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Tough, colorful Gov. Morrison

Morrison, a tough, folksy, tobacco-chewing politician originally from Richmond County, was a lieutenant in the powerful Democratic machine that ran North Carolina at the beginning of the 20th century. He had been a leader in the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that had resulted in Democratic control, the disfranchisement of African Americans and the marginalization of Republicans.

For his services to the machine, the party boss tapped him to be his candidate for governor in 1920. The evidence suggests that the machine stole the election for him. The count took 11 days as votes from the machine-controlled mountain counties trickled in. He won the Democratic nomination by a mere 87 votes.

Voice for Charlotte business

Morrison may have been an anti-reform politician, but he was also the voice of Charlotte's business community. And the watchword across the South in the1920s was to spend money on roads, schools and universities. The eminent historian George B. Tindall called this era “business progressivism.”

Taking office, Morrison promised to “war for righteousness with the reactionary and unprogressive forces of our state.”

North Carolina undertook such a massive road building program that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sent one of his engineers to the state to study how it was done. It was during this period that the University of North Carolina made its great leap forward to become the leading public university in the South. No state increased its spending by a larger percentage during this time. (The downside: By the end of the 1920s, only New York state had a larger bonded indebtedness than North Carolina.)

Leaving the governor's office, Morrison, a widower, sought to marry a rich widow. He courted millionaire George Vanderbilt's widow but was turned down – or so the story goes – when he tried to spit tobacco juice out of her limousine window that was so spotless he thought it was open.

He did marry the heiress of a Durham tobacco fortune and settled into the life of a gentleman farmer on a 160-acre estate he called Morrocroft.

In 1930 he was appointed to a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, and most thought he would easily win the seat outright in 1932. Deep pocketed, backed by the state's business and political establishment, Morrison had a voice described as “waves breaking around a light house.”

But by then North Carolina was deep in the Great Depression with banks closing, towns and counties declaring bankruptcy and farmers being evicted. Morrison was the perfect foil for his chief opponent in the primary, Robert Reynolds of Asheville.

Silken robes and caviar

Reynolds, a former patent medicine salesman who was married five times, portrayed Morrison as a rich plutocrat and himself as the man of the people (though he was also rich).

He said Morrison had been elevated to the Senate “from his magnificent estate, his silken robes and his luxurious chairs” to represent “the common people” in the Senate.

After learning that Morrison stayed at the Mayflower Hotel when in Washington, Reynolds hit the campaign trail with two props – the Mayflower menu and a jar of caviar, a delicacy offered on the hotel's menu.

“What do you think he eats,” Reynolds would ask farmers and textile workers. “He does not eat cabbage nor turnips nor ham and eggs, not fatback like you and I do. My friends, think of it. Sen. Morrison eats caviar. What the hell's caviar? This here jar ain't a jar of squirrel shot. It's fish eggs. Friends, it pains me to tell you that Cam Morrison eats fish eggs, and Russian fish eggs at that.”

Morrison pleaded with voters to remember him as their long-time friend. “I'm the same old Cam I always was,” he said. “They are jest telling more lies on me than usual.”

Lessons for Pat McCrory?

Morrison was also hurt by his ties to Duke Power Co. (Mayor McCrory, a former Duke Energy executive, take note.) Morrison had supported the nomination of a Duke Power official to the Federal Power Commission.

Said Morrison: “The Duke Power Co. in my state belongs very largely to humanity. There is not an organization on this earth, unless it is purely religious, that is doing a nobler or better work than the Duke Power Co. and the Duke Foundation.”

To which Reynolds replied: “He must have (been) thinking about what it had done for him.” (Morrison's wife was an heiress to the family connected to the tobacco fortune that was behind the creation of Duke Power.)

Reynolds trounced Morrison by an astounding 65 to 35 percent.

Morrison made a political comeback, winning a seat in Congress in 1942, but lost a Senate bid in 1944. He died while vacationing in Canada in 1953.

Morrison was the last N.C. governor from Charlotte, unless you count two-term Gov. Jim Martin, who claimed Lake Norman in Iredell County as his home.

What does this mean for McCrory? Almost certainly nothing. But be advised: Stay away from the caviar.

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