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Recounting a lively race for Congress back in 1914

POSTED: March 8, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Congressional races in the 9th District aren't what they used to be. They traditionally were quite contested, and some could get nasty.

Among the most memorable in recent years was when Phil Landrum of Jasper was opposed by Quill Sammon of Lawrenceville. It got kind of rough, too, when Zell Miller tried to unseat Landrum in the 1960s, Miller calling Landrum too conservative for the district.

But perhaps one of the liveliest campaigns was in 1914 when the well-known and influential Tom Bell, Gainesville resident and White County native, faced off with the equally prominent and distinguished W.A. Charters of Gainesville for the Democratic nomination.

Bell was seeking a sixth term and had defeated Charters in the previous election. This time, Charters teamed with John Holder of Jefferson, another candidate who lost in 1912. Holder first entered the race, then withdrew and supported Charters. Two others, E.W. Watkins of Gilmer County and Dr. L.G. Hardman of Commerce, were in the race for a time before falling by the wayside.

Local newspapers at the time took sides, not only in their editorial pages, but unabashedly on their news pages. The Gainesville Eagle and the Herald, owned by the powerful H.H. Dean, campaigned for Charters while the Gainesville News was in Bell's corner.

The campaign season was all the more interesting because of an intense gubernatorial race between Hoke Smith and "Little Joe" Brown, longtime rivals.

In the congressional race, the Charters camp noted that Bell had won narrowly two years earlier, and a lot of people were unhappy about his work in Congress. Charters' campaign accused Bell of trying to overturn the death sentence of a man convicted of killing his wife. However, one of Charters' supporters came to Bell's defense, saying that Bell was only one of a number of other citizens who asked the governor to delay the execution by a month. The delay was granted, but the execution took place a few weeks later.

The campaign split families. R.D. Mitchell managed Charters' campaign, and his brother, Byron Mitchell, was president of the Tom Bell Club.

People took their politics seriously. Six candidates for various offices, including Charters, spoke at a big rally at the Hall County Courthouse. Charters attacked Bell for two hours, leading a Macon reporter to write, "Charters boosted Tom Bell's candidacy for two hours."

Not to be outdone, Bell went on for two hours in a separate forum, challenging the charges made by his opponent. But if the audience was worn out by the lengthy tirade they didn't show it. When it was over "... he was borne from the platform upon the shoulders of enthusiastic admirers and when finally let to the ground he was surrounded by hundreds of friends who grasped his hand and pledged their heartiest support."

At a New Holland rally for Charters, two street cars loaded with his supporters began yelling for their candidate as soon as they arrived. However, Bell backers emerged with shouts of their own for their man. An argument ensued over the wagon Charters was to speak from, and things began to get rowdy. In the end, the Bell people became so raucous, Charters couldn't continue, and the rally ended.

In the primary, Bell carried 15 of 18 counties in the 9th District to win the nomination and retain his seat because there was no general election opponent.

"Tom Bell is a Christian gentleman and a teetotaler, though liberal in his views," the Gainesville News wrote of his victory.

The fun wasn't over after the primary, however. Hundreds paraded around downtown Gainesville to celebrate Bell's victory. Charters supporters had to ride Bell supporters around the square in wheelbarrows after losing their bets. It's a tradition that has continued after some elections in recent years.

Brown won the gubernatorial election. The general election that year saw gains by the Republicans nationally. Democrats had had a 141-vote majority in the U.S. House, but it narrowed to just four votes after the election. Candidates in Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive "Bull Moose" Party won three counties in the district, Gwinnett, Pickens and Milton, now a part of Fulton County.

Herbert Bell of Gainesville is Tom Bell's great-nephew. He would drive a car for the congressman because Tom Bell never drove. Charters is the grandfather of Sid Smith Jr. and Charters Embry of Gainesville.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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