What happens when a public official runs for reelection and loses but won’t leave office?
People uneasy over Donald Trump’s obstinance should hope he isn’t inspired by Madison County Sheriff Hubert Davis, whose refusal to budge after losing in 1950 is among the most shocking examples of political defiance in North Carolina history.
Madison is a mountainous, sparsely populated (22,135 residents) county 20 miles north of Asheville. Election chicanery and political violence have been embedded in its culture since its inception.
After the state legislature created the county in 1851, it authorized Madison voters to pick a town to be county seat. Marshall won by one vote. Tradition holds that the man who provided the margin was given a pack of turnip seeds to encourage his support.
As the Civil War approached, pro-Union sentiment was strong in Madison, which had few slave owners and many small farmers. At a meeting in 1861, an angry confrontation arose between pro-Union men and the sheriff, a secessionist. The sheriff fired into a crowd and hit a boy. The boy’s father shot him dead.
For most of its history Madison has been staunchly Republican. During its first century a Republican held the most powerful county office, sheriff, for all but one term. In 1950 Democrats put forward a challenger, Elymas Ponder, who had served 10 years on the county school board.
His brother Zeno helped run his campaign. The youngest of 13 children, Zeno earned a degree from N.C. State University in soil chemistry. During World War II he worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
After the war he returned home and began teaching veterans under the G.I. bill. He’d been inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to believe government action could improve life in his dirt-poor county. Republicans thought his teaching included too much political talk. They complained, and the government stopped the classes.
Zeno told an interviewer years later that he wasn’t a conservative because “we had very little if anything to conserve.” He wanted a government that would offer more people an opportunity to “enjoy some of the good things of life.”
Ponder believed electing Democrats would help Madison get more funding for roads, schools and economic development from the Democrat-run state government. He became a voter registrar and went about the county preaching New Deal politics and registering new voters.
On Election Day that work paid off. His brother won. The incumbent sheriff, Hubert Davis, cried foul. He claimed he’d won but the results were altered.
Though the vote canvass confirmed Ponder’s narrow win, Davis didn’t concede. He refused to turn over the keys to the sheriff’s office and the jail. He staffed the office with armed deputies and put a machine gun out front.
A Superior Court judge ordered Davis to relinquish the office, but he refused. Two months after the election another judge repeated the order and fined him for contempt of court. Finally Davis relented.
E.Y. Ponder served as sheriff for 32 of the next 36 years, as Zeno built one of North Carolina’s most powerful political machines.
Zeno Ponder ran for office only once, a state Senate seat in 1964. After he apparently won the Democratic primary, his opponent claimed fraud. State investigators were sent to examine the county’s poll books, but couldn’t find them. Nor could they find the last person known to have handled them, or several ballot boxes. The state overturned the election result.
The courts may resolve the standoff in Washington, as they did in Madison County. Who knows whether we’ll see a machine gun in front of the White House.
Ed Williams retired from The Charlotte Observer in 2008 after 25 years as editor of the editorial pages.