Little Rock Look Back: The THREE Mayoral Elections of 1951

On September 24, 1951, Pratt C. Remmel was nominated for Little Rock Mayor by the Pulaski County Republican Committee.  This was the first time there had been a GOP mayoral nominee in Little Rock since the 1880s.  It also set up a competitive General Election mayoral race for the first time in decades.

Incumbent Sam Wassell, a Democrat, was seeking a third two-year term. First elected in 1947 (after being unsuccessful in his quest for the position in 1945), Wassell had survived a primary and runoff in the summer of 1951. So confident was Mayor Wassell that Little Rock would remain a Democratic city, he barely campaigned for the office in the General Election.

While Mayor Wassell was ignoring the “run unopposed or run scared” maxim, he was not incorrect that Little Rock remained a stronghold for the Democratic Party.  Indeed there were no Republicans seeking office in Little Rock other than for mayor in 1951. Few, if any, Republicans had run for the City Council since Remmel had unsuccessfully made a race in the late 1930s.

In response to inquiries as to his lack of campaigning, Mayor Wassell averred that the voters had shown their support for him on July 31 and August 14. He continued that he did not see a reason to think the result would be different in November.  The 68 year-old Wassell stated that if he could defeat a young opponent who had over a decade of experience as an alderman, he could certainly defeat a young opponent who had no governmental experience.

In the July 1951 Democratic mayoral primary, Wassell had been challenged by Alderman Franklin Loy and grocer J. H. Hickinbotham.  Two years earlier, Wassell, seeking a second term, had dispatched Loy rather handily by a vote of 7,235 to 3,307.  He fully expected that 1951 should produce the same results as 1949.

But Wassell was trying to buck recent history.  Since 1925, no Little Rock mayor had won a nomination for a third term. One (J. V. Satterfield) had chosen not to seek a second term, while two (Pat L. Robinson and Dan T. Sprick) were defeated in their quest for two more years. Of those who served two two-year terms, a brace (Horace Knowlton as well as Charles Moyer in 1945) had not sought a third term.  Moyer HAD sought a third two-year term during his first stint as mayor (1925-1929) but was defeated. Likewise R. E. Overman also lost his bid for a third term.

By trying to win a third term, Wassell was seeking to return to the era of the first quarter of the 20th Century where several of his predecessors had been elected at least three times.  In his 1951 campaign, he was promising to stay the course of the previous four years. He answered his opponents’ ideas with a plan to continue providing services without having to raise taxes.  So confident was he of besting Loy and Hickinbotham that he predicted a 3 to 1 margin of victory.  A large horseshoe-shaped victory cake sat in a room at his campaign headquarters inside the Hotel Marion on election night.

The cake would remain uneaten.

When the results came in, Wassell had managed to get 5,720 votes to Loy’s 4,870. But with Hickinbotham surprising everyone (including probably himself) with 1,235 votes, no one had a majority.  The race was headed for a runoff two weeks later to be held in conjunction with the other city and county Democratic elections on August 14.

The day after the July 31 election, the Arkansas Gazette showed an dazed Wassell with top campaign aids in a posed picture looking at the results.  Further down the page, a jubilant Alderman Loy was surrounded by his wife and supporters.  The differing mood reflected in the photos was echoed in the two men’s statements that evening.  Wassell castigated his supporters for being overly-confident and not getting people to the polls. He further apologized to the Little Rock electorate for having to be “inconvenienced” with another election.  Loy, on the other hand, was excited and gratified. He thanked the citizens for their support.

The day of the runoff, a 250 pound black bear got loose at the Little Rock Zoo after the zoo had closed and took 45 minutes to be captured and returned to its pit.  Perhaps Wassell wondered if that bear was a metaphor for the Little Rock Democratic electorate.  Much like the bear returned to its pit, Little Rock’s Democrats returned to Wassell — or at least enough did.  Wassell captured 7,575 votes, while Loy received 6,544.  The moods that night echoed those two weeks earlier.  Wassell, his wife, and some supporters were combative towards the press (they were especially critical of the “negative” photo for which he had posed) while Loy was relaxed and magnanimous in defeat.

The closeness with which Mayor Wassell had escaped with the Democratic nomination was noticed.  A group of businessmen started seeking someone to run as an independent.  Likewise the Pulaski County GOP was open to fielding a candidate.  At a county meeting held at Pratt Remmel’s office, the offer of the nomination was tendered to their host.

After he was nominated in September, Remmel (who was County Chair and State Treasurer for the GOP) visited with the business leaders who were trying to find someone to run. He had made his acceptance of the nomination contingent on being sure there would be a coalition of independents and possibly even Democrats backing him in addition to the Republicans.

Once he was in the race, Remmel was tireless.  He blanketed newspapers with ads touting his plans and criticizing the lackadaisical attitude of his opponent. He made speeches and knocked on doors. He worked so hard that once during the campaign his doctor ordered him to 48 hour bedrest.

Mayor Wasssell, for his part, was confident voters would stick with party loyalty.  But as the November 6 election day grew nearer some City and County leaders grew increasingly wary.  Still, the Mayor rebuffed their concerns.  Someone had even gone so far as to set up a campaign office for him in the Hotel Marion. But before it could officially open, it was shut down.  (While the Mayor had criticized his supporters for being overly-confident in the July election, he apparently was not concerned about too much confidence this time around.)

Remmel had an aggressive campaign message promising better streets, more parking availability, a new traffic signalization plan, and the desire for expressways. His slogan was “a third bridge, not a third term” in reference to the proposed expressway bridge across the Arkansas River. (This would eventually be built and is now the much-debated I-30 bridge.)

The Saturday before the election, the Hogs beat Texas A&M in Fayetteville at Homecoming while a cold snap held the South in its grip.  In addition to featuring both of those stories heavily, that weekend’s papers also carried the first ads advocating for Wassell. They were Wassell ads, in a manner.  Ads from the County Democratic Committee, County Democratic Women, and Democratic officeholders in the county urged voters to stick to party loyalty.  That would be the closest to a Wassell campaign ad in the autumn of 1951.

The night before the election, Wassell made his only radio appearance of the campaign while Remmel made yet another of his several appearances. Earlier that day in driving rain, there had been a Remmel rally and caravan through downtown, including passing by City Hall.

That evening, as the results came in, the fears of Democratic leaders were well-founded.  Remmel carried 23 precincts. Wassell won two precincts and the absentee ballots. His victories in those three boxes were only by a total of 46 votes.  Remmel won both Wassell’s home precinct (377 to 163) and his own (1,371 to 444).

In the end, the total was 7,794 for Remmel and 3,668 for Wassell.

And Little Rock was poised to have its first Republican mayor since W. G. Whipple had left office in April 1891, sixty years earlier.

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Little Rock Look Back: Mayoral Primary of 1944

Following his second stint as mayor, Charles Moyer decided to not seek a fifth term leading Little Rock.  It set the stage for the December 1944 Democratic primary.  Alderman Sam Wassell and former Alderman Dan Sprick faced off in a particularly nasty race.  As World War II was drawing to a close, there were charges leveled which questioned patriotism. With both men having service on the Little Rock City Council, there were also plenty of past votes on both sides which could become fodder for campaigns.

The election was on December 5, 1944. Sprick received 3,923 votes and Wassell 3,805. A few days later, Wassell filed suit claiming that there were people who voted who were not on the poll tax rolls and another group of voters who did not live in the ward in which they voted. Sprick countersued making the same charges against Wassell.

The case was heard in Pulaski County Circuit Court in February 1945.  It eventually ended up at the Arkansas Supreme Court, which remanded it back to the lower court. On March 26, 1945, Wassell dropped his case. This was only eight (8) days before the municipal general election.

Two years later, Wassell would challenge Sprick in the primary and be triumphant. Wassell would serve from 1947 until 1951.  Sprick would later return to politics and serve a decade in the Arkansas State Senate.

Little Rock Look Back: LR voters create Airport Commission

On November 7, 1950, Little Rock voters approved the creation of the Little Rock Airport Commission.  This was an extremely rare initiated ordinance.

Local business leaders had tried two times prior to get the City Council to create an Airport Commission.  At the time, the Airport was managed by the Council’s Airport Committee, composed of aldermen.  Both times, the Council rejected the measure.  This prompted an organization called the Private Flyers Association to begin the drive to collect the signatures to place the ordinance on the ballot.  Mayor Sam Wassell was in favor of the creation of the separate commission to oversee the airport and was a member of the Private Flyers Association.

At the general election on November 7, 1950, the ordinance was on the ballot.  It passed with an overwhelming majority: 13,025 voters approved of it, and only 3,206 opposed it.  The Arkansas Gazette had been a proponent of the switch, endorsing it with a front page editorial entitled “An Airport for the Air Age.”

In many ways this movement was a precursor to Little Rock’s switch to the City Manager form of government later in the decade.  Where once the business leadership and city council had been one and the same, over the 1940s the two diverged.  Business leaders were less interested in party politics (and at the time the city races were partisan affairs) and more interested in professionally run government.  The main argument for a separate commission was that it would allow the airport to be run more efficiently and removed from party politics.  These would be the same arguments used by the Good Government Committee in 1956.

Also on the ballot in 1950 was a GOP challenger to a Democrat for one of the aldermen positions.  George D. Kelley, Jr., ran against incumbent Lee H. Evans.  Kelley was the first GOP contestant for a city race since Pratt Remmel ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 1938.  Remmel would be back on the ballot in 1951, this time for the position of mayor in a successful effort.

Little Rock Look Back: Pratt C. Remmel

One hundred and three years ago today, on October 26, 1915, future Little Rock Mayor Pratt Cates Remmel was born.  He was one of five children of Augustus Caleb and Ellen Lucy Remmel.  His father died when he was five, leaving his mother to raise six children (Gertie, Harmon – also known as Buck, Pratt, Gus, Rollie, and Carrie) by herself.  After graduating from high school in 1933, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Virginia in 1937.  During World War II, he held the rank of Lieutenant in the US Navy.

The Remmel family had long been involved in politics.  A great-uncle had been the GOP nominee for governor and senator as well as serving on the GOP national committee.  Remmel’s father had been the state GOP chair and his mother was the Arkansas Republican national committeewoman for nearly three decades.  In 1938, shortly after returning from college, Remmel ran for the Little Rock City Council but did not win.  In 1940, he became chairman of the Pulaski County Republican Executive Committee. For the next several decades, he held various leadership posts in the GOP at the county, state and national level.

Remmel made his second bid for public office in 1951 when he challenged incumbent LR Mayor Sam Wassell, who was seeking a third term.  Wassell shared the often held belief at the time that the GOP could not win any races in Arkansas because of the aftereffects of Reconstruction.  Remmel ran a vigorous campaign and won by a 2-to-1 margin becoming Little Rock’s first Republican mayor since Reconstruction.  In 1953, he sought a second two year term and was re-elected.  Though he had worked to build the GOP in Arkansas, he did not emphasize party affiliation in this campaign. He stressed he had been “fair to all and partial to none.”  This campaign included a rally which was aired live on six LR radio stations at the same time, a first for Arkansas. He won by over 3,000 votes this time over alderman Aubrey Kerr.

Remmel had been mentioned as a potential candidate for US Senate or Congress in 1954.  Instead, he ran for governor and was defeated by Orval Faubus in his first race for the office.  Remmel did receive more votes for governor than any GOP candidate had since reconstruction.  He is credited with laying the groundwork for the future successful campaigns of Winthrop Rockefeller.

A month before the election in 1955, Remmel announced he would seek a 3rd term as Mayor.  While later admitting he should have stuck with the customary two terms, he also said he ran to give voters an alternative to the Democratic nominee Woodrow Mann.  Mann, like Remmel, was in the insurance business; Remmel considered Mann to have a questionable reputation.  Several statewide Democratic leaders campaigned for Mann, who beat Remmel by 1,128 votes, one of Little Rock’s closest mayoral elections.

As Mayor, Remmel served in leadership positions with the US Conference of Mayors and the Arkansas Municipal League.  It was during his tenure as mayor that the land which is now Rebsamen Golf Course was given to the City.

After he left office, Remmel returned to business interests and staying active in civic affairs.   He was an active leader of First United Methodist Church and Gideons International.  He was a Mason, a Shriner, a member of the American Legion, and the American Red Cross.   Remmel served on the Arkansas River Basin Commission and chairman of the Arkansas Waterways Commission.  In 1996, he was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas River Hall of Fame.

Married for many years to Catherine Couch, the couple had three children, Pratt Jr., Cathie and Rebecca.  Lake Catherine in Arkansas is named for his wife. Remmel Park and Pratt Remmel Road in Little Rock are named for Mayor Remmel.

Mayor Remmel died on May 14, 1991.  He and Catherine (who died in 2006) are buried in Oakland Cemetery.

LR Culture Vulture turns 7

The Little Rock Culture Vulture debuted on Saturday, October 1, 2011, to kick off Arts & Humanities Month.

The first feature was on the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which was kicking off its 2011-2012 season that evening.  The program consisted of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, Rossini’s, Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Puccini’s Chrysanthemums and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.  In addition to the orchestra musicians, there was an organ on stage for this concert.

Since then, there have been 10,107 persons/places/things “tagged” in the blog.  This is the 3,773rd entry. (The symmetry to the number is purely coincidental–or is it?)  It has been viewed over 288,600 times, and over 400 readers have made comments.  It is apparently also a reference on Wikipedia.

The most popular pieces have been about Little Rock history and about people in Little Rock.

Little Rock Look Back: The 1944 launch of the USS Little Rock

On August 27, 1944, the first USS Little Rock was launched in Philadelphia at the Cramp Shipbuilding Company shipyards.  A 10,000 ton Cleveland Class light cruiser, it first touched water in the Delaware River.

The sponsor of the ship (who broke the champagne bottle on the hull) was Mrs. Ruth May Wassell, the wife of Little Rock alderman Sam Wassell.  The main address was delivered by Congressman Brooks Hays, whose district included Little Rock.  A crowd of 5,000 was gathered to witness the launch.

According to the Associated Press Congressman Hays called light cruisers, “the hottest item of naval combat.”

The congressman further elaborated:

The people of Little Rock are proud to have such a ship as this bear their city’s name.” said Mr. Hays. “Even those of us who know little about the classification of naval vessels know that the cruisers have distinguished themselves in the Pacific war and that this is the outstanding type of combat vessel for that area. The navy men tell us that the cruiser is the ‘work horse of the navy.’ big enough to go into any battle, fast enough to lead any task force.

Carrying, as it has, the heaviest load in the Pacific where the greatest battles have taken place, the cruisers have added luster to naval history. We hope that, in the time remaining before our enemies are put down, the Little Rock will take her place along side the Boise, the San Francisco, the Helena,and the Chicago, preserving the prestige of the cruisers.

We are glad to honor the workmen and the company for which they work.  I am sure we are all impressed with the spirit of teamwork which produced the results we observe today.  In March 1943, the keel was laid and for 18 months materials for the ship have come from everywhere. The taxes to pay for it will be assessed against men and women of great and little resources. Teamwork from beginning to end did the job.

So with the war.  A glorious victory lies ahead, but there is much remaining to be done. Only teamwork can supply the dynamic power yet needed to complete that victory. Every ship launching is a reminder of the power that comes to a people who work together to achieve.”

Other guests at the ceremony included United States Senator John L. McClellan and Congressman and senator-elect J. William Fulbright. Alderman Sam Wassell was also present.  He and his wife hosted a dinner for the Arkansas delegation and other dignitaries the night before the christening while they were in Philadelphia.

At the request of the Secretary of the Navy, Little Rock Mayor Charles Moyer designated Mrs. Wassell for the honor of sponsoring the USS Little Rock. There are not details as to why Mayor Moyer made the designation.  A first cousin of Alderman Wassell, Dr. Corydon Wassell had been an early World War II hero and was a favorite of President Franklin Roosevelt.  Paramount had released a movie about him earlier in 1944. That may have been a reason for the designation.

The Little Rock City Council sent a bouquet of roses to the ceremony, fitting since the city’s nickname at the time was “City of Roses.” After the launch, Mrs. Wassell sent a telegram to Mayor Moyer and the Council

Thanks a million for the beautiful bouquet of red roses. They made the christening of the cruiser Little Rock perfect. I wish it could have been possible for you to have been present.  The cruiser is 600 feet long and will have a crew of 1,200 men.  I was so proud of our city.  Little Rock has something to be proud of.

The USS Little Rock (CL-92) was commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, on June 17, 1945.  After service during the end of World War II and the post-war era, it was decommissioned on June 24, 1949. After being refit, it was recommissioned on June 3, 1960. It was permanently decommissioned on November 22, 1976.  The following year it was towed to Buffalo where it has been a museum since then.

The current USS Little Rock was commissioned adjacent to the original USS Little Rock — the only time a new ship was commissioned next two the previous ship to bear its name.

Little Rock Look Back: A few municipal primary races of yore

Taylor

Today is primary day in Arkansas.  Though City of Little Rock municipal races are non-partisan and won’t be on the ballot until November, that has not always been the case.

Between 1874 and 1957, usually winning the Democratic Primary was tantamount to election. So the municipal general elections were usually boring. (The only exception would be the three elections in which Pratt Remmel was the GOP nominee for mayor facing off against the Democratic nominee.)

The real drama was in the primary races.

The 1911 primary pitted crusading businessman Charles Taylor against a firebrand attorney and Alderman John Tuohey, a grocer. Each of the three tried to position himself as an outsider, though Tuohey was least successful in accomplishing this considering he was an alderman and the candidate of choice of the retiring mayor.

Riffle logged insults at both Taylor and Tuohey. Taylor sought to position himself as not just the candidate of the businessmen. As a progressive, he borrowed Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal motto and offered “A Square Deal for Everyone.” A Baptist Sunday School superintendent, he also campaigned against vice. Tuohey offered his own solutions to city issues but was hampered in the campaign by illness.

After the January 12, 1911, primary election day, Tuohey had 1530 votes, Taylor had 1493 and Riffle had 506. Taylor alleged 323 illegal votes were cast and sought the poll tax records to try to prove it. After he saw the poll tax lists, he reduced his charges to 250 illegal votes.

On January 26, Tuohey and Taylor agreed to a new, two-man primary (essentially a run-off) in an attempt to resolve the matter. After that race, Taylor had 1874 votes and Tuohey had 1645. Taylor went on to be elected mayor in April 1911 and would subsequently serve four two-year terms.

 

Robinson

When he took office in April 1929 having just turned 29 a few weeks earlier, Mayor Pat L. Robinson seemed to be a rising star in the Democratic Party. Within a few months, however, he found himself at odds with the Little Rock City Council on a variety of issues.

Some of these appear to have been of his own doing, partially due to youthful arrogance, and part of these were probably rooted in entrenched resistance to change. With the onset of the Great Depression six months into his term, the City’s already tight financial shape became even tighter. The aldermen and city clerk gave him no quarter (though some may have wanted to draw and quarter him).

Knowlton

In November 1930, City Clerk Horace Knowlton squared off against Mayor Robinson (no relation to Joe T.) in the Democratic primary. It was a particularly raucous primary with charges and counter-charges of corruption, malfeasance and misfeasance. In describing Mayor Robinson’s handling of the City finances, Mr. Knowlton declared the mayor had undertaken an “orgy of spending.”

The results after the election were  Knowlton, 4,537; Robinson, 4,554; and 61 votes for a third candidate. Robinson was declared the nominee. But Knowlton protested and filed suit. There charges of illegal voting and persons whose ballots were not counted. After an exhaustive investigation (over 1,800 pages of testimony were taken), the court found that neither side had willingly engaged in voter fraud or vote tampering. The painstaking analysis further found that Knowlton had received ten more votes than Robinson.

In April 1931, Knowlton won the general election and was sworn in as Little Rock mayor. Robinson continued to pursue the case and appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In June 1931 (in the third month of Knowlton’s mayoral term), the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the circuit court ruling that Knowlton had indeed won the primary.

 

Sprick

A little more than a decade later, the state’s high court would again be called on to weigh in on Little Rock’s Democratic primary for mayor. In December 1944, Alderman Sam Wassell and former Alderman Dan Sprick faced off in a particularly nasty race.  As World War II was drawing to a close, there were charges leveled which questioned patriotism. With both men having service on the Little Rock City Council, there were also plenty of past votes on both sides which could become fodder for campaigns.

Wassell

The election was on December 5, 1944. Sprick received 3,923 votes and Wassell 3,805. A few days later, Wassell filed suit claiming that there were people who voted who were not on the poll tax rolls and another group of voters who did not live in the ward in which they voted. Sprick countersued making the same charges against Wassell.

The case eventually ended up at the Arkansas Supreme Court, which remanded it back to the lower court. On March 26, 1945, Wassell dropped his case. This was only eight (8) days before the municipal general election.

Two years later, Wassell would challenge Sprick in the primary and be triumphant. Wassell would serve from 1947 until 1951.  Sprick would later return to politics and serve a decade in the Arkansas State Senate.

 

There are many more interesting primary and election stories to tell. Stay tuned…