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Here's what happened the first time a North Carolina lawmaker switched parties
In 1967, Sen. Jesse Austin did a bunch of things that grabbed headlines across the state. Then he switched from the Democratic to the Republican party. How'd that go for him?
The first thing that put Jesse H. Austin Jr. into the newspapers was a decision not to do something. On Tuesday, February 21, 1967, the freshman state senator from Clayton turned down an invitation from a fellow Democrat, Governor Dan Moore, to have breakfast at the executive mansion. Someone asked him why. “I don’t know the governor and he doesn’t know me,” Austin replied.
That was just the beginning of a three day run of actions that put a 37-year-old cattle farmer from Johnston County into the spotlight. The next day, Wednesday, Austin was the only Democrat to co-sponsor a Republican bill that would have set up a commission to study a civil service system for state employees in North Carolina. The legislation was seen as controversial. “I will vote and support any bill with merit, regardless of which party proposes it,” Austin said.
Then on Thursday, Austin took to the senate floor to get something off his chest. Something that had been gnawing at him since… Tuesday. After he’d passed on breakfast with the governor, a newspaper in Raleigh said Austin had acted “out of pettiness.” In his speech, Austin told the assembled reporters and fellow lawmakers that he wasn’t trying to be rude. For one thing, Austin said that he’d been commuting in to Raleigh from Clayton every day, and the breakfast was just too early in the morning for him to make it. Austin then apologized for “what the press has made out of what I said.” The next day, Friday, the same newspaper accused him of using “the old dodge about an ‘irresponsible press,’” and said Austin would have to make “more than one outraged speech to erase these remarks.”
On Sunday, a United Press International story about Austin’s week started this way: “Who is this fellow Jesse Austin?”
It wasn’t like Austin was a complete political newcomer. At age 31, he won a seat on the Johnston County Board of Commissioners, a post once held by his father and grandfather. During his time in local politics, he’d drive way out into the county along unpaved roads to meet with families on their front porches and talk about their problems. His job, as he saw it, was to represent the people in Johnston County and later, his senate district. “I wouldn’t lift a finger for a pressure group,” he said in 1967. “That’s how independent I am.”
Still though, the breakfast thing followed him around. Colleagues would introduce him as “the man who wouldn’t eat with the governor.” They were amazed at how much attention he seemed to get. Pretty soon, he’d earned a reputation for being outspoken. That wasn’t his intent as a lawmaker, he’d later say. It was just that his father had told him early in life that he ought to speak out when he had something to say. After a few months in the General Assembly, Austin had plenty to talk about. By this time, two of his bills, including the one to restrict work release, had died in committee. So, he went on TV and mused that the current legislative session hadn’t really gotten anything done. “Never have I seen so few talk so much on so little,” he said.
At the time, Democrats held an huge majority in the senate—only seven of the 50 seats in 1967 were held by Republicans. Still, some of Austin’s fellow Democratic senators scolded him, saying that his words made their party look bad. Austin said he wasn’t beholden to them. “I was elected by the people, and I’m not obligated or committed to anyone,” he said in an interview in June 1967. “I don’t have anybody or any party to answer to, although I’m a Democrat.”
That would change.
On Friday, November 17, 1967, the North Carolina Republican Party called a press conference in Raleigh. There, state GOP chairman (and future Republican governor) James Holshouser made the announcement: Austin was switching parties. “To our knowledge,” Holshouser said, “this is the first time that an incumbent state official” had done so.
Then Austin took the podium. “To be honest with myself, I must make this decision … to strive and work for a change in the administration in this country and this state,” he said. “And this I believe can only be accomplished through the framework of the Republican party.”
That was the stated reason why Austin switched parties. But what was the real reason? What was happening behind the scenes? And what can we learn from this today? There was only man who could answer those questions. Last week, I tracked him down.
At 94 years old, Jesse H. Austin Jr. still has plenty to say.
A rare event with a long history
Last week, state representative Tricia Cotham of suburban Charlotte stunned a lot of people when she announced her change from the Democratic to the Republican Party. The timing was fortuitous—the news broke when the eyes of most media were on Donald Trump’s arraignment. Cotham’s shift has major consequences, since it gives (on paper) Republicans in the state legislature a supermajority, meaning they have enough people to override any veto from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. It’s also politically stunning, since Cotham’s district leans heavily Democratic (although Republicans, if everything breaks like they think it will, could get the chance to redraw Cotham’s district to make it more advantageous for the GOP). Cotham, who returned to the General Assembly earlier this year after serving in the state house from 2007 through 2016, could now be the swing vote that allows Republicans to make changes to things like abortion and other controversial issues. Still, she said she hadn’t changed. “I am still the same person and I am going to do what I believe is right and follow my conscience,” she told reporters at a press conference last Wednesday.
Why’d she do it? Policy differences and bullying, she told reporters. “I’ve suffered many attacks since I’ve been up here, from Democrats in the party, from blasting me on Twitter, to calling me names, to going after my family, going after my children,” she said.
Party switching among elected politicians is a relatively rare event. A study from eight years ago pointed to some potential factors that drove a few Democrat office holders in the south became Republicans: Gerrymandering and personal ambition were the big ones. A district’s racial makeup and wealth also contributed. Even though it rarely happens (a switch usually doesn’t help a lawmaker win re-election in the short term, the study found), Cotham is far from the first lawmaker or politician to flip while in office. West Virginia governor Jim Justice, elected as a Democrat, switched to the Republican party during a Trump rally in 2017. Since 1890, 22 U.S. Senators have changed party affiliation in office. During the Gingrich-fueled Republican ascendancy of the 1990s, hundreds of politicians across the country (including dozens of state lawmakers) made the change from the Democratic party to the GOP.
In North Carolina, the shift goes back further than that. During the second half of the 20th century, especially during the civil rights era, Democratic and Republican platforms began to shift, and many voters moved to the GOP for the first time. Politicians took advantage. Jesse Helms switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican two years before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1972. U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth and Congressman Walter Jones, Jr. also switched to the Republican party before their federal elections in the 1990s. Faircloth only served one term—he was beaten in 1998 by Democrat John Edwards. Jones went on to serve in Congress from 1995 until his death in 2019.
There’s also the, uh, curious case of former state representative Michael Decker of Walkertown. In 2003, after 18 years in the legislature as an outspoken GOP conservative, he announced that he was switching to the Democratic party. “This is as slimy and perfidious of a maneuver as I've seen in politics,” GOP state representative John Blust said at the time, announcing that he wanted to introduce a measure to be able to recall lawmakers (It didn’t go anywhere). “This is just double-dealing back stabbing,” Blust said.
It soon came out why Decker had switched: The move would create a 60-60 party tie in the state house, and allowed Democrat Jim Black to remain as a co-speaker. In the years that followed, the how was also revealed: Black had basically bribed Decker. He’d found a job for Decker’s son. And after Black and Decker (get it) met at the IHOP in Salisbury to talk about the switch, Black followed up by getting someone to hand Decker an envelope containing $50,000 in checks and cash IN THE BATHROOM OF THAT SAME IHOP. Decker was later sentenced to four years in federal prison for his involvement in the scene. Black was sentenced to five. (Fun fact! Tricia Cotham was appointed to fill Black’s seat.)
Also, Decker’s change of heart didn’t last. After the 2004 session, he switched his party affiliation back to Republican. He was voted out of office.
A Republican Star Was Born, And Politicos Jumped Ship
Back in 1967, though, an elected politician changing parties was a new concept in North Carolina, although not a surprising one. And it was partly fueled by one man: Jim Gardner.
Born in Rocky Mount, Gardner would go on to buy Hardee’s and franchise the hell out of it (Late Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson bought the first Hardee’s franchise from Gardner). Later, he brought the ABA’s Carolina Cougars to this state. But he jump-started his political career in 1966 when he pulled off a 13-point upset over a Democratic congressman in eastern North Carolina who’d been in office for three decades. That fueled interest in the Republican party, which had been largely a non-factor in North Carolina politics for a very long time. That excitement ramped up when Gardner hinted that he might run for governor.
Gardner and Austin knew each other, and when Austin finally came to the microphone to announce his switch, not many people were surprised. Most newspaper accounts talked about what would come next: Austin would need to move to neighboring Wayne County to be able to officially switch his party affiliation in order to run for Congress as a Republican. Basically, that county allowed residents to change party affiliation at any time. Johnston County (and many others) only allowed changes after the candidate filing period opened.
Austin was the most prominent person to switch, but he was far from the only one. The former youth coordinator for the state Democratic party, Yeates Neagle, switched his affiliation the day before Austin. It was part of what would become a big part of Gardner’s strategy: Get longtime Democrats in Eastern North Carolina who were frustrated by the national party’s increasingly progressive stance to switch to Republican The plan even had an official name: “Operation Switchover.”
Austin’s personal Operation Switchover didn’t work so smoothly. Wayne County denied his plan to switch his registration, so Austin moved in with his sister in Raleigh, established residency in Wake County, and on February 13, 1968, officially flipped to the GOP.
Austin planned to file to run for Congress in North Carolina’s new 3rd District the week after, but decided against it, and said he wouldn’t run for re-election in the state senate either. Instead, he and Neagle joined Gardner’s campaign for governor and helped put “Operation Switchover” into effect. Gardner himself knew what it was like to jump to the GOP: He’d been a Democrat himself before running for Congress.
The move worked. Gardner won the primary. November’s election, however, did not go as well. On election night in 1968, television reports showed Gardner down to Democrat and possum eater Bob Scott by a large margin. But at the official Gardner party, a large tote board updated by campaign staff consistently showed the Republican leading. At 1:15 a.m., Austin was in the room when it was announced that an error came in that actually lowered Scott’s lead to 21,000 votes. There were cheers. “I told you all the networks were pro-Democrat,” one young man told a reporter. “You guys in the press will stop at nothing to make our man look bad,” said another.
That margin didn’t hold. Gardner lost by more than 84,000 votes.
Still, Gardner’s showing was relatively strong in a state where only 375,000 of the state’s roughly two million voters were registered Republicans. “He really made people, for the first time, honestly believe a Republican could get elected,” former state GOP chair (and one-time Gardner aide) Jack Hawke would say later. There were other signs that Republicans were starting to gain momentum. During that same election in 1968, Richard Nixon became the first GOP presidential candidate to carry North Carolina in 40 years. The Democrat, Hubert Humphrey, came in third place behind segregationist George Wallace. James Holshouser would defeat Gardner in a gubernatorial primary in 1972, and went on to become the first Republican governor in the state since Reconstruction. Republican Jesse Helms was first elected to the U.S. Senate that same year.
Austin publicly toyed with the idea of running for a state house seat in 1970, but didn’t do it. And then, in early 1971, a short story appeared in a small newspaper in Smithfield. Austin had switched back to the Democratic party. He “didn’t feel at home” with Republicans, he said. “I have friends in both parties, but I had been a Democrat for 20 years, and the members of my family are registered Democrats.”
With that, he said, he had no more political plans, and largely disappeared from the statewide stage. At least, until I called him.
A Political Career Born Out Of Revenge
I’d tried a few phone numbers for Jesse Austin Jr., but none of them worked. So, I so I left a message for the longtime mayor of Clayton, Jody McLeod. He called me back immediately. “They’re just good people, man,” McLeod said of Austin and his wife, Lyn. “Jesse’s like a Chesterfield from the old south. He’s a gentleman. He’ll say ‘f—k.’ He’s real.”
He’s also 94 years old, but you wouldn’t know that from talking to him on the phone. He remembers almost everything, and his recollection of what I’ve already written matches up with the newspaper accounts at the time.
However. There’s a lot of context missing.
First off, Austin says he ran for state senate mostly to avenge his father. Austin’s dad was a county commissioner who’d recently been defeated, and when the guy who beat him filed to run for state senate in 1966, Austin figured he’d try to knock him off. “We’ll see who can get the most votes,” he remembers thinking. Austin won in a landslide.
The decision to change parties was pretty simple, actually. Jim Gardner was a friend who asked him for help. “I changed my registration because I didn’t think I should be a Democrat who was helping a Republican,” he says. “I changed over to help him.”
Did anyone get upset about that? Nope! “I really didn’t get any reaction,” Austin says. People knew who he was at his core, and that he was more than just his party affiliation. The switch was also about as low stakes as it could get. The legislative session only ran from February until July of 1967, and didn’t meet at all in 1968. That meant that Austin, who switched parties in November, never actually voted on any measures as a Republican. He also didn’t plan for running for re-election. “I know I could have kept that seat for 25 or 30 years,” he says. But he had a family, a farm, and three kids. Being a state senator comes with a small salary. He couldn’t afford it. He left the senate chamber in 1967, and hasn’t stepped foot inside in the 56 years since.
After Austin left office, he went into business with Gardner, making roasted soybeans to take advantage of the health food craze of the 1970s. He went to North Carolina State, his alma mater, to figure out how to do it. Gardner was “the money man.” The company grew and opened a factory in Clayton, and eventually sold itself to Colgate-Palmolive. But when the corporation didn’t hold up their end of the deal, Gardner and Austin sued. They didn’t think they had a chance against Colgate-Palmolive’s high powered lawyers. Once he got to the courthouse though, Austin looked at the jurors and realized he knew almost everyone. He didn’t do anything to unduly influence the jury, he said, but his career as a politician who pounded the pavement made him a familiar face. Did it work? “Well, we won,” he says, chuckling.
Gardner himself never won the office he’d wanted. He eventually became lieutenant governor in 1988, but lost gubernatorial elections in 1972 and 1992. Jesse Austin was content to live a relatively quiet life in Clayton. He still knows a lot of people around Johnston County. But he’s still not crazy about labels. “Back then, whatever you did was your own business,” he says. “People hate each other now.” That’s why Austin decided to change his party affiliation one last time. At 94, he’s officially listed as unaffiliated.