Clyde R. Hoey (1877-1954)

Written By Douglas Carl Abrams

The administration of Clyde R. Hoey as governor from 1937 to 1941 reaffirmed conservative rule in the state and also the power of the “Shelby dynasty,” the label given to the political organization of former governor Max Gardner, Hoey’s brother-in-law and fellow resident of Shelby. The 1936 gubernatorial race took place in a critical moment in the state during the Great Depression and New Deal. Business interests and other conservatives in the state tried to limit the New Deal. The incumbent governor, John C. B. Ehringhaus, also a political ally of Gardner, in 1933 pushed a sales tax through the General Assembly and preserved it in 1935. New Deal supporters in the state were poised for a battle in the 1936 campaign for governor.
Hoey’s opponent, Ralph MacDonald, had led the unsuccessful fight against the sales tax in the 1935 legislative session. Despite having lived in the state for only the previous twelve years, the former Salem College professor from Illinois proved very popular, especially among tobacco farmers in the East, where insurgent politicians drew most of their support. MacDonald zealously promoted the New Deal and attacked both the sales tax and the Gardner “machine.” By the middle of the decade, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt remained very popular in the state.

Hoey differed in background from MacDonald. A fifty-eight-year-old lawyer represented the older generation of Democrats in the state. He had served as a state legislator, an assistant United States attorney, one-term congressman, and leader of the forces in state for Prohibition. Personally popular, a skilled orator, Hoey also possessed a style, “eccentric in its old-fashionedness,” according to one critic. His long, flowing hair, frock coat with a wing-tipped collar, high-topped shoes, a fresh red boutonniere, a nightshirt for bed, clearly distinguished him. In addition, as a good Methodist Sunday School teacher, he did not drink, smoke, or chew tobacco. Years before he had helped prosecute Communist strike leaders in nearby Gastonia.

In 1936, with Gardner’s forces controlling state government for the last eight years, Hoey was on the defensive about his close personal and political relationship with Gardner.  In the campaign for governor, Hoey overcame much of that hurdle as he coopted some of McDonald’s New Deal liberalism. He proposed to end the sales tax on necessities and pledged full cooperation with federal programs to help farmers and those eligible for Social Security. He also promised more funds for education and highways. The state Works Progress Administration director, the most important New Deal official in North Carolina in 1936, supported Hoey. In his rhetoric Hoey praised Roosevelt. With some support for the New Deal and the strength of the Gardner organization, Hoey prevailed over his opponent in a close primary and runoff.

By the time Hoey became governor in 1937, most New Deal battles in North Carolina had already been fought. Hoey helped maintain New Deal assistance to Tar Heel farmers, the most important federal program for the state. After the Supreme Court declared the Agricultural Adjustment Administration unconstitutional, the state’s tobacco farmers voluntarily restricted production under a conservation program and prices remained good. In 1938 when compulsory controls returned, prices dropped, so for 1939 tobacco growers rejected controls. When Great Britain withdrew from the American tobacco market because of World War II, prices fell dramatically in 1939. Hoey was instrumental in getting farmers to vote for controls for 1940, a condition for the federal government’s help in resolving the marketing crisis. The tobacco market eventually stabilized.

Governor Hoey also contributed to the implementation of the Social Security program in North Carolina. In his inaugural address, he recommended full compliance with that federal legislation. The General Assembly complied, and in July 1937, the state welfare department began assisting the elderly and dependent children. Although nationally North Carolina lagged behind, the Social Security program by January 1940 had spent $29.1 million in the state,. In 1940 it ranked thirty-ninth in the amount distributed in the Old Age Assistance part of Social Security.

While Hoey’s predecessor was governor the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began in 1935, yet Governor Hoey faced a similar dilemma. The relief needs remained high, but the state was reluctant to contribute financially given its financial problems and the governor’s fiscal conservatism. North Carolina ranked last in the nation in WPA spending. In October 1938 the WPA reached its peak in the state with 55,000 on the relief rolls and expenditures of $2.25 million monthly. In the months and years ahead the agency declined as defense needs stimulated the economy. The WPA did have a political impact with the state WPA’s director supporting Hoey in his campaign; the 1939 Hatch Act banned such direct political activity by federal employees.  

Despite his amiable demeanor and rhetoric supportive of a popular President Roosevelt, Hoey joined other prominent conservative Democrats, including his brother-in-law Max Gardner, in opposing the New Deal. The first serious break came over the president’s court-packing plan. Hoey, however, only fought it behind the scenes. Also in 1936 and 1937 he blamed Roosevelt for the sit-down strikes because he had given in to organized labor. In 1938 a federal report cited the South as the nation’s number one economic problem and Hoey, among others, angrily denounced it. “Frankness compels me to say that I would never recognize North Carolina from the description given in the report,” the governor insisted.

At the state level Hoey maintained the pro-business emphasis on a balanced budget, limiting the welfare state, and resisting federal interference. The 1937 legislature preserved the sales tax and in 1939 made it permanent, without any significant opposition. With economic improvement in the late 1930s and increasing revenues, the state government modestly increased spending for Social Security benefits and for public schools. Hoey would not lead a “little New Deal” in the state.

As a capstone to his political career, Hoey was elected to the United States Senate in 1944, reelected in 1950, and served until his death in his Senate office in Washington, D.C.  He died on May 12, 1954.  Hoey maintained his conservative views in Washington as he supported agricultural and business interests. In the early Cold War he opposed the Communist threat and in the postwar era sought to maintain racial segregation. North Carolinians valued his decency and recognized his hard work for the Democratic Party.