Sunday, April 11, 2010

Gov. La Follette Re-elected

Chapter XIII of Part One of Political Reform in Wisconsin (1910) by Emanuel L. Philipp (see Introduction and Contents)

Gov. La Follette was renominated over the opposition of the Wisconsin Republican league and re-elected in November. While the league did not contest his election as an organization, it was no secret that the members bolted in large numbers. In 1900 his total vote was 264,419, and his net plurality over the democratic candidate, Louis 0. Bomrich, was 103,745. In 1902 his total vote was 193,417--a falling off of 71,002--and his net plurality over David S. Bose, the democratic candidate, was 47,599. But the figures showing the shrinkage of the republican vote do not give a complete understanding of the republican bolt or indicate to what extent the republican party was divided. Thousands of democrats who had been "regular" since W. J. Bryan captured the Chicago convention in 1896 were in full sympathy with Gov. La Follette and his reforms. They voted for him in companies, battalions, and regiments. They were, interchangeably, Bryan democrats or La Follette republicans, whatever the occasion might call for. And their assistance had been industriously solicited.

The plan and method by which the election was attained were new to Wisconsin politics. There was no precedent in the state for the perfect organization and efficient discipline that characterized the administration machine. With the exception of the campaign two years later, at which the both sides to the controversy had added to their store of experience in the line of campaign organization and management, and were more evenly matched in consequence, it is beyond question that the campaign of 1902 stands without a parallel in the history of Wisconsin.

The state employes, inclusive of those under the civil service rule, and large numbers of young men in attendance as students at the University of Wisconsin, were organized as a working force in the interests of the administration faction. There were times when the state house was practically deserted except by a clerical force employed in folding and mailing campaign literature. Heads of departments were in the field doing campaign work and they were accompanied by their clerks and other subordinates. Employes of state institutions contributed their share to the total amount of political work done. And in the prosecution of this campaign party lines were entirely ignored. Lists of "fair minded" democrats, as all Bryan democrats were called, were at hand and the campaign was taken to their doors both by circulars, campaign documents, and personal solicitation. The result was that Gov. La Follette was re—elected, notwithstanding a bolt that split the republican party practically in two.

At this point it is worth while to pause for a glance at one feature of the campaign of 1902 that is not altogether sad. There is a grim humor about the incident, although it was not intended to excite merriment, that is refreshing, not to say inspiring.

It is a well known fact that Senator John C. Spooner was not a believer in the primary election plan of abolishing political evils. He had never been a politician. He had himself remarked to friends that, should he attempt to organize his own ward for an election, it would be sure to go democratic. But the people of Wisconsin had counted him as a statesman and did not require that he should develop political cunning and sagacity. They were satisfied with him as he was. He had made a record during twelve years in the upper house of congress that justified his friends in believing in his understanding of statecraft.

Senator Spooner had written a letter in 1900 in which he announced that, for private and personal reasons which it was unnecessary to explain, he would not be a candidate for re-election in 1903. At no time after giving that letter to the press had he indicated by written statement or spoken word that he was likely to reconsider the determination there expressed.

The governor was now in the saddle, absolute master of a republican convention in 1902, engineer of the most perfect political machine ever constructed in a middle western state, if not in the United States, and full of the arrogance of power. He itched to take a fall out of Senator Spooner.

The convention adopted a platform in which the following plank had a conspicuous place.
We especially commend the official career of the Hon. John C. Spooner who, by his notably able, conservative, and patriotic course upon questions of national and international importance, has become a leader in the United States senate. We again express regret for his announced determination not to serve the state another term in the senate, and should he now find it possible to reconsider his decision and express his willingness to stand as a candidate in harmony with the sentiment and in support of the platform principles here adopted by Wisconsin republicans in state convention, and for the election of a legislature favorable to their enactment into law, his decision would meet with the approval of republicans everywhere, and we pledge him the enthusiastic support of the party for his re-election to the high position which he has filled with such distinguished ability and with such honor to the state and nation. And in case Senator Spooner shall not find it possible to again be a candidate for United States Senator, we demand that all candidates for this position shall indorse the principles of this platform and favor the election of a legislature pledged to enact those principles into law.
The convention then re-adopted the platform of 1900 and specifically repeated the language of the primary election plank contained therein.

There is no record evidence that Senator Spooner ever made a pilgrimage to the shrine at Madison or kowtowed to the governor as a consideration for a re-election to the United States senate. He never promised to be good so far as the public is aware. He never became a candidate, if a withdrawal of his letter announcing that he would not stand for re-election was necessary to make him a candidate. He simply kept silent and when the time came to elect a senator the honor was tendered to him by the unanimous vote of all the republicans in the legislature.

Here was an instance where a platform pledge was ignored without any published protest on the part of the maker. If the plank quoted means anything, it means that Senator Spooner must recant, express his sorrow for his failure or refusal to give the primary election movement aid and comfort, and get out in the fleld and boost it along. The platform said this was the condition under which he would be spared. And yet Senator Spooner, who never even made a pretense of seeking harmony; who never, either publicly or privately, gave the proposed law his indorsement; who never even "passed the time of day" with the governor; who was not a candidate for re—election, was unanimously chosen to be his own successor under conditions that made it impossible for him to decline.

The only explanation of the incident is that at the time the convention was held, Gov. La Follette overestimated his strength, and that he later discovered he had undertaken a task he could not perform. The contract was too big for him. But one thing he did do: He gave a convincing illustration of a "boss ruled convention," an unusual thing in Wisconsin prior to 1900.