Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Reactionary, penurious, and in some cases downright cruel": The Strange Career of Coke Stevenson, Part I

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 rise of what might be the first modern Speaker of the Texas House, a reactionary conservative named Coke Stevenson.

The transition to a political modern era did not proceed smoothly in Texas. Conservatives in the 1930s like Speaker Coke Robert Stevenson held no interest in expanding state government. In terms of economic policy, his two terms as speaker from 1933-1937 seemed a throwback to the harshest stinginess of the so-called “Redeemer” governments that followed Reconstruction. What was revolutionary about the Stevenson era was how the power of the speakership itself expanded, even if Stevenson primarily used that power to obstruct rather than implement reform.

No speaker had ever wielded so much influence as did the man born in a Mason County log cabin March 20, 1888. The son of a teacher, Stevenson had a rootless childhood but by 1905 the family settled in Junction in Kimble County. At age 16, Stevenson launched his first business venture, running a freight line from Junction to Brady. Originally seeking an accountant’s job at Junction State Bank, he took the only opening available, that of janitor and errand boy. Quickly, however, he moved up to clerk and by 1909 his boss promoted him to cashier.

Largely self-taught, Stevenson pursued a law license and won admission to the bar in 1913, successfully running for Kimble County attorney in 1914. In 1918, he won a two-year term as county judge, stepping down to resume his private law practice. By 1921, the First National Bank board in Junction named him president and Stevenson expanded his financial empire to include ownership of a newspaper (the Junction Eagle), a hotel, a movie theater, and a Ford dealership. In 1928, a group of Kimble County ranchers fanned the ten-county district in search of a candidate who would press the Legislature to pay hunters for eliminating wolves feeding on area livestock and persuaded Stevenson to run for the state House.

After winning, Stevenson’s first stab at reducing the wolf population in his district backfired. The state payments for killed and trapped wolves attracted scam artists who brought in wolf carcasses from outside Kimble County to claim the bounty. Stevenson then pushed through a bill that outlawed transportation of wolves across county lines. Early on, he showed his fiscal conservatism. He later reported feeling shocked when he discovered during his first term in the House that the state had no auditing system. Stevenson authored a bill creating the office of state auditor, the first step towards giving Texas a modern budget system.

Stevenson’s role in crafting this law showed his early acumen in House procedures. As his bill for predator control indicates, he welcomed the use of government power to aid wealthy landowners to protect their investments. Stevenson however was an extremely cautious spender, which became apparent when he vigorously opposed Governor Ross Sterling’s plan to sell $100,000,000 (approximately $1.2 billion in today’s dollars) in bonds for highway construction and to compensate counties that had bond indebtedness for road construction.

After the Senate approved submitting an amendment authorizing the bond sale to voters, the House needed 100 affirmative votes to place the measure on the ballot. As many as 99 House members voted in favor of the bonds, but Stevenson’s “no” faction held strong through several roll calls, striking down Sterling’s road program. Stevenson steered through a compromise measure in which the state highway department was provided a yearly budget from which construction funds would be drawn.

Stevenson’s success in opposing Governor’s Sterling’s highway plan marked him as a star legislator and propelled him to the speakership in 1933. Stevenson’s friendly relationship with Ma and Pa Ferguson also helped. Stevenson emerged as leader in part because of charisma augmented by a vicious sense of humor. While hunting with a lobbyist and several legislators, a rancher who was friends with Stevenson told him of a horse on the property that was so old it should be destroyed. The rancher asked Stevenson to do the job.

As the car carrying the hunters passed by the intended target, Stevenson asked the driver to stop, whereupon he got out and declared, “I think I’ll kill that ol’ horse.” Stevenson raised his muzzle and shot the animal in the head. His unsuspecting companions stared at Stevenson until the lobbyist finally asked, “Why did you shoot that horse?” “I just always wondered what it would feel like to shoot a horse,” Stevenson replied. “”Now I’m wondering what it would feel like to shoot a man.”

Perhaps the incident was meant as a practical joke, but as a politician, Stevenson proved he could be as coldhearted as a man who would kill just to satisfy curiosity. “Throughout his political career, Stevenson had been an ultraconservative,” Texas political historian Kenneth E. Hendrickson wrote. “ . . . He exhibited no liberal tendencies at all and few that could even be described as constructive; he was a reactionary, penurious, and in some cases downright cruel.”

Irony marked Stevenson’s alliance with incoming Gov. Miriam Ferguson, who served her second non-consecutive term as the state’s chief executive from 1933 to 1935. Stevenson opposed social welfare on principal, but one of Ferguson’s boldest initiatives was the issuance of a $20 million bread bond to buy clothing and food for the poor who were the worst hit by the Great Depression. Ferguson and her husband Jim (who many believed ran the government behind the scenes) opposed the Progressives in the teens and the 20s, but this time the pair aligned with President Franklin Roosevelt and the Texas liberal faction.

The 1933 session proved the longest to date in Texas history, ending one week short of five months as the Legislature dealt with the deepening Depression. As speaker, Stevenson cultivated an image as a long tall Texan who refused to be rushed into a decision. Charles E. Simons, writing in a March 1942 edition of Texas Parade, summed up the seemingly easy-going style with which the Junction businessman commanded the Texas House:

While the members were milling or shouting or debating and wrangling, Stevenson would calmly load and light his pipe and solemnly puff while he pondered the situation and watched the ebb and flow of the tide. Picking the psychological time, he would gather up the loose ends, bring them up short with a pointed observation and gentle the members into getting about the business at hand.

Stevenson certainly proved a commanding presence as speaker. He “kept greater order by rapping on the speaker’s podium with his pipe than most of us have done with a five-pound gavel,” as Ben Barnes, speaker from 1965-1969, commented in a July 16, 1966 Bay City speech.

By the end of the 1933 session talk already buzzed around the Capitol about a possible gubernatorial run by the speaker. During Stevenson’s debut term, one significant piece of legislation with long-lasting consequences reached the governors desk: the creation of the Lower Colorado River Authority, which built dams, parks and other public facilities that controlled flooding, provided recreation and improved the economy of central Texas. Miriam Ferguson chose to not run again in 1934 after serving a relatively uncontroversial two-year term. Stevenson, however, decided to bide his time.

James Allred of Bowie, who handily defeated former House Speaker Robert Lee Bobbitt in a 1930 race for state attorney general and captured the office for a second term two years later, emerged as a leading gubernatorial candidate. Allred ran on a modest platform calling for creation of a public utilities commission, placing the repeal of Prohibition before voters, creating a more modern, better-trained and efficient state police force, cutting taxes, granting more power to the state board of pardons and parole in order to prevent future abuses of power by governors (as some said happened under the Fergusons), and regulating the activities of lobbyists.

Allred was a more genuine liberal than the Fergusons, who lacked a coherent ideology. He “focused on reform of the capitalist system without destroying the foundations for free enterprise.” Texas Progressives had obsessed on cultural causes for poverty and other social ills, paying little attention to economic policy. Economic liberals of the 1930s and beyond, however, believed unregulated free markets undermined democracy. To men like Allred, capitalism left unrestrained by government created an uneven distribution of wealth, unemployment, and allowed the abuse of power by big business.

Allred won the Democratic nomination for governor with a 4,000-vote margin. The 1935 speakers’ race entangled thoroughly with the gubernatorial campaign. Stevenson, who as a member of the House had already displayed more power and influence than previous governors Ross Sterling and Ma Ferguson, took the unprecedented step of asking for a second term as speaker.

This event, longtime Capitol correspondent Sam Kinch, Jr., argues served as the most pivotal event in the speakership’s history. Before Stevenson, Kinch writes, the speaker: ". . . generally was a strong, independent-minded person who presided over a collection of similar individuals for a single 2-year term and then resumed regular legislative service as a member. Beginning about 1935, though, the office of speaker began evolving into something else, something more powerful and politically important. Aspiring public officials began seeking the office not as a service to their colleagues but as a route to upward mobility.

Stevenson’s opponent in the 1935 speaker race, Robert W. Calvert, warned that tyranny would result from a multi-term speakership. By this point, however, Stevenson had emerged as leader of the state’s conservatives. Several historical factors, historian George Norris Green argues, promoted a conservative hegemony in Texas by the late 1930s. Texas’ experience as an independent republic, as part of the losing Confederacy, and as a western outpost angry at what was perceived as Washington’s weak response to Native American resistance all laid the precedent for a troubled relationship with Washington, D.C.

Additionally, troubled race relations fed elite fears of a powerful federal government, particularly in the realm of civil rights. The worry of Texas conservatives that the White House might enforce black voting rights rose with Franklin Roosevelt’s ascension to the White House in 1933, the same year Stevenson became speaker. If conservatives collaborated with the New Deal in Roosevelt’s first term, Texas politicians like John Nance Garner and Stevenson expressed estrangement in the second half of the 1930s.


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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