Sunday, March 27, 2011

Paying the Price for Texas Conservatism: The Strange Career of Coke Stevenson, Part II

In 2010, the University of Texas Press published "The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became A Power in State and National Politics," a book I co-wrote with Dr. Patrick L. Cox. In this passage, we describe the remarkable career of Robert Calvert, once an abandoned child living in a state orphanage, who challenged Coke Stevenson's re-election bid for the state House speakership and who would himself rise to the office in 1937.

Reactionary Coke Stevenson set a revolutionary precedent when he ran for a second straight term as Texas speaker. No one who had ever held that position had done so before and by this simple act he greatly expanded the influence of the office. He entered the race for re-election in 1935 tagged as a “Ferguson” man -- a supporter of Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson and the power-behind-the-scenes (her husband Jim.) He entered the race, therefore, an opponent of Governor-elect James Allred, a strong supporter of FDR.

Stevenson held close ties to big industries, such as sulfur and oil. Allred’s actions as state attorney general, on the other hand, indicated his willingness to rein in corporations and bring them to court if they violated state regulations. “Nowhere have [big corporations] found in [Allred] the warmth of that welcome to which they have been accustomed,” reported the Austin American on January 8, 1935. “Not unnatural that their slogan should be ‘STOP ALLRED IN THE LEGISLATURE.’”

The departing Governor “Ma” Ferguson and her husband Jim openly backed Stevenson as their man. Allred, on the other hand, saw in Robert W. Calvert someone who could carry his reform programs in the Legislature. Perhaps no prominent political figure in twentieth century Texas overcame more obstacles to reach the limelight than Calvert. Calvert’s family lived in poverty and at age seven, the Tennessee native saw his father lapse into severe illness and die. Calvert’s mother Maud struggled to keep her family of five children together, settling in Corsicana where she earned a living running errands for ill or elderly people.

Desperately poor, Maud Calvert committed the eight-year-old Robert, his sister Maxie and his brother Grady to the State Orphan’s Asylum in Corsicana. In his memoir "Here Comes the Judge," he recalls the trauma of being torn from his mother. “When Superintendent W.F. Barnett [of the Asylum] came in an old Model T touring car to pick up the three of us to take us to the State Home, they had to pull me out from under my bed, screaming that I did not want to go.” Calvert spent the rest of his childhood in this institution and its schools.

The children living at the state home paid the price for the low priority Texas politicians placed on social welfare. Calvert’s sister died during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Conditions at the home bordered on the primitive. Calvert recalled, “We had a terrible infestation of rats in the building. Some of the little boys were bitten by the rats on various parts of their bodies, some on their face. One bit me through the end of one of my fingers during the night while I was sleeping; the finger became infected and the skin of the entire joint hardened and peeled off.”

He remembers during a mandated quiet time on Sunday afternoons, a employee at the home would gather up left-over bread and visit the boys’ dormitory and allow them to have their choice of the light bread, corn bread or biscuits she had gathered in a wooden box. “[She] made talks to us, had prayer, and invariably reminded us that we were wards of the State of Texas, and that the taxpayers of the State of Texas were good to us and blessed us with a good home. She would ask, ‘Children, who gave you this fine home?’ And she taught us to respond in unison, ‘The taxpayers of Texas.’ And then she would ask, ‘And how will you repay the taxpayers of Texas?’ And we were taught to respond, ‘By being good citizens.’”

In spite of unbelievable hardships, Calvert graduated from the high school provided at the orphanage. Calvert remembered that life improved upon the appointment of Odie Minatra as the home’s superintendent. Minatra started two public speaking societies at the institution’s high school and Calvert excelled at debate. Minatra noticed Calvert’s oratorical talents and dispatched the 16-year-old to the state Capitol to lobby for a new boys’ dormitory. It was an auspicious debut for the future legislator who persuaded the House and the Senate to appropriate $100,000 (about $962,000 in today’s dollars) to construct the dorm.

Minatra also initiated a “big brothers” mentoring program with Corsicana-area businessmen, and through this Calvert came under the wing of Luther Johnson, elected to Congress in 1922, and future Texas Governor Beauford Jester. The two, he said, later influenced his decision to enter the University of Texas law school. Calvert earned money for his tuition by working as a water boy at a refinery and then as an elevator operator at the state Capitol. He graduated, receiving his law license in 1931 before opening a law practice in Hillsboro.

Calvert first won election to the Texas House in 1933 from a so-called “flotorial district” that included Hill and Navarro counties on the western edge of North Central Texas. His experience in the state home deeply influenced his behavior in the state House. Calvert had been “raised at the State Home on an anti-Ferguson diet by Mr. Minatra, who . . . lost the superintendency of the State Home because of his anti-Ferguson persuasion.”

This placed him in direct conflict with the newly elected chief executive. In spite of his dislike for the governor and her husband, Calvert supported the speaker candidacy of Coke Stevenson. In his first term, Calvert rose as a leader of the anti-Ferguson forces, however, through his heated opposition to a bill that would have allowed Ferguson to replace the three incumbents on the state highway commission with five new commissioners who would serve for about a year and a half before they faced election in 1934.

“There was much talk during the gubernatorial campaign of 1934 about the Fergusons raising campaign funds by selling jobs to be delivered in the highway department once she was elected,” Calvert said. “. . . When the discussion of the bill started, the proponents had a safe margin for passage; but with all due modesty, I think this was one occasion when a speech on the floor of the House turned the tide on pending legislation.” Calvert attached an amendment that would postpone the reforms of the highway commission until the 1934 general election. With Calvert’s amendment, the bill passed the House by a 74-63 vote and sent it to the Senate, where Ferguson allies lost interest and failed to bring up the measure for consideration.

This set up the intense 1935 speaker’s race when Stevenson sought a second term. Before the Stevenson era, state newspapers provided little analysis of upcoming speaker contests. As in 1933, however, the 1935 speaker race received extensive newspaper coverage. Reporters depicted the race as a test of wills between incoming Governor Allred and the departing Fergusons. In spite of his public image as a reluctant politician compelled to serve his constituents, Stevenson ran his campaign with Machiavellian zeal. Stevenson’s supporters circulated a petition asking the speaker to run. Calvert already signed a petition for Bert Ford, a representative from McLennan County, so he told the Stevenson people no.

The persons circulating it (the petition) said there was no possibility that Stevenson would return to the [H]ouse and offer for the speakership again; they simply wanted to make this a showing of confidence in the event he became a candidate for governor. I told them to change the petition to read that and we would support him for governor and I would sign; otherwise I would not.

When 115 members signed the petition, Stevenson announced that he had enough votes for a second term. Told that some members had thought the petition was a vote of confidence for a potential gubernatorial race, Stevenson denied this. His move, however, forced Ford to drop his campaign. Calvert said that he and 11 other anti-Ferguson representatives decided to oppose Stevenson. Calvert entered the race with his 11 supporters against the 115 men who had signed Stevenson’s petition. Allred’s victory in the Democratic gubernatorial primary gave Calvert much needed momentum and the governor-elect openly supported Calvert.

By the last week of the campaign, Calvert said he was winning the race. In an attempt to prove he still enjoyed the support of the majority of House members, Stevenson asked his backers to wear red carnations. Fewer than the required 76 representatives, however, wore the flowers on their lapels. When House members cast ballots Stevenson won 80-68, a much closer race than anyone anticipated. Regardless, such was the power of Stevenson that Governor-elect Allred felt compelled to immediately meet with the newly re-elected speaker and declare peace before assembled reporters.

By winning, Stephenson had recreated the speaker’s office. The fact that Jim Ferguson and James Allred used the speaker campaign as a proxy battle for control of the Democratic Party provided a frank acknowledgement that, in the right hands, House speakers could hold considerable power in their own right.

Stevenson and Allred soon found themselves on a collision course. Under Ferguson, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing payment to the elderly and the poor. The amendment, however, did not specify a funding mechanism for the program. After rejecting a proposal for a state sales tax that he saw as being regressive, Allred suggested various business taxes and even an income tax to fund the pensions. Stevenson responded with his favorite tactic: slowly lighting his pipe, endorsing no proposals and doing nothing while he insisted the problems would solve themselves. Allred proposed the transfer of $3 million from state highway funds to keep the pension checks flowing, but again Stevenson stymied the initiative, insisting that “gasoline taxes and other motor imposts were special taxes that . . . could be used only for . . . building and maintaining highways.”

Stevenson turned his attention to the office of lieutenant governor. Calvert, a hero to legislators because of his fierce opposition to the Fergusons, faced no opponent in his race for re-election in 1936 and he ran unopposed for speaker. “In the ‘30s, speakers did not have legislative programs of their own,” Calvert wrote. “I had no legislative program which I called the speaker’s program, except that I did state to members of the house that I felt that the program advocated by Allred [who had been re-elected as governor] . . . was entitled to fair consideration.”

Calvert underestimates the role he played as speaker when Stevenson became lieutenant governor. Together, Allred and Calvert enjoyed a relatively productive session after the reactionary Stevenson years. Calvert, who had been active in setting up the Old Age Assistance Commission in 1935 (which later became the Texas Department of Human Services), had not forgotten his youth in the state home and successfully advocated laws benefiting neglected, blind and dependent children. By 1939, he had played a key role in passage a law extending the power of the Railroad Commission to regulate how much oil each well in the state could produce. If his predecessor proved the power of speakers to obstruct, Calvert proved the critical role speakers could play in enacting legislation.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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