• Marc Johnson

I’ll Take That Seat


Continuing the theme of how certain Senators came to be Senators.

Two Northwest governors exercised what just might be the height of political power – appointing themselves to the United States Senate. In both cases, the voters took, well, a dim view of that particular path to power.

Charles Gossett (on the left above) and John Erickson both had relatively successful careers before being accused of crafting the backroom “deals” that got them to the senate.

Erickson served as a judge and is the only Montana governor elected three times. Charlie Gossett was a member of the Idaho House of Representatives, was elected twice as Lt. Governor, and in 1944 won the governorship. Both Erickson and Gossett were Democrats.

Erickson, a fairly conservative Democrat, was first elected in 1925. In an era when the Anaconda Mining Company dominated Montana, Erickson made peace with powerful economic interests, built a generally progressive record and cultivated an image as “Honest John.” When the great Montana Senator Tom Walsh died in 1933, Erickson was besieged by Democrats who wanted appointment to Walsh’s Senate seat. Erickson finally settled the controversy by resigning as governor with the assurance that Lt. Governor Frank Cooney would then appoint him to the senate.

There was an 11 minute interval between the signing of Erickson’s resignation as governor and his appointment to the federal position. Critics immediately alleged that a “crooked deal” had been engineered.

Erickson tried to hold on to the Senate seat, but lost the Democratic primary in 1934 to Jim Murray who went on to a long and distinguished career. It didn’t help Erickson’s political career that TIME magazine reported that he had nodded off while presiding over a senate session. Governor Cooney died in office in 1935 before having to again face Montana voters.

In Idaho, Gossett was also a relatively conservative Democrat. He championed fiscal responsibility and harmony with the legislature.

As historian Bob Sims has written, “by far the most controversial event of Gossett’s tenure as governor was the ending of it, which came in November 1945, ten and a half months after it began. When Senator John Thomas died, Gossett resigned and the new Governor, former Lt. Governor Arnold Williams, appointed Gossett to fill the Senate seat. Cries of outrage attended those events.”

Gossett went on to lose the Democratic primary in 1946 and never regained elective office. Williams served out the remainder of Gossett’s term and lost a bid to retain the office.

Gossett, by the way, is one of only two Idahoans, current Senator Jim Risch being the other, who served as Lt. Governor, Governor and U.S. Senator.

There is a lesson here. When a political deal looks like a political deal, the voters generally smell a very big rat and they use the first opportunity to punish the deal makers.

Memo to Governors: In event of a vacancy, don’t even think about finding a way to appoint yourself to the U.S. Senate. It is a sure path to political oblivion.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson