Christensen: The Last Big Democratic Show in Charlotte

rchristensen@newsobserver.comSeptember 1, 2012 

— As Democrats pour into Charlotte this weekend for the Democratic National Convention, they are certainly anticipating a big show.

But it won’t be the longest Democratic convention held in the Queen City, or the most contentious, and perhaps not even the most entertaining.

That title belongs to the state Democratic convention held in June of 1908, when 6,000 male delegates, many wearing straw boaters and smoking stogies, came to Charlotte to pick the Democratic nominee for governor, which was tantamount to choosing the governor in the old one-party South.

It was a four-day brawl, with all-night sessions, and the nominee not chosen until the 61st ballot.

The key figure of the era was U.S. Sen. Furnifold Simmons, the political boss of the Democratic machine in North Carolina, a conservative-leaning Democrat with close ties to the state’s business interests.

His choice for governor – and he almost always chose the governor between 1900 and 1930 – was Locke Craige, an Asheville lawyer and one of his political lieutenants.

But Simmons was facing an insurgency led by William Kitchin, a popular six-term Democratic congressman from Roxboro and a member of a well-known political family. His brother, Claude Kitchin, would become U.S. House Majority Leader during World War I.

Kitchin had gone to Simmons and said he wanted to run for governor, but Simmons told him to wait his turn. Kitchin thought he had enough juice to challenge the machine – especially because Simmons had taken some unpopular stands in support of big business.

Presidential politics also played a role, with Kitchin supporting the candidacy of populist William Jennings Bryan while Simmons opposed Bryan.

With a population of 34,000, Charlotte was then North Carolina’s largest city, just as it is now at 751,000. Delegates gathered in the city’s auditorium, which was decorated with more than 10,000 yards of red, white and blue bunting and streamers, pennants, banners and Japanese lanterns. At the corner of Tryon and Trade streets there was an incandescent display featuring the names of the three candidates for governor: Craige, Kitchin, and Ashley Horne.

Each of the candidates had his own headquarters hotel: Craige at the Selwyn, Horne at the Huford, and Kitchin at the Central. The News and Observer published a special advertising section that included ads for Charlotte hotels, train schedules and fawning articles such as one entitled: “Charlotte, The City of Promise.”

When the balloting began on Wednesday, Kitchin led with Craige second and Horne third. The balloting continued until early Thursday morning when a recess was called. Then it continued through Thursday night, and then into Friday night, but no candidate could gain a majority.

In the summer heat in the days before air conditioning, women fainted, and men traded tobacco.

“Before the 30th ballot was reached, the impasse of the awful night vigils and meal-less days of irregular hours and oppressive heat was left on the haggard faces of hundreds of delegates,” The News and Observer reported.

On Friday night, 100 mountain men, supporters of Craige, arrived in Charlotte to relieve their allies on the floor. To help with the boredom, every time Horne’s vote increased, one Col. Peg Leg Graham would blow an antiquated horn, let out a rebel yell and do a jig.

On Saturday morning, Horne withdrew, breaking the logjam, enabling Kitchin to capture the Democratic nomination for governor.

“Kitchin won out, and largely because he made the rank and file of the people believe that his fight against the Southern Railway subsidy in Congress and his opposition to the Tobacco Trust would give them a governor who would put an end to trust and railroad control in North Carolina,” wrote Josephus Daniels, the editor of The News and Observer.

With his man no longer in the governor’s office, Simmons lost control of the election machinery, and many were predicting his demise. Four years later, Gov. Kitchin challenged Simmons for his Senate seat.

But Simmons proved more resilient than his enemies, and in 1912 he regained his political power, defeating Kitchin and installing Craige in the governor’s office.

The Simmons Machine was back in power.

Charlotte would not see a comparable political convention until this week.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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