The Changing of the Guard
Today we vote. Whom we vote for, or should I say whom we elect, will determine who we are, not just for the next four years, but for decades and perhaps centuries to come. So, when you vote, consider who is the best candidate who will work the hardest to make our county and our state a better to place to live, not only in the years to come, but well into the 22nd Century.
The 1960 Laurens County Democratic Primary (there were no Republicans to be seen, much less on the ballot) was unique in our county's two hundred plus year election process. It represented the old versus the new, the World War II veterans against their fathers' generation. There were no women, they weren't allowed to play the political game. There were no black candidates, they weren't allowed to play either. Fifty-four candidates qualified to run for eighteen posts.
In the South in the mid decades of the 1900s, the most important offices were the sheriff, the judge, and the county commission. Each of these positions held a different degree of power. The county commissioners had the most effect on the daily lives of rural Laurens Countians, seeing primarily to the maintenance of public roads and bridges in the area, which today would be considered primitive. Judges were supposed to be devoid of politics, but that indomitable monster seemed to always loom over their heads, seeking to seize any opportunity to denigrate the way the courts seek justice.
One race in particular consumed the rumor makers, mud slingers and truth tellers. Never in the history of Laurens County had allegations, condemnations, and tell tale facts been so widely published and spoken during a local election. By far, the most celebrated and most highly contested race of 1960 election was the race for Sheriff of Laurens County. Four men wanted the job. Only one would be elected. The incumbent sheriff and the odds on favorite was Carlus Gay. Gay, the epitome of a southern sheriff, was known as a tough, no nonsense law enforcement officer who fought crime with unbridled zeal and hated labor unions with an endless passion. His opponents were veterinarian Dr. W. R. "Rock" Bussell, Gay's top deputy Charlie Powell, and Ray Camp.
Sheriff Gay touted his experience and dependability, sixteen years in all, in the fight
against the dangerous activities going on in the South. Pointing directly to union activities, Gay promised to get rid of foreign rebel rousers who were attempting to exert their communistic influences on the people of Laurens County. "It could happen here, but it won't if you elect me sheriff," Gay proclaimed. The sheriff took pride in his efforts to rid the county of illegal liquor, citing 937 cases he made and the destruction of 84 stills in the previous four years.
Charlie Powell, who spent the entire decade of the 1950s working as a deputy under Sheriff Gay, cited his superior experience and promptness in actual law enforcement, while accusing Gay of spending too much time looking after his own personal business interests. Deputy Powell promised to save the county more than $10,000.00 a year by nipping criminal activities in the bud. Powell charged that the job shouldn't necessitate on the job training and promised 24-hour a day service.
Dr. Rock Bussell, a successful veterinarian and former member of the Armed Services, entered the race to end what he saw as an absence of honesty and impartiality in the sheriff's office. Bussell promised to end brutality in arrests and rid the county of organized rackets, which he stated were allowed to thrive under Gay's administration. Both Bussell and Powell criticized Gay for not upholding his word in his 1956 promise to accept a salary instead of a more lucrative fee system income and not to run for fifth term in 1960. Bussell also condemned Gay for his suit against the county. Bussell promised to cooperate with attorneys in cases and turn over his business interests to competent employees.
Meanwhile, Charlie Powell continued to hammer Carlus Gay in rallies throughout the county and in newspaper ads. He questioned Gay's acquisition of 1400 acres of land, a $50,000.00 home on Pine Forest Circle, a nice place at Lake-Sinclair, an interest in the Dairy-Queen, ownership of a finance company, and thousands of dollars in stocks in known and unknown companies, all at the expense of tax payers, bond posters, and criminals. Personally Powell liked Rock Bussell, but cited his lack of law enforcement experience, questioned his reasons for leaving a lucrative practice for a lesser salary, and wondered about the need to expend county funds to train him to be the new sheriff.
Powell accused Gay of furnishing duplicate ballots, pre-marked with Gay's name and other ticket candidates, primarily to Negro voters, who were then paid in money and liquor for returning their official unmarked ballots back to Gay's cronies.
Bussell had some strong words of his own. He resented Gay's law suit against the county, his refusal to accept a salary, Gay's support of racketeering, and his personal profiting from surety bonds in criminal cases. Further, Bussell criticized Gay for hiring mentally immature boy deputies. The vet was extremely upset at what he termed Gay's control of too many activities in the county calling them "Gestapo" and citing the inordinate amount of tattletales and spies under Gay's control. "Whip the grip of racketeers! Vote your objection against vice protection" was Bussell's cry.
Ray Camp, who would later be elected to several terms as Probate Court Judge, took a more laid back approach. Never running a single newspaper ad, Camp admitted that he was the illegitimate candidate whom experts said shouldn't be in the race. He implored voters not to be a sidewalk Socrates, always talking about issues, but never doing anything about them. He urged voters not to fear and "to vote like you talk for the way of life you believe in" and that he would be with them every day for the next four years.
On September 14, 1960, a record number of voters turned out to vote in the many highly contested races. Wash Larsen defeated Beverly Hayes in the District Attorney's race to mark a new era in postwar solicitors. Judge Harold Ward defeated N. G. Reeves, Jr. of Soperton, despite his domination of Ward in Johnson, Treutlen, and Twiggs counties. This election marked the first time a World War II veteran would sit as a judge.
Despite Gay's misfortunate emergency appendectomy just weeks before the election, the incumbent sheriff edged Bussell by three percentage points in the primary with 37% of the vote. Powell garnered a quarter of the vote, while Camp didn't top 4%. Gay dominated Dublin and in his ancestral home areas near Cedar Grove. Amazingly, Gay, despite his tenuous relationship with African-Americans, dominated the black vote.
A run-over election was held one week later. Rock Bussell received nearly 58% of the votes with the support of the majority of Powell's and Camp's supporters. The top candidates would slug it out again in 1964 when even more mud was slung. Bussell won that race too and went on to serve as the Sheriff of Laurens County for twenty years.