In the spring of 1972 Jesse Alexander Helms, a North Carolina television editorialist and newly announced Republican candidate for the United States Senate, walked into a small hardware store in the Piedmont village of Rockwell to shake hands and campaign. There he bumped into B. Everett Jordan, the incumbent senator and textile tycoon whose seat he sought.
Both men broke into laughter, and Jordan said: "I've got this side of the street. Why don't you take the side with the antique store?"
"You'd better watch out," Helms replied. "The bank's on that side."
Jordan was far from nonplussed. "That's all right," he replied. "I've already got my share."
This encounter reveals a lot about North Carolina politics. Humor is never far beneath the surface. Informality prevails. Nobody wants to appear too biggety, and there can be aggressiveness even in declarations of modesty.
Senator Jordan, a genial, popular senator, lost in the Democratic primary that spring before he could confront Helms. Whether he realized it or not, he was making his last hurrah. Jordan represented what political scientist V. O. Key called "a financial and business elite" whose influence had prevailed in North Carolina's political and economic life since the turn of the century. The states "elite" was hardly patrician by some standards. A rough-hewn, down-home demeanor prevailed, both among the textile and banker-tobacco industrialists who exerted considerable influence from their Piedmont executive suites and among the Coastal Plain tobacco barons who made politics a twenty-four-hour-a-day occupation. Their easygoing informality masked an iron will and a genuine devotion to the Democratic Party, southern conservative style.
It was the lawyers, though, who usually won the top political offices, notably the governorship. There had been occasional breaks in the corporate- lawyer continuity since Senator Furnifold Simmons and Governor Charles B. Aycock overturned the Republican-Populist coalition of the 1890s. The Kitchins early in the century and the Scotts at mid-century upset this "aggressive aristocracy of manufacturing and banking" which regularly placed its representatives in the governor's chair and in Washington. But from the time Simmons put his machine together in 1898 on the issue of white supremacy and removal of "scalawag" government through the 1930s-40s