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O. Max Gardner, The Crisis Manager


Although the prevailing philosophical tide these days seeks to return political power to the local level, there was a time when that tide ran the other way - most notably during O. Max Gardner's Depression-era term as governor.

Gardner, a lawyer from Shelby, was elected in 1928; during his first year on the job, the Depression hit. Tax collections fell as businesses collapsed and jobs evaporated, meaning that cities and counties could not maintain their schools and roads. Gardner, following a plan drafted by the Brookings Institution at his request, pushed the legislature into adopting an ambitious agenda that effectively transferred oversight of schools and roads to the state. One result was that for the first time, an inventory of local government debts was conducted ("the sum staggered us," Gardner later wrote) and the credit ratings of cities and towns were stabilized. North Carolina today still enjoys a good reputation in the world of municipal bonds.

Gardner also was an adept machine-builder. He groomed the next two governors and had the political pull to get them nominated and elected. One was from his hometown and the other was a key political supporter, meaning it was 1941 before someone other than a member of the "Shelby dynasty" occupied the governor's office.

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