Christensen: The Ponders political machine

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2014 

"I believe in a two-party system," Zeno Ponder once remarked. “A great big Democratic Party and a little bitty Republican Party.”

For 40 years, Zeno and his brother E.Y. Ponder did their best to carry out that vision of two party politics, and in the process made Madison County synonymous with machine politics and the subject of countless jokes about graveyard voting.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, the Ponders ran North Carolina’s most famous courthouse organization. The Ponders performed a good cop, bad cop routine. E.Y. was the soft-spoken, approachable sheriff, while Zeno was the hard-nosed political operative.

Madison County, in the mountains near the Tennessee border, had long been a Republican County until the Ponder boys remade it into a Democratic stronghold.

When E.Y. was elected sheriff in 1950 by 31 votes, the Republicans were so distraught they disputed the outcome and wouldn’t give up the office. E.Y. was sworn in anyway. For a short while, there was a Republican jail and a Democratic jail. The Republicans set up a machine gun outside the jail and the Democrats would drive by after dark and throw firecrackers to spook the Republicans.

“This was our nightly past time,” Zeno once told an oral historian.

A down-home style

Elymas Yates Ponder (1910-2001) was a small man who never wore a uniform, rarely carried a gun, rode in an unmarked car, and never accepted a pay raise. Ponder knew the county and its people so well, he would sometimes simply call up a suspect and tell him to come down to the jail.

He is portrayed in Mark Pinsky’s book, “Met Her on the Mountain,” which is being excerpted in The N&O, as a sheriff who negligently declined to pursue a local man who may have been responsible for the gruesome murder of a young anti-poverty worker. But that is not how he was viewed in the community.

“E.Y. was one of the finest and most honest people I’ve known,” the late state Sen. Herbert Hyde, the Bible and Shakespeare-quoting former state Democratic Party chairman once told me. Hyde once was so angered by a column I wrote about E.Y., which he considered critical, that he stopped talking to News and Observer reporters.

Ponder in fact gave county government a friendly, accessible face, according to interviews with mountain pols.

Ponder would typically be at the sheriff’s office from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m., although he mixed work with pleasure. Many nights 20 to 30 men would sit in a circle in the sheriff’s office and trade tall tales. Judges and other courthouse denizens would sometimes join him at the jail for a lunch of beans and cornbread.

The down-home style blunted some of the ill will he created when he destroyed between 1,500 and 2,000 illegal whiskey stills.

Brawling over ballots

But what stood out was the power of the old courthouse machine.

“They had everything set up where you had to kind of go through them to get a road or job,” said Dedrick Brown, the Republican sheriff who defeated E.Y in 1986. “Anything political, you had to go through them. If somebody wanted food stamps or welfare, they called the sheriff.”

If E.Y. was widely respected, Zeno (1920-1994) elicited more mixed feelings. The one time Zeno ran for office – for the state Senate in 1964 – the State Board of Elections overturned his election. One of the ballot boxes was never found and is widely presumed to be aging in the bottom of the French Broad River.

The tally showed Zeno winning the state Senate race by 400 votes. But there were some troubling signs. The Highway Patrol had to be called in on election night to stop a brawl over the ballot boxes. More people had voted in some precincts then were registered to vote. Ballot boxes were switched. An SBI analysis found that one person had filled out numerous ballots.

When some unknown person tried to blow up his house, Zeno told reporters he was sure it was some Republican.

The Ponders reputation as political bosses grew to such an extent that long-time Secretary of State Thad Eure once remarked that the Ponders could pretty well name the vote ahead of the election.

Helms was spooked

Zeno, whose thin mustache gave him a slightly sinister look, was a highly intelligent man who graduated from N.C. State University and who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. He followed his father into the cattle farming business, served 12 years as head of the school board, but was best known for presiding over the local political machine.

Some of the Ponders’ political associates would gain statewide political influence. Hyde, who was the Ponders’ lawyer, would become state Democratic chairman. State Sen. Larry Leake, attorney for the Madison County board of commissioners and school board, would become chairman of the state Board of Elections, and Liston Ramsey would become the most powerful NC House Speaker in history.

The Ponder brother’s reputation was enough to even spook Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who feared that Zeno might try to steal his 1984 election against Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

“Zeno Ponder has made history in that regard,” Helms said.

Zeno would later accuse Helms of engaging in a political vendetta when a year later the feds prosecuted Ponder on charges relating to his sale to the state of land that was in the path of a state highway going through Madison County.

Zeno, a Hunt appointee to the State Board of Transportation, said he was just trying to get a needed road for his community. After he was acquitted, Zeno went before the TV cameras and held up a buckeye. The federal prosecutor, Zeno said, was just like a buckeye – a worthless nut.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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