Carolina (1962-63).
Johnson was a champion of the common man and the underdog. In announcing his run for the State Senate this year, Johnson said politicians “are more interested in representing special interest, rich individuals, and outside corporations than taking care of the needs of the small business person, average citizen, our senior citizens who are on fixed income, and our educational needs.”
Friends and rivals praised Johnson’s work as a leader and attorney in remembering him in interviews Monday.
County Commission Chairman Jay White said Johnson was an extraordinary defense attorney who took on clients regardless of their ability to pay.
“He represented them just as hard and vigorously as those clients that could afford to retain him,” White said. “He was a very good litigator. He cast a long shadow in the courthouse.”
From the time he started practicing law in Cabarrus County in the 1960s, Johnson was known for being colorful — he once subpoenaed God in a case — and for his rapport with juries. He loved to tell stories and share his experiences with younger lawyers.
Johnson was instrumental in building the county’s Republican Party in the 1960s and later switched to the Democratic Party. Johnson helped recruit Philip Morris USA to Concord, bringing hundreds of good, high-paying jobs to the area.
Johnson was a member of Central Methodist Church, where he was a Sunday School teacher. Senior Pastor Rev. Andy Langford said Johnson was engaging.
“Jim was an exceptional Sunday School teacher,” Langford said. “He knew the scripture. He communicated it clearly. He made it relevant. Among the men, the sense was he was one of the best they’ve ever seen.”
Johnson is survived by his wife, Judge Donna G. Hedgepeth, and his children, James Calvin III, Kay Lynn, and Jen Cherise Johnson. They’ve lost a treasured member of their family.
Cabarrus County has lost a beloved and valuable member of the community.