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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
And then there was the matter of executive clemency. Ma had promised the voters that she would be more lenient about pardons than the previous administration; she fulfilled that pledge with a vengeance. In her first term alone, she issued more than 2,000 pardons, including 105 on Thanksgiving Day, 1925. One story, probably apocryphal but certainly harmful to her bid for re-election in 1926, involved a father who approached Pa about a pardon for his son. While the man was pleading his son’s case, Ferguson kept talking about a horse he wanted to sell for the outrageous price of $5,000. When the puzzled father finally demanded to know what an overpriced nag had to do with his son’s release, Pa supposedly explained: “Well, I figure your son might ride him home from the penitentiary if you bought him.” It is a matter of record that some pardons were issued before the convicted person ever got to prison, and it wasn’t long before people began referring to the executive mansion as “the House of a Thousand Pardons.”
The Governors Ferguson always insisted that most of the pardons involved violators of the Volstead Act, who were just adding to the overcrowded conditions of the jails; and that, anyway, no clemency was granted without the prior approval of the state pardons board. Nevertheless, the combination of the highway scandals and the unprecedented number of pardons had, nine months after Miriam took office, touched off another series of impeachment rumors. “Just politics,” smiled Ma. But her reply to a petition for a special session from 100 legislators was anything but humorous.
“Let them assemble if they want to,” said Mrs. Ferguson. “Let them start something. I’ll still be here at the finish. Now about this special session they want me to call. They tried to camouflage it as an inquiry into the foot and mouth disease and tick eradication. They must think I’m a bird. It’s my feet, my mouth, and my eradication they want. Some of them call me a dumbbell. They will soon find out how dumb I am. … In spite of all that mush about my being a frail, delicate woman, they will see.”
Miriam, with Jim gleefully standing not quite in the wings, now went on the offensive. She demanded the resignation of Amon G. Carter, millionaire publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , from the state college board of regents. Specifically, she accused him of being drunk at a University of Texas football game; what was worse, she added indignantly, Carter had given vent to a “vociferous exclamation” in her ear during the game. The squabble was colorful, exciting, and eminently newsworthy (Carter ordered her statement published on the front page of his own paper); it even diverted the public’s attention from the impeachment talk; but it could not entirely repair the worsening state of the Fergusons’ political fortunes. “How does it feel to have a woman governor?” went a popular joke of the period. “I don’t know; we haven’t got one.” Ma was easily defeated in 1926 by her own attorney general, who immediately had the legislature void the amnesty law she had had passed two years before to restore her husband’s political rights. Texans, it seemed, were upset at reading about press conferences conducted by Farmer Jim (who had no official title) seated in the governor’s chair; they were tired of “government by proxy.”
Or were they? In 1930, Miriam tossed her famous sunbonnet back into the gubernatorial ring. She led coming out of the first primary, only to lose the run-off election to an oil magnate named Ross Sterling. Pa was unperturbed: “Our motto is never say ‘die,’ say ‘damn.’” Two years later, he was back on the stump, describing Governor Sterling as the “present encumbrance.” This time Ma won the run-off by a slender four thousand votes out of almost one million, then went into hiding while the Sterling forces asked the courts for time to investigate the one hundred pro-Ferguson counties where the votes cast outnumbered the poll tax receipts. Ma weathered the storm: on January 17, 1933, she raised her right hand, and for the fourth and last time a Ferguson was sworn in as governor of Texas.
Predictably, her re-election proved disquieting to a large portion of the national press that, over the years, had expressed alarm at the dynastic threat of Fergusonism. “The Fergusons … are a benevolent myth to thousands of Texas tenant farmers and workers,” the liberal Nation said solemnly. “Jim may have compromised himself with the breweries and the road contractors; ‘Ma’ may have prostituted the pardoning power of the chief executive; but those are minor failings. … [The question now is] will they institute some adequate measures of reform and relief, or will they follow their usual policy of converting the gubernatorial position into a lucrative dispensary of pardons and political favors?”
Perhaps it was the Depression; maybe Ma and Pa were getting up in years. Whatever it was, the Governors Ferguson did not create much of a stir this time. Will Rogers stopped by to say hello, and—as she had on a previous visit during her first term—Ma took him on a tour of her executive garden before cooking him a heaping bowl of chile con carne. The only incident that attracted any national attention occurred in June, 1933, when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was greeted at the Fort Worth airport by the Fergusons. When someone asked the First Lady to stand between Ma and Pa for a photograph, Mrs. Roosevelt received some whispered advice from—guess who?—Arnon G. Carter, and declined on the ground that this was a nonpolitical trip. Early in 1934 Ma announced that, out of respect for a long-standing Texas tradition against a third term, she was through with politics.