Byrd's increasing power through machine politics
Byrd's political machine decreased Virginia's bureaucracy, but the short ballot made the state political system an oligarchy. Ironically, as Byrd fought centralized power in the federal government, he assumed centralized power in the state government.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
- VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Contrary to the expectations of the machine, he started off immediately
by instituting a lot of reforms that they were not happy about. He was
sensible enough to see that the time had come to get some simplification
and economy into the state government, which had just been spreading
out, crawling all over the landscape and creating new bureaus and jobs
to take care of the "boys." He knew that the group
behind Mapp had a good deal on their side when they said that the state
government was badly outmoded, that the machine was dying of dry rot and
if something wasn't done, the whole thing was just going to go to pot.
He knew that was a big political issue and that he must grab that issue
when he got in and put across the reform that his predecessor Governor
E. Lee Trinkle, had tried to put across without sucess. Trinkle tried to
do a good many of the things that Byrd put through later. Trinkle
couldn't get to first base because he wasn't in with the organization to
a sufficient degree. But Byrd, with his great personal appeal, and his
ability to handle the politicians persuaded them in an almost miraculous
way to put in a whole list of things that were absolutely
essential and put the Virginia government in the forefront
of such governments in the United States from the standpoint of
efficiency. The short ballot was the major reform that he managed to get
through. He had a tight squeeze on that; there were, I think, three
parts to that and they all were approved by a close margin. It limited
the number of politicians elected to state office to three, the
governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, whereas a number of
others had previously been elected. Most voters didn't know a thing
about these latter officials they were voting for. For most people they
were just names. The progressive thought in the country at that time was
to have a limited number of officeholders elected and the rest appointed
by the governor, and to hold him responsible if things didn't work well.
Byrd put that through after making a great campaign, and was applauded
over the country for it. He had a survey made by the New York Bureau of
Municipal Research which recommended a lot of things which were done,
and some that were not. Their recommendations were screened by a
committee of Virginians, who eliminated some of the recommendations, but
enough remained. The number of departments was reduced from something
like 90 to 14 or thereabouts, I can't remember the exact figures.
Anyway, a lot of superfluous dead wood was eliminated. A good deal of
money was saved; it doesn't sound like much now, it was either
$400,000 or $800,000 a year, depending on who did the
estimating. Neither figure sounds very big now, but in the early 1930s,
that was an awful lot of money. So, Byrd became recognized as a great
progressive, forward-looking governor. He put
across the best anti-lynching bill that any state had adopted; in fact,
the first that had any teeth in it, subjecting any participant in a
lynch mob to a murder charge. So, he was very highly regarded and even a
national figure. Roosevelt either wanted to get him into the cabinet or
on the ticket as vice-president.
- DANIEL JORDAN:
One impact of his many changes was the centralized power in the governor
and some people would regard that as paradoxical since Byrd, at least on
the national level, opposed that notion and didn't like the idea of
centralized power in the federal government. Do you have any comment on
- VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
The point was made by me a good many times in editorials and otherwise
that there was a direct conflict between his attitude on one hand and on
the other. I never had any statement from him on it. He just kept on
fighting centralization in Washington and did not try to explain why it
was that he did it in contradiction to his attitudes in state affairs.
That's just one of those unresolved mysteries . . .