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Greek American Former Congressman Nick Galifianakis Dies at 94

Nick Galifianakis
Nick Galifianakis served as a Democratic U.S. Congressman from North Carolina from 1967 to 1973. Public Domain

Greek American Nick Galifianakis, once a rising star in the Democratic Party, who represented central North Carolina for several years, died this week at age 94.

Galifianakis, who had Parkinson’s disease for several years, died at a Raleigh retirement community, a family spokesman, Jack Pinnix, told The News & Observer of Raleigh.

He was born in Durham, North Carolina, the son of Greek immigrants Sophia (née Kastrinakis) and Mike Galifianakis. Actor Zach Galifianakis and cartoonist Nick Galifianakis are his nephews.

A Duke University graduate, Galifianakis was an attorney and ex-Marine first elected to the General Assembly in 1960. He was elected to Congress to 1966 and became a rising star in the party while serving three terms.

In 1972, Galifianakis defeated US Senator B. Everett Jordan in the Democratic primary but that November lost to the Republican Helms, then a Raleigh television commentator who served in the Senate for 30 years.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Nick Galifianakis victim of Jesse Helms’ commercial blitz

The Helms campaign used a commercial blitz to undermine Galifianakis’ campaign.

Years later, his nephew Zach Galifianakis said his uncle lost to Jesse Helms in the 1972 U.S. Senate race “because he was Greek, that’s kind of what happened.” Helms’ pitch slogan was “Jesse Helms. He’s one of us.”

Galifianakis went on to say that “When my uncle ran, it was the beginning of mud-slinging in modern politics, at least in that state.”

He continued, “I grew up listening to all the stories. The election got turned around in a couple of weeks. The KKK (Ku Klux Klan) made appearances at a couple of rallies, I guess to intimidate him…I think the idea was, ‘His name sounds different enough. He’s not like us.’”

Galifianakis ran for US Senate again in 1974 but lost to Attorney General Robert Morgan in the Democratic primary. He devoted himself to his Durham law practice in the years ahead.

Galifianakis had a larger-than-life personality

A moderate by national political standards, Galifianakis was on the liberal edge of the political spectrum in North Carolina. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and was the first member of the state’s congressional delegation to oppose the Vietnam War, The News & Observer reports.

There was always a sense of fun about Galifianakis, the paper adds. Sponsoring a bill to abolish the death penalty for dueling, he brought two swords to the House floor and pretended to engage in combat with a colleague.

Associated Press says that Galifianakis had a larger-than-life personality when it came to politics and campaigning. He used his long last name to his advantage, with his campaigns distributing two buttons – one read “GALIFI’’ and the other “ANAKIS.”

He also understood the power of publicity. Lobbying for the federal government to complete Interstate 85 from Henderson to Durham, he walked 19 miles along the proposed route in 1963.

While in the state House as a judiciary committee chairman, Galifianakis helped oversee the overhaul of the state’s court system into what it largely remains today.

Galifianakis is survived by his wife, Louise, and two children.

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