E. R. Combs : chief of the Byrd organization

Weisiger, Minor T, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Younger, Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

American political machines and organizations have always been hierarchical in nature. The names of those at the top of such political edifaces are often assigned to them. Thus the Pendergast machine of Missouri, or the Crump machine of Tennessee. These leaders also garner the lion's share of the headlines and publicity. Those largely responsible for the day to day durability of such organizations are often relegated to anonymity, emerging but occasionally as the stereotypical “ward heelers,” performing mundane tasks for “the Boss.” This distortion does injustice to the men who are central to such political groups, for they are the liaison between the grass roots base of machine support and the top hierarchy. Their role and functions in these organizations is seldom studied, because records of their activities are scarce.

The purpose of this study is to delineate the role and function of one such man, E. R. Combs, in one of the most successful of these political rings, the Democratic "Bryd organization" of Virginia. Long credited with being Harry Byrd's chief of staff, and the second most powerful man in Virginia politics for a quarter- century, E. R. Combs remains little more than a name to students of twentieth century Virginia politics. Yet he was involved in every aspect of organization politics from the early Nineteen-twenties until his own death in 1957, and came to symbolize the efficient machine.

Brought up in the rough and tumble political world of Southwestern Virginia, he quickly proved himself a politician and organizer of extraordinary ability, taking the lead in several key Democratic victories there. Harry Byrd, in the process of revitalizing and refining the Virginia Democratic organization, brought Combs to Richmond to become his political overseer. Combs quickly installed himself as the liaison between Byrd and the local and state officials, who were the backbone of the organization. With the aid of several appointive offices, notably Chairmanship of the State Compensation Board, he wielded great personal power. Though never free from at least scattered criticism, he managed to remain out of the public eye, yet in the very center of the Virginia political scene. Without question he proved himself to be one of the most remarkable and unique politicians in Virginia history, and the success which the Byrd organization enjoyed was due in no small part to the quiet but methodically brilliant "Ebbie" Combs.

MA (Master of Arts)
Combs, Everett R. -- (Everett Randolph) -- 1876-1957, Virginia -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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