Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Coke Robert Stevenson

Coke Robert Stevenson was Governor of Texas from 1941 to 1947. He was the only 20th century Texas politician to serve as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, as Lieutenant Governor, and then as governor.

He was born near the geographic center of Texas in Mason County to Robert Milton and Virginia Hurley Stevenson. His parents named him, not for Governor Richard Coke, but after Methodist bishop Thomas Coke. As a teenager, he went into the business of hauling freight. In 1913, Coke Stevenson became president of the First National Bank in Junction, the seat of Kimble County. He was Kimble County Attorney from 1914-1918, and Kimble County Judge, the chief county administrator with some judicial duties, from 1919-1921. In 1928 he was elected to the Texas House as a Democrat, and served there from 1929 until 1939, when he became lieutenant governor.

Stevenson succeeded to the governorship on August 4, 1941, when Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel resigned to take a seat in the U.S. Senate, which he won in a special election. A dramatic contrast to the flamboyant and unpredictable O'Daniel, Stevenson's approach was so conservative and taciturn that his critics accused him of doing nothing. Stevenson was elected to a full term in 1942, winning the Democratic primary with 69% and being unopposed in the general election. He was elected to a second term in 1944, effectively unopposed. When he left the governorship in January 1947 he was the longest-serving governor in the history of Texas and had presided over a broad and deep economic recovery during the years of World War II.

In 1948, he ran for the U.S. Senate. He led the Democratic primary with 39.7% to 33.7% against U.S. Representative Lyndon B. Johnson of Austin. In the hotly-contested runoff, Johnson won by only 87 votes out of 988,295 cast - one of the closest results in a Senatorial election in U.S. history. (As there was no effective Republican Party in Texas, winning the Democratic primary was all that mattered.) Stevenson challenged the result, and was granted an injunction by the Federal District Court, barring Johnson from the general election ballot. However, Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, sitting as a Circuit Court judge, ruled that the Federal government lacked jurisdiction, and that the question was for the Democratic State Central Committee to decide. He ordered the injunction stayed, and his ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court. The Central Committee sustained Johnson's victory by a 29-28 vote. The tie-breaking vote was cast by publisher Frank W. Mayborn of Temple, who rushed back to Texas from a business trip in Nashville, Tennessee, at the urging of Johnson's campaign manager, John B. Connally.

After the loss to Johnson, Stevenson retired to Junction. Disenchanted with the Democratic Party, he supported Republicans for the rest of his life, including Richard M. Nixon and Barry Goldwater. He died in San Angelo on June 28, 1975.