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“me For Ma—and I Ain’t Got A Dern Thing Againts Pa”
Alabama’s Lurleen Wallace is not the first wife to stand in for her husband on the political stage. “Farmer Jim” Ferguson ran his Miriam for governor of Texas five times, and twice the voters elected her
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
The woman’s voice, high-pitched and lacking the assertiveness of an experienced public speaker, trembles slightly in midsentcnce. The crowd stirs in the afternoon heat, impatient to have done with the two-minute formality of listening to the candidate. Her election, she explains, will enable her husband to continue his nationwide opposition to those trends that would “destroy the local government and the free-enterprise system upon which it was founded.” The audience, alert—despite its rural appearance—to the full implication, nods in agreement. Hehind the mobile speakers’ platform, the musicians quietly pack up their electric guitars, while at her right her husband, hands tightly clasped, sits studying the crowd. The cheering begins as soon as she assures them that he will be her “Number One assistant in the next administration.” Suddenly he is at her side, holding her arm aloft with one hand, groping for the microphone with the other.
This scene, repeated over and over again this spring and fall across the racially tense Alabama countryside, has a decided flavor of dèjà vu . And indeed it did happen before, not once but five times, not in Alabama but in Texas. The earlier participants were James E. Fcrguson and his wife, Miriam Wallace Ferguson (no relation to the Alabama clan), whom the newspapers promptly nicknamed “Pa” and “Ma.” Ferguson was also blocked by law from seeking re-election as governor—though by verdict of an impeachment proceeding rather than, as in George Wallace’s case, by a one-term provision in the state constitution. The historical coincidences do not end there. Wallace’s stock answer when queried as to his role in a Lurleen Wallace administration (“… let’s just say I’m gonna draw the water, tote in the wood, wind the clock, and put out the cat”) is a direct and deliberate paraphrase of Pa’s reply when the same question was put to him forty-two years ago. The quote was given him, Wallace let it be known, by none other than Lyndon B. Johnson, who was defeated in his first try for the United States Senate by the last candidate Ferguson endorsed.
The Ferguson saga, a monumental tale even in Texas, began in 1914, when “Farmer Jim”—a lawyer, banker, and rancher from Temple—decided to seek his first elective post. With customary Texas modesty, he determined to start at the top. His startling upset victory over the favored candidate, an experienced congressman named Thomas H. Ball, firmly established him as a brilliant if rather opportunistic politician. In retrospect, the ingredients of his strategy seem deceptively simple. He correctly sensed that Colonel Ball and his fellow Prohibitionists had overestimated the popularity of the antisaloon forces; Ferguson’s calculated neutrality on the issue brought him the support of the “wets” and the campaign dollars of the brewers. More significantly, he was the first politician to mobilize the “creek-bottom” vote, a growing and restive bloc of dirt farmers and cotton-choppers; seldom in political history has anyone been as successful at dividing his constituents into two economic groups, then attacking the upper one (his own) to gain the loyalty of the other.
Once in office, Ferguson delivered. He got the legislature to pass a law limiting the rents of tenant farmers to one fourth of the cotton and one third of the grain crops; he signed it, even though many in the state insisted it would be struck down as unconstitutional. It was. Texas’ new populist governor had other promises to keep: laws were enacted to establish rural high schools, to make school attendance compulsory, and to expand and reform the penal system; bills designed to tighten the state liquor codes he consistently vetoed.
Farmer Jim had no trouble winning a second term in 1916, despite specific charges by his opponent that the Governor was buying his groceries with state money, had financed his first campaign with $30,000 from a Houston brewery, and had deposited $100,000 in insurance money from a state college fire in his own bank, where it earned no interest. “Mudslinging,” the Governor insisted, and the accusations were forgotten until Ferguson, piqued at the refusal of the board of regents to fire five University of Texas professors he found offensive, vetoed practically the entire university budget. In the furor that followed, Ferguson was indicted on nine counts by a Travis County grand jury; he was never tried, but he was soon forced to defend himself before the state senate against twenty-one articles of impeachment. One accused him of accepting a huge sum from a secret source. He insisted it was a loan. “Is it a crime for a man to borrow $156,000?” he demanded, somewhat peevishly. He steadfastly refused to reveal that the unsecured (and never repaid) “loan” came from six Texas breweries. On September 24, 1917, the state senate removed him from office by a vote of 25 to 3; it also barred him from ever again holding a state position of “honor, trust or profit.”
Returning to Temple, the only impeached governor in Texas history now became a publisher: he launched a weekly broadside called The Ferguson Forum; his teetotalling enemies soon dubbed it The Ferguson For Rum . He lost the gubernatorial primary in 1918, managed to poll 47,000 votes as the presidential candidate of his own American party in 1920, and was defeated two years later in a bid for a U.S. Senate nomination. When a court suit blocked his entry into the 1924 gubernatorial primary, Farmer Jim, perched in his undershirt on a hotel bed in Taylor, Texas, calmly announced that his wife would be the next governor.