Remembering Ex-Sen. David Gambrell: ‘Jimmy Carter’s Senator,’ Man of the Law

Remembering Ex-Sen. David Gambrell: 'Jimmy Carter's Senator,' Man of the Law jimmy carter claps as he introduces david gambrell Then-Georgia's Gov. Jimmy Carter, background center, applauds as he introduces state Democratic party chairman David Gambrell, (left) as his choice to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Senator Richard Russell, during a news conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Feb. 2, 1971. (Joe Holloway Jr./AP)

GetFile By John Gizzi Tuesday, 11 May 2021 01:17 PM Current | Bio | Archive

"It wasn’t that folks disliked David Gambrell," the late Julian Holland, longtime top aide to Rep. Dawson Mathis, D-Ga., told Newsmax in 1979, "It was just that [then-Democrat Gov. Jimmy] Carter appointed him to the Senate and Georgians were fed up with Carter by 1972. So there you have it — that’s why Gambrell lost to Sam Nunn. Carter. Period."

The news that Gambrell died on May 6 at age 91 resurfaced the story of his demise.

Appointed to fill the seat of the Peach State’s revered Democrat Sen. Richard Russell in events that are still argued among Georgia pols and pundits, Gambrell was widely seen as "Jimmy Carter’s Senator" and lost.

But it could also be argued that Gambrell, past president of the Atlanta and Georgia Bar Associations before he was 40, was less a politician than a man of the law. A Harvard Law graduate, Gambrell was a partner in the prestigious firm King and Spalding (which included Griffin Bell, who would become President Carter’s attorney general), was an editor of the American Bar Association Journal, and was director of the National Legal Aid and Defender Society.

His father, E. Smythe Gambrell, was a founder of and general counsel to Eastern Airlines and was one of five siblings who were all in "Who’s Who in America" simultaneously in the 1950’s.

For one whose pedigree was that of the Atlanta Establishment, Gambrell surprised people in 1970 when became treasurer of the campaign of ex-State Sen. Carter of Plains for governor against the establishment favorite — former Gov. Carl Sanders — whose embrace of racial moderation and modernization of his state’s economy made him the epitome of the "New South" governor of the 1960’s.

With the backing of the business community and most of the state’s newspapers, Sanders was the big favorite to win the primary. Carter ran to his right, voiced admiration for segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace, and branded the urbane Sanders "Cufflinks Carl."

One much-remembered part of their contest was a postcard widely mailed to rural white counties of Sanders, a part-owner of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, being doused with champagne by two black players.

In a stunning upset, Carter defeated Sanders with 57% of the vote. Carter then named Gambrell Democratic state chairman.

The ailing Sen. Russell reportedly secured Carter’s promise to name as his successor former Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who was married to Russell’s niece Betty. Vandiver himself told Newsmax "my understanding was Gov. Carter would appoint me to the Senate seat when it became vacant."

But, upon Russell’s death, Carter instead appointed Gambrell as his successor — reportedly after another Carter friend, Atlanta lawyer Charles Kirbo, declined the appointment. Wild horses could not keep Vandiver out of the race. Another contender, the moderate-to-conservative State Rep. Sam Nunn, forged an unusual coalition that included the segregationist Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox and nationally-known civil rights leader and State Rep. Julian Bond.

Gambrell topped a fifteen-candidate Democrat primary in 1972 with 31%, followed by Nunn with 24%. Conservative voters were growing upset over what they consider Carter’s betrayal of their support by moving to the left in order to seek the Democrat nomination for president. They took out their animosity toward Carter on his appointed senator Gambrell.

In the resulting run-off, Nunn defeated Gambrell and went on to the Senate in November.

The opinion that Gambrell’s association with Carter was his undoing was borne out in the Democrat primary for governor the following year. Maddox and House Majority Leader George Busbee — the two candidates most distant from termed-out Gov. Carter — were one-two in the primary, with Carter’s budget chief Bert Lance third and Carter’s friend Gambrell fourth.

His brief political career over in 1974, Gambrell returned to his first love. Along with practicing law, he served as curator of the Georgia Historical Society and served as a director of the Georgia Legal History Foundation.

"David was an achiever in a family of achievers," recalled his cousin, former U.S. Court of Claims Judge John Napier, "But for him, achieving meant practicing law and seeing that the law worked for the benefit of all Georgians. In his eyes, no one was above the law or below it. And he sought to demonstrate this in every step of his career."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.