Saturday, March 5, 2016

Populist Huey Long

Huey Pierce Long, Jr. (August 30, 1893 – September 10, 1935), nicknamed The Kingfish, was an American politician who served as the 40th Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and as a member of the United States Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. A Democrat, he was an outspoken populist who denounced the rich and the banks and called for "Share our Wealth." As the political boss of the state he commanded wide networks of supporters and was willing to take forceful action. He established the political prominence of the Long political family.

Long is best known for his Share Our Wealth program, created in 1934 under the motto "Every Man a King." It proposed new wealth redistribution measures in the form of a net asset tax on corporations and individuals to curb the poverty and homelessness endemic nationwide during the Great Depression. To stimulate the economy, Long advocated federal spending on public works, schools and colleges, and old age pensions. He was an ardent critic of the policies of the Federal Reserve System.

A supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election, Long split with Roosevelt in June 1933 to plan his own presidential bid for 1936 in alliance with the influential Catholic priest and radio commentator Charles Coughlin. Long was assassinated in 1935 and his national movement soon faded, but his legacy continued in Louisiana through his wife, Senator Rose McConnell Long, and his son, Senator Russell B. Long.

Under Long's leadership, hospitals and educational institutions were expanded, a system of charity hospitals was set up that provided health care for the poor, massive highway construction and free bridges brought an end to rural isolation, and free textbooks were provided for schoolchildren. He remains a controversial figure in Louisiana history, with critics and supporters debating whether or not he was a dictator, a demagogue, or a populist.

Political Career and Rise to Power

In 1918 Long was elected to the Louisiana Railroad Commission (renamed the Louisiana Public Service Commission in 1921) at the age of 25 on an anti-Standard Oil platform. His campaign for the Railroad Commission used techniques he would perfect later in his political career: heavy use of printed circulars and posters, an exhaustive schedule of personal campaign stops throughout rural Louisiana, and vehement attacks on his opponents. He used his position on the Commission to enhance his populist reputation as an opponent of large oil and utility companies, fighting against rate increases and pipeline monopolies. In the gubernatorial election of 1920, he campaigned prominently for John M. Parker, but later became his vocal opponent after the new governor proved to be insufficiently committed to reform, later calling him the "chattel" of the corporations.

As chairman of the Public Service Commission in 1922, Long won a lawsuit against the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Company for unfair rate increases, resulting in cash refunds of $440,000 to 80,000 overcharged customers. Long successfully argued the case on appeal before the United States Supreme Court (Comberland Telephone & Telegraph Co. v.Louisiana Public Service Commission et al., 260 U.S. 212 (1922), prompting Chief Justice [and former U.S. President] William Howard Taft to describe Long as one of the best legal minds he had ever encountered.

Long won the 1928 election [for governor] by tapping into the class resentment of rural Louisianans. He proposed government services far more expansive than anything in his state's history. His campaign manager was the Catholic Cajun Harvey Peltier, Sr., a state representative and lawyer/banker from Thibodaux in Lafourche Parish. Long had the backing of the timber businessman Swords Lee, his cousin by marriage and a former state representative for Grant Parish.

Early in 1928, Long won the Democratic primary election but failed to secure a majority of the vote. He polled 126,842 votes (43.9 percent). His opponents split the remaining 56 percent of the ballots. U.S. Representative Riley J. Wilson earned 81,747 votes (28.3 percent), and the short-term incumbent Governor Oramel H. Simpson garnered 80,326 (27.8 percent). At the time, Long's margin was the largest in state history, and neither opponent chose to face him in a runoff election as was permitted in Louisiana. He won the general election on April 17, 1928, with 92,941 votes (96.1 percent), to 3,733 for the Republican candidate, Etienne J. Caire. Caire's running mate, John E. Jackson, a New Orleans lawyer who later took over the state Republican chairmanship, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor against Paul N. Cyr, with whom Long later had an irreconcilable break.

Long's three-year tenure in the Senate [from 1932 to 1935] overlapped an important time in American history as Herbert Hoover and then FDR attempted to deal with the Great Depression. Long often attempted to upstage FDR and the congressional leadership by mounting populist appeals of his own, most notably his "Share Our Wealth" program.

Roosevelt considered Long a radical demagogue. The president privately said of Long that along with General Douglas MacArthur, "[H]e was one of the two most dangerous men in America." In June 1933, in an effort to undermine Long's political dominance, Roosevelt cut Long out of consultation on the distribution of federal funds or patronage in Louisiana and placed Long's opponents in charge of federal programs in the state. Roosevelt also supported a Senate inquiry into the election of Long ally John H. Overton to the Senate in 1932. The Long machine was charged with election fraud and voter intimidation but the inquiry came up empty, and Overton was seated. To discredit Long and damage his support base, in 1934 Roosevelt had Long's finances investigated by the Internal Revenue Service. Though they failed to link Long to any illegality, some of Long's lieutenants were charged with income tax evasion, but only one had been convicted by the time of Long's death.


Long was shot a month after announcing that he would run for president. On the day of the shooting, Sunday, September 8, 1935, Long was at the State Capitol attempting to oust a long-time opponent, Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy. "House Bill Number One," a re-redistricting plan, was Long's top priority. If it passed, Judge Pavy would be removed from the bench. At 9 p.m., the session was still going strong. Judge Pavy's son-in-law, Dr. Carl Weiss, had been at the State Capitol waiting to speak to Long. He tried to see him three times to talk to him but was brushed off each time in the hallway by Long and his bodyguards. At 9:20 p.m., just moments after the House passed the bill, Weiss approached Long for the third time and, according to the generally accepted version of events, fired a handgun at Long from four feet away, shooting him in the torso. Long's bodyguards, two of whom were elected sheriffs in 1936, Elliot D. Coleman in Tensas Parish and Larry Sale in Claiborne Parish, returned fire, killing Weiss instantly. Long was rushed to the hospital, but died two days later, on Tuesday, September 10, 1935 at 4:10 a.m. Long was 42 years old. His last words were, "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do."

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