There has been a lot of buzz about congressional impeachment, but my editor expects me to write about state and local politics, so let’s look at the 1917 impeachment of Texas Governor James “Farmer Jim” Ferguson.
Farmer Jim was infamous for corruption, but he was a wily politician. In 1914, he came out of nowhere to take the Governor’s mansion, running on a platform of opposition to prohibition, a pretty risky strategy in a Bible belt state full of good Protestants.
Holier than thou Protestants had the decency to sip their illegal alcohol in private clubs instead of the rowdy saloons.
Anyway, Ferguson ran up a majority by promising to help the growing legions of poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers. In those days, large and wealthy landowners were slapping cash surcharges on their tenants, even though they were already taking a good chunk of their crops as rent.
Upon assuming office, Ferguson was a carnival of corruption and incompetence, but he made his biggest mistake when he took on the University of Texas at Austin. As Governor, Farmer Jim felt he should have the power to fire professors if he did not like their political views.
Unsuccessful at purging the faculty members, he unleashed his fury by vetoing all state funding for the university in 1917. About the same time, he was indicted by an Austin grand jury for financial crimes.
Outraged by the veto, the state legislature re-convened in the summer as a court of impeachment. Technically, that was an illegal move, because only the governor can call a special session of the legislature after the regular session ends in May.
Ferguson then tried to outwit the legislature. Since the governor has the power to set the agenda for a special session, Ferguson called a special session and told the legislature that they could discuss pretty much anything other than impeachment.
The legislature ignored him, restored funding to the university, and removed Jim from office. He was also barred from running for any state office in the future.
In 1922, Ferguson decided to run for U.S. Senate. Since it was a federal office, his impeachment ban did not apply. His opponent in the race was a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, and the voters chose the Klansman over the convicted felon.
Farmer Jim had been foiled again.
Undeterred by the loss, Ferguson got his wife to run for Governor in 1924, and the hardscrabble tenant farmers started referring to them as Ma and Pa Ferguson. Ma Ferguson professed little interest in politics, so everyone knew that a vote for Ma was really a vote for Pa.
Winning handily, Ma assumed the office, and Pa moved into an office right next to hers. Farmer Jim was back in control, and Texas could boast one of the first female governors in the history of the United States.
Ma was defeated in 1926 under a cloud of more Ferguson corruption, so most observers assumed that the Fergusons’ political obituary had been written.
But in 1932, Ma rose from the ashes and managed to defeat, of all people, incumbent Governor Ross Sterling. Poor Sterling got nailed for the economic calamity of the Great Depression, even though the collapse wasn’t his fault.
Ma did not seek re-election in 1934, marking the end of a rather bizarre period in Texas history.
Ma and Pa make Trump and Clinton look downright boring.
Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.