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The Principled Politician
Governor Ralph Carr and the Fight Against Japanese American Internment
By Adam Schrager
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2008 Adam Schrager
All rights reserved.
The imposing black Union Pacific streamliner slowed as it approached Denver before coming to a stop with its familiar hiss, screech, and acrid smell. George Robinson, a tall, straight-backed, and trim man, couldn't wait to step down, stretch his legs, and figure out how to explain himself to his wife, Dolores.
As a white-coated dining-car attendant, he earned ninety-eight dollars a month serving hot cakes and pouring coffee in the seventy-two-foot dining car. He said "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am," dignified and invisible in his serving role.
His boss, Mr. Hansen, let Robinson know he had a future as a "Union Pacific man." But that wasn't appealing to Robinson.
He swung down and strode under the welcoming arch of Union Station, headed toward his home about two miles away in the city's predominantly black Five Points neighborhood.
One of the most prosperous communities of its kind in the West, many of the homes had electrical wiring, plumbing, and garages. Black doctors, lawyers, engineers, and dentists joined cooks, janitors, domestic servants, and railroad workers like George Robinson in a neighborhood a little northwest of the white part of the city. Five Points could boast about the Rossonian Hotel, which had one of the most important jazz clubs between Chicago and Los Angeles. Segregation dictated that while Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie might play at other Denver hotels, they could only stay at the Rossonian.
Robinson, a lifelong Republican, had been reading in the Denver Post about the party's new gubernatorial candidate. Ralph L. Carr was preaching fiscal responsibility and ethical leadership, and Robinson liked that. During his last trip home, he didn't tell Dolores, but he went to see the short, curly-haired, impassioned white man speak in person. Carr was funny and fiery, personable and professional.
"The state is broke," Carr shouted, banging on the lectern and laying out the state's dire financial situation. As he finished his speech, he let the audience know that fixing the problem would take the consent and the cooperation of the public. "This is a job for all the people," he said pointing to the crowd. Robinson felt the finger settle upon him. "When elected, I intend to represent all of the people, all of the sections of the state."
Robinson thought, "Jesus, that's a brilliant man."
That morning, on his train route in the wee hours somewhere west of Nebraska, Robinson scribbled Ralph Carr a note. "After you get elected," he wrote, "I wish you'd give me an opportunity to work in your office. I understand a colored fella can have a job there and I'd appreciate it much if you gave me a chance."
He dropped it in the mail on his trip home, unsure what to expect from Carr, but absolutely sure what he'd hear from his wife. Dolores would ask him if he didn't already have a good job. On the walk home, he settled on his answer.
"I'm just a railroad worker [now], but if I get with the governor of Colorado, who knows what I might do."
Although George Robinson seemed sure Ralph Carr would make a good governor, Carr himself had come kicking and screaming to his candidacy.
He had only begun to build up a law practice and hoped to make enough money to pay off his mortgage and send his two teenagers to his alma mater, the University of Colorado in Boulder (CU). He had recently served as U.S. attorney for Colorado, an exciting job and one that gained him an excellent reputation, but the pay was low.
Carr had negotiated a number of water compacts with neighboring states as an assistant attorney general in the mid-1920s. He successfully argued the legality of compacts before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hinderlider v. La Plata River & Cherry Creek Ditch Company case. Carr represented the state engineer in his fight with private companies on how to handle diversions from the river. This 1938 ruling dramatically altered water law throughout the West and reinforced the rights of states to decide for themselves how to allocate the waters of interstate streams. Hands down, Carr was considered the preeminent water rights attorney in Colorado.
Colorado was the only state in the country with no water source flowing into its borders, and the people who lived and worked there considered water liquid gold. People died fighting for it, over it, and about it. Water decisions were guaranteed front-page coverage and analysis by nearly all of the state's newspapers.
As a result of Carr winning the Supreme Court case, he was soon being mentioned in political conversations. Two friends and fellow attorneys wrote him, suggesting that he run for governor.
Carr chuckled at the suggestion and responded, "The only time I care to run for governor is in the springtime when the authorities are not aware of it and no one will call it to their attention. I feel that there should be a change at the State House, but I do not think that I am the man for the place. I would alienate 50 percent of the voters the first day and the other 125 percent of them the next day when I expressed my views."
Colorado's Republicans knew the upcoming November election offered an opportunity they hadn't had in more than a decade. The state's budget was in shambles, as was the reputation of the current governor, Teller Ammons, who was known for doling out favors to political friends.
The budget mess was obvious, but Ammons couldn't understand how people were finding out what he was doing. Day after day he got hammered in the Denver Post about his deals, despite dire warnings to those inside his office who might be leaking secrets. It was a big mystery, how news got out about one job after another going to a Democratic Party donor. What was going on? Infuriated, Ammons demanded to know who in his inner circle had violated his trust.
The truth proved even more scandalous.
Once the secret was discovered, Time magazine dramatized what happened for readers. "Colorado's loud, semibald, profane Governor Teller Ammons shoved himself back from his desk, whisked his office chair aside, stepped to the nearest wall ventilator grill, stared into the dimness of the shaft and emitted an angry oath," according to the September 20, 1937, issue. "There, suspended three feet above the floor, was a crystal microphone."
Further investigation showed two microphones dangling in the ventilator shafts, hooked up to a telephone line that led to the apartment of a private detective five blocks away. They had been installed months before and were the conduits spilling the governor's private conversations to the newspaper.
The private eye, a Denver Post reporter, and an attorney were indicted by a grand jury and eventually convicted on eavesdropping charges. Ammons was not charged with anything. Later he commented that the worst thing to come out of the mess was that his mother heard about it and said, "I didn't know Teller used that kind of language." Republicans said the tapes revealed the way Ammons rewarded his friends at any cost. The average Coloradan tended to agree.
Even Ammons's fellow Democrats were beginning to take him on in public.
State senator A. Elmer Headlee complained to reporters that the entire state was being run "by the Denver city hall and the [Democrat political machine]." Critics argued that during Ammons's two years in office, because of his strong ties to the teachers' union, he had bankrupted the state by refusing to divert money raised by a newly formed state income tax designed to help schools. Money for what the state needed was not being distributed fairly and was not sent where it was most needed. State employees were not being paid and wards of the state were not being fed. Ammons pushed another tax increase through the legislature, and instead of paying the bills, he created sixteen new boards, bureaus, and commissions.
Carr called the current state of affairs a "political monster." He voiced the sentiment of the public when he said, "Rich and poor today find the hands of the state officeholders dipping deeper into their pockets than ever before." Even Democrats like Senator Headlee wondered aloud about the effectiveness of the current administration's fiscal policies.
"Colorado can have everything she needs, meet every just and legal obligation without additional taxes, if only we will apply good business principles in the handling of our state's affairs," Headlee told the Denver Post.
Carr had been involved in party politics for years. He enjoyed talking at Republican dinners throughout Colorado, and had campaigned vigorously for mayors, state representatives, state senators, county commissioners — anyone who believed as he did in the principles of fiscal responsibility and less government regulation.
In 1938, the state Republican convention was held in Colorado Springs at the fancy Antlers Hotel. On Friday, August 5, Carr took his law partners and Bob, his fifteen-year-old son, to the Springs. They hoped to stay overnight to see one of the prominent Republicans, Charles M. Armstrong or Benjamin W. Snodgrass, nominated as candidate for governor, setting the stage to defeat Governor Ammons in November. As soon as he arrived, Carr went to work persuading party members to include a provision in the platform stating that Colorado knew how to control its water better than the federal government.
Late in the afternoon, state GOP chairman John Coen, a wide man — hard to miss in a white suit and black tie — approached the Carrs and pulled Ralph aside. His massive girth expanded as he spoke.
Three very animated minutes later, Carr returned to Bob and said, "Well, we've got to get out of here. We've got to go back to Denver."
"Why?" asked Bob.
"That's the third man who's come up to me and said, 'Nobody likes the candidates for governor, so stick around, lightning might strike for you.'
"I don't want any part of that lightning," he told his son. "I'm not interested in running for governor. I'm sorry you're going to miss the fun part of the convention, the nominating of candidates, but we need to go."
Carr told his young legal associates — Jack Shippey, John Reid, and Jean Breitenstein — that he and Bob were going home. He didn't want to set aside his life for a two-year term as the state's chief executive. After going out to dinner and visiting some relatives, he returned home to Denver just after 10:00 p.m.
As he walked in, he could hear the phone ringing.
"It's a number from Colorado Springs," said his housekeeper, after speaking with the operator. "It's the same number that's been calling all night long."
Carr ignored her and the phone.
"Aren't you going to [answer]?" she asked.
"I know what they're calling about and I want no part of it."
Five minutes later, the phone rang again. Finally, Carr answered.
"I'm not interested," he said and, then hung up.
The phone continued to ring.
Around midnight, after more phone calls from more groups, Carr relented, believing he was destined to have a sleepless night.
"Okay, I'll come down to speak with you, but I'm not happy," he told the last caller.
He sent his legal assistants Breitenstein and Reid to the convention to tell party members that the reason he didn't want to run was because his law firm's finances were fairly precarious, and that he was the one who brought in business — he felt that leaving the firm wouldn't be fair to his young partners. He grabbed his son, Bob, and they returned to the hotel, where they checked back into the room they had hastily abandoned only eight hours earlier. It was 3:30 a.m., so both put on pajamas to get ready for bed.
The phone rang. Breitenstein and Reid were calling from the lobby and to report that they had failed in their duties.
"You're going to have to go talk to them yourself, Ralph," they said. "[The members] know it's a sacrifice for you. It's a financial sacrifice. It's a family sacrifice. They know you haven't thought about it. ... [But] we can't talk 'em out of it."
Reluctantly, Ralph Carr pulled on a pair of suit pants over his pajamas, left his top on, stepped into a pair of slippers, and put on his hat before heading out the door. The dawn was coming and with it a stunning view of Pikes Peak, the mountain that had inspired English professor Katharine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful" in her Antlers Hotel room back in 1893.
Room 50 was packed with cigar- and pipe-smoking Republicans. Chairman John Coen was there, his bulk covering up the identities of two delegates he was lobbying on Carr's behalf. Colorado Supreme Court justice Haslett P. Burke, who often quoted Shakespeare, sat by himself in the back of the room. The most formidable guest among them was former U.S. senator Lawrence C. Phipps, who controlled the Denver Republicans. He had nominated Carr for the U.S. attorney position in 1929. Now he was openly supporting Benjamin Snodgrass for governor. Phipps had been the de facto head of the state party for years, anointing various candidates to office, but his status was being challenged.
Colorado Republicans realized that the weakest candidate on the 1938 Democratic ticket was the current governor. Despite the wishes of Phipps, prevailing wisdom was that neither Armstrong nor Snodgrass was strong enough to beat Ammons. Coen believed Carr could get both Republican and Democratic votes, as well as the support of people who ordinarily would not vote on election day. The state party chair was not prepared to see his master plan ruined by an unwilling candidate.
Coen convinced Armstrong to step aside and run for state treasurer, promising he wouldn't have to go through a primary and he would have the full support of the party. Despite Coen's pleas, Snodgrass was not willing to concede. Phipps was fuming.
The crowd in the room wasted no time asking Carr to run for governor. He wasted no time rejecting the offer.
"What about George?" asked Carr.
George Birdsall was mayor of Colorado Springs, the second-largest city in Colorado.
"I've got health issues, Ralph," said Birdsall. "Can't run."
Carr spun to another face in the room. "What about you, Nate?" Carr pleaded.
Fort Collins banker and cattleman Nate Warren had run unsuccessfully for both U.S. senator and governor, so voters knew his name. Surely his connection to Colorado State College, the state's second-largest college, would help.
"Same thing as George," answered Warren. "Health problems."
"Harry, how about you?" begged Carr. "Why not run Harry?" he said to the group.
Harry Mendenhall was president of the Rocky Ford National Bank and a widely known Arkansas Valley rancher and stockman. He paused, looked his friend in the eyes, and said, "Ralph, you're known everyplace."
It kept coming back to Carr. He finally tried talking about conditions they'd have to meet before he would agree. Terms he thought they would consider unreasonable.
"I don't have the finances and I don't want to have to do anything to raise money," he said. That was first. Then he added that he was sure to do things they wouldn't like, "Because if I'm governor, I'll call the shots as I see 'em. I won't be beholden to anybody."
"That's fine, that's fine," the group chorused. Phipps shook his head, the lone dissenter, seeing his plan to get Snodgrass elected evaporate before his eyes.
Carr left Room 50 without making a decision. The convention was set to start in a few hours, which would give him enough time to get a little sleep, clean up, and make the kind of choice that would impact all their lives.
The next morning, Chairman Coen and others approached Carr outside the main hall, looking for an answer. The convention had started an hour and a half earlier and tensions were high.
"Still wait and see," Carr told him. "Bob and I have been here a long time and we need a piss break." So father and son, plus Jean, Jack, and John, the legal associates, excused themselves to head toward the marble urinals of the Antlers Hotel men's room.
"I know they realize it's a sacrifice and that they said no strings attached," Carr said to the group safely ensconced in the bathroom. "This is not what I want to do. It'll be hard on you guys because the law practice is doing well."
Excerpted from The Principled Politician by Adam Schrager. Copyright © 2008 Adam Schrager. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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