Seventy years ago, a political situation was brewing that left Georgia with three claimants to the governor's office in early 1947. By the time he won a fourth term in 1946, Eugene Talmadge, who had been in and out of office as governor twice since 1932, was very sick, but only those closest to him knew it.
Meanwhile, the state's Constitution of 1945 had created the new office of lieutenant governor, which had not existed in Georgia since the colonial era. The stage was set. Joe McGlamery, president of the Bulloch County Historical Society, explained the facts and impact of "Georgia's Three Governors Controversy" during the society's most recent meeting.
On Friday, Dec. 20, 1946, Talmadge, who had won the Democratic Party primary in July - although not by the popular vote - and been officially unopposed in the November general election, slipped into a coma.
"The starter's pistol for the three governors controversy went off about 7 o'clock on Saturday morning in Gene Talmadge's hospital room," McGlamery said. "The wild man of Sugar Creek was no more. He died some three weeks short of the date that he was to have been inaugurated for his fourth term."
McGlamery nicknamed the controversy "the AT&T Affair" for the three claimants who became embroiled in the struggle: outgoing Gov. Ellis Arnall, Lt. Gov. M.E. Thompson and Herman Talmadge, the late Gov.-elect Eugene Talmadge's son.
First, there was Gene
But another colorful character loomed over the controversy: Gene Talmadge himself. Born in Forsyth north of Macon, Talmadge became a lawyer and set up his first law practice in his wife's hometown of Ailey in Montgomery County, then settled on a family farm known as Sugar Creek Plantation near McRae in Telfair County.
"The man from Sugar Creek" adopted a grassroots campaign style and policies that appealed to many of the white, rural voters who held a disproportionate share of Georgia's electoral power through the early 20th century. First elected as Georgia's agriculture commissioner in 1926, Talmadge campaigned for governor and won, for the first time, in 1932.
His campaign stops featured entertaining characters such as the Tree-Climbing Haggards.
When Talmadge spoke to a crowd, the Haggards, usually four or five of them, would climb trees and call out prompts, such as, "Tell 'em about the $3 car tags!"
"And Gene would reply, 'I'm about to come to that right now,' " McGlamery said.
Prior to a 1941 amendment, Georgia governors served two-year terms and were limited to two consecutive terms. Talmadge was elected again in 1934, serving through 1936. After two unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. Senate, he was elected governor again in 1940 and so served a total of three terms, but only six years.
Arnall defeated Talmadge in 1942, but the same amendment that allowed Arnall a four-year term as governor prohibited him from serving a second consecutive term.
County unit system
The county unit system, which had been in use in Georgia since 1917, played a direct role in Talmadge's win the 1946 Democratic primary, McGlamery explained. In a four-candidate race, James V. Carmichael actually won more of the popular votes, 313,384 to Talmadge's 297,245.
But under the county unit system, each of 121 "rural" counties, no matter how small their population, were counted as casting two votes. Thirty "town" counties, of which Bulloch was one, had four votes each, and eight "urban" counties had six votes each. Carmichael carried only 24 counties with 146 unit votes, while Talmadge carried 105 counties with 242 unit votes.
Then, having made 279 speeches during the primary season while suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Talmadge made summer trips to Mexico, Wyoming and finally Jacksonville, Florida, where he was hospitalized but reportedly recovered.
His son Herman formally gave Gene Talmadge's acceptance speech at the state Democratic convention, but the extent of his illness was still unknown to most people, McGlamery said.
Three would-be governors
Also in the July 1946 primary, Melvin Ernest "M.E." Thompson, a native of Millen, was elected to be the state's first lieutenant governor, also by a county-unit vote.
Hospitalized again in Atlanta that December, Talmadge died before either he or Thompson had been sworn into office.
"The newly elected lieutenant governor, M.E. Thompson, announced that the people of Georgia expected him to become governor," McGlamery said.
But the Georgia General Assembly, which was required to certify the results of the general election, looked to the results of the governor's race, excluding the votes of the late Eugene Talmadge. All of the other votes were write-ins. Carmichael had received the most write-in votes, 669, but announced that he wanted nothing to do with the Legislature electing a governor.
A Republican write-in candidate named Talmadge Bowers - no mistake here, his first name was Talmadge - received 637 write-in votes to 617 for Gene Talmadge's son, Herman Talmadge.
"But then at the last minute - wouldn't you know? - they found 57 more, out of Telfair County, and so those votes were counted, too, and that gave Herman 674 votes," McGlamery said.
The General Assembly proceeded on these dubious grounds to declare Herman Talmadge governor. He was sworn in before sunup Jan. 15, 1947.
"There were protests all over the state of Georgia, including on college campuses," McGlamery said. "In fact, some 2,000 college students marched on the Capitol in protest of Herman being elected."
Arnall, whose term was ending, cited the state Constitution to say that he was to serve until a governor was properly elected. When Arnall would not vacate the governor's office, Talmadge and his supporters had the locks changed.
Lawsuits set the matter up for the Georgia Supreme Court to decide. Then Arnall took himself out of the picture in January 1947 after getting information on the court's pending decision in what McGlamery called "a totally unethical and somewhat bizarre way."
Years later, Arnall admitted that he had called a Supreme Court justice to his office and told him he was thinking about resigning but would only do so if he knew Talmadge wouldn't become governor. Arnall resigned after being told that the justices were leaning toward ruling against the Legislature's selection of Talmadge.
Meanwhile, M.E. Thompson was sworn in as lieutenant governor on Saturday, Jan. 18, 1947, and sworn in as acting governor the following Monday. Then there were two "governors."
The Supreme Court issued a 5-2 decision on March 6, recognizing Thompson as acting governor but only until a November 1948 special election. Talmadge won the special election and was governor from 1948 to 1954.
Thompson ran unsuccessfully for governor twice more. He also ran against Talmadge in 1956 for U.S. Senate before retiring from politics. Talmadge represented Georgia in the Senate, 1957-80.
In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the county unit system, which was also used in other states, unconstitutional because it violated the "one man, one vote" principle.
McGlamery, who is also president of the Statesboro Herald, recommended books related to the topic, including one by an Historical Society member: "This Georgia Rising: Education, Civil Rights, and the Politics of Change in Georgia in the 1940s" by Dr. Patrick Novotny, a Georgia Southern University political science professor.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.