Huey P. Long’s first (and last) election loss
He was just 30 years old, but the outspoken lawyer from Winn Parish had already made a name for himself, fighting against big business and for the little guy during stints on the Louisiana Public Service Commission. So when that lawyer, named Huey Pierce Long, threw his hat in the ring in the gubernatorial election of 1924, it didn’t go unnoticed. He didn’t win, but that loss taught him a great deal about how to run a statewide race. Four years later, he would put those lessons to the test, running for and winning the governorship. It would mark the start of a political revolution that would reverberate all the way to Washington, D.C. — and which, in some ways, is still echoing today.
Long’s legacy continued for decades after his 1935 death, with his political allies — and relatives — dominating state government into the late 20th century. In the New Orleans area, his influence is to this day evidenced in the raft of public works projects he championed while in office, including construction of Lakefront Airport, Charity Hospital, a new State Capitol, countless road projects, and New Orleans’ first Mississippi River Bridge, which opened a little bit more than a year after his death — and which was fittingly christened the Huey P. Long Bridge.
- In his 1928 campaign, the populist Long used the slogan “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.” It wasn’t an original sentiment; it was inspired by William Jennings Bryan’s famous Cross of Gold Speech. But it would strike a chord with the state’s rural poor. Long would win that election by the largest margin in the state’s history.
- Long was a tireless campaigner and an unapologetic showman. In his 1928 campaign for governor, he — wearing his trademark seersucker suit — covered more than 15,000 miles as he crisscrossed the state to deliver more than 600 speeches, often to rural audiences flattered that a statewide politician would take the time to visit them. After a performance by a warm-up band, the charismatic Long would take the stage to deliver speeches that were as funny as they were fiery.
- Among other revolutionary campaign tactics used by Long to get his message directly to voters was the deployment of sound trucks to blast his voice to the crowd, as well as the use of radio broadcasts to reach a statewide audience.
- Long’s war with the Louisiana press — or “the lyin’ newspapers,” as he called them — was legendary. In 1933, he tried to push through a special 2 percent tax, on top of the taxes paid by all businesses, on the state’s 13 largest papers, 12 of which were Long critics. The papers took him to court over the tax, with the case going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The newspapers won in a unanimous ruling.
- To get out his unfiltered message, including attacks on his political rivals, Long started his own newspaper, named The Louisiana Progress and later called The American Progress. In true Long fashion, he forced state employees to subscribe and had state agencies take out ads in it.
- Long demanded loyalty from state employees, most notably in the form of his “deduct box,” into which state employees were expected to deposit between 5 percent and 10 percent of their salary — estimated to be as much as $1 million annually. What happened to all the money collected remains a mystery.
- Long’s determination to reinvent the state’s political structure also saw him warring with the New Orleans political establishment, known as the “Old Regulars.” That included Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley, whom the nickname-prone Long dubbed “Turkey Head.”
- Long would end up forging a truce with Walmsley and the Old Regulars by promising to funnel capital improvement projects to the area in exchange for support of his legislative agenda.
- Long was an avid supporter of LSU in general, and of LSU football in particular, which is why he in the early 1930s championed the building of a new stadium for the team. The only problem was that the school wanted new dormitories. The resulting compromise saw new dorms built on the site of the existing stadium, with seats installed on top of them. A stadium expansion five years later brought more dorm rooms — and more seats. Those dorms, forming the core of Tiger Stadium, housed students into the early 1990s.
- From the beginning of his political career, Long positioned himself as an enemy of big business, including the mammoth Standard Oil. When he in 1929 proposed a new 5-cent per-barrel tax on oil, his political opponents in the Legislature initiated impeachment proceedings. The effort to remove him from office was ultimately unsuccessful.
- Long became known as “The Kingfish” when, after winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1932, he declared, “I’m a small fish here in Washington. But I’m the Kingfish to the folks down in Louisiana.”
- When in New Orleans, Long could often be found at the Roosevelt Hotel. Consequently, an oft-repeated story attributes a bullet hole in a wall of the hotel’s Sazerac Bar to an assassination attempt on Long. It’s not true, as the bar didn’t open until 1938, three years after Long’s death.
- In August 1935, Long announced his run for president. President Franklin Roosevelt saw that as “an ominous situation,” writing, “Long plans to be a candidate of the Hitler type.”
- On Sept. 8, 1935, a month after he announced his White House run, Long was confronted in the State Capitol by a family member of a political opponent and shot. He would die two days later. To this day, there’s controversy as to whether Long was actually killed by a bullet from the gun of his alleged assassin or from that of one of his own bodyguards.
- Dressed in a tuxedo, Long’s body — in a glass-topped coffin — was visited by an estimated 200,000 people as he lay in state in the new State Capitol. He was laid to rest on the grounds of the building, the construction of which he championed.
- Long’s story provided the inspiration for Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel “All the King’s Men,” about the political rise of a populist Southern governor in the 1930s who was assassinated in the State Capitol building. Warren’s novel was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1949.
The legacy of Huey P. Long, who was as loved as he was loathed, is a complex one. To the poor — particularly the multitudes of rural poor — he was a savior, with his Depression-era “Share the Wealth” program targeting what he characterized as the greed of the American elite. To anyone who dared get in his way, he was an iron-fisted dictator. To the political powers that be, he was an existential threat. In their own way, all are true. Also true is that Huey P. Long, and his larger-than-life persona, would earn him status as a Louisiana icon.