This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On a campaign stop in Plainview on Jun. 19, 1941, U.S. Senate candidate Gerald C. Mann denounced a disgraceful attempt to buy the election “with the invasion of money from Washington.”
Sen. Morris Sheppard had died on Apr. 9 two years into his fifth term. Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel appointed Andrew Jackson Houston, the San Jacinto hero’s 87 year old son, to keep the seat warm until a special winner-takes-all election could be held on Jun. 28
Within two weeks of Sheppard’s passing, three major figures had thrown their hats into the ring. The first to announce was Gerald Mann, 34 year old attorney general and former football star at Southern Methodist University. He was closely followed by Martin Dies, Jr., 40, the congressman from Orange elected in 1930 to his father’s old seat. Then on Apr. 22, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Hill Country congressman a year younger than Mann, declared his candidacy from the steps of the White House.
The “elephant in the room” was Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel rumored to be interested in a change of address but delaying his decision until the end of the legislative session. Although he had few tangible accomplishments to show for two terms, “Pappy” was adored by the rural electorate and had to be considered the favorite if he chose to run.
Of the three declared candidates, Mann was the best known and the only one with successful statewide campaigns to his credit. He came from behind in 1938 to beat his opponent by 130,000 votes in a run-off for attorney general. By 1940 he was so popular and well-respected no one dared to stand in the way of his reelection.
In truth, Mann had the brightest future of any Texas politician in 1941. Born in Sulphur Springs in 1907, he attended SMU on a football scholarship. As a versatile quarterback, “The Little Red Arrow” led the Mustangs to their first Southwest Conference championship and a record of 20 wins, four losses and three ties in three years.
After graduation, Mann went to law school at Harvard. With a wife and baby to support, he worked double shifts at a garment factory until the congregation at the church where he taught Sunday school hired him as their pastor.
Returning to the Texas with his law degree, Mann passed up the big bucks of private practice to work for peanuts as an assistant attorney general. The crusading reformer concentrated on loan sharks and high-interest finance companies that preyed on Texans hard-hit by the Depression, a commitment he continued as attorney general.
Although Mann was every bit as devoted to the New Deal as he was, Johnson presented himself as the president’s choice. A photograph of Roosevelt and Lyndon shaking hands in 1936 was pasted on thousands of billboards across the state.
With as much as half a million dollars in cash donations, Johnson could afford a lot more than signs. Eighty-two secretaries in an Austin hotel typed “personal” letters to eligible voters, and a dozen two-man teams canvassed the state. No expense was spared in the staging of lavish rallies that looked more like Broadway revues than campaign events. And all that was on top of 15 and 30-minute radio commercials that aired five times a day.
Mann, who was still paying off creditors from his first bid for attorney general, ordered his staff not to put him deeper in debt. His plan was to run a pay-as-you-go campaign and compensate for a lack of money with effort and principle.
Showing the stamina of a marathon runner, Mann crisscrossed the state by car with just a driver and sometimes a single aide. In a typical day, he covered 400 miles, gave nine scheduled speeches and stopped at every wide spot in the road to drum up support.
By the first week in June, Mann was running on fumes physically and financially. His steady drop in the polls fueled a festering frustration that finally surfaced at Plainview.
“I’m just doing this the old-fashioned way (with) a handshake and a talk,” the told the small turnout. “I have no music nor entertainers, nor do I give away money.
“All I know is how to go out and see the people of Texas – on courthouse squares, street corners and sidewalks. I just look them in the eye.”
He concluded by condemning “the invasion of money from Washington…that is undertaking to set up a federal-controlled political machine in Texas.”
The roar of approval was the loudest and most enthusiastic he had heard in weeks.
A smiling supporter embraced Mann and said, “You keep making that speech and you’ll be elected. Don’t make any other speech. Make it from now until Election Day.”
Mann followed that advice, and it breathed new life into the last lap of his uphill struggle. But nine days was not time enough to make up for all the lost ground.
The gridiron great polled around a quarter of the turnout, good enough for third place and only 34,000 votes fewer than Johnson and O’Daniel, who had come off the bench in the fourth quarter to finish in a dead-heat for first. “Late” returns from East Texas erased LBJ’s Election Night advantage and sent Pappy to Washington.
The 1941 senate race soured Gerald Mann on politics. Never again did his name appear on a ballot, which was Texas’ loss in light of all the “Little Red Arrow” had to offer.
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