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Senator James E. Murray of Montana

From the author’s personal collection. Autographed photo of Senator James E. Murray of Montana

From the author’s personal collection.
Autographed photo of Senator James E. Murray of Montana

By Ray Hill

Occasionally, a candidate comes out of nowhere to win an election.  It is not a common occurrence in politics, but it has happened throughout our history.  James Edward Murray was one such candidate.

Born May 3, 1876 in Canada, young Murray was sent to the United States to live with an uncle, for whom he was named, when his father died.  Arriving in Butte, Montana, Jim Murray eventually became an American citizen.  Murray also became a lawyer and represented many of his wealthy uncle’s interests.

In 1906, the thirty-year old Murray was elected as attorney for Silver Bow County.  It was the only elected office Murray held before being winning election to the United States Senate in 1934.  Murray’s time as county attorney was not an especially happy time for him, as he frequently clashed with judges and other elected officials.  After one term, Murray opted not to seek reelection.

Jim Murray returned to private practice and remained prominent in Democratic Party politics.  Murray was involved with labor unions in Montana, one of the most important constituencies for any aspiring Democratic leader.

Murray’s uncle died in 1921 and reputedly he and his mother were the beneficiaries of a $10 million legacy.  That sum would be the equivalent to almost $127,000,000 today.

Murray also inherited an interest in the Murray Hotel in Livingston, Montana, which still stands today.

The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought Democrats back to power in Washington and Murray accepted an appointment to the advisory board of the Public Works Administration in 1933.  Murray served as chairman of the board and made a host of acquaintances in Montana, as the state, like most of the rest of the country, had been devastated by the Great Depression.

As is oftentimes the case in politics, a single death changes the face of politics in a particular locality or state.  In this instance, Senator Thomas J. Walsh, who had served in the United States Senate since 1913, had been picked by FDR to serve as Attorney General.  The seventy-three year old Walsh, long a widower, surprised quite nearly everybody when he married a younger widow and died of a heart attack on a train while coming back from his honeymoon.  Walsh’s death left a vacancy in the Senate and Governor John E. Erickson had the right to choose a successor until the next election.  Montana’s new senior U. S senator, Burton K. Wheeler, fearful that Erickson might appoint someone he found wholly objectionable, quietly suggested the governor himself might enjoy serving in the United States Senate.  Apparently Erickson’s wife was excited by the prospect of living in Washington, D. C. and Erickson shocked much of the state when he abruptly resigned the governorship.  His successor quickly appointed Erickson to fill the vacancy, causing a storm of protests over what many perceived to be a backroom deal.

John Erickson was seventy years old in 1933 and been elected governor of Montana three times.  Leaving the governorship in 1933, Erickson had almost an entire four-year term to serve.  Ostensibly, Erickson should have been a strong candidate, but the outrage felt by many crippled him in the 1934 special election.

James E. Murray was encouraged to run by many Democrats, especially by fellow Irish Americans and supporters of organized labor.  Others, including Senator Wheeler, thought Erickson would still win the Democratic primary, but Murray narrowly won a crowded primary to become the Democratic nominee.  Wheeler himself was up for election that same year and both he and Murray easily won the general election.

James E. Murray entered the United States Senate where he spent the first two years of his term quietly, concentrating upon the routine duties of a senator.  Murray had to run again for a full six-year term in 1936 and was challenged in the Democratic primary by a young Congressman and Senator Murray only barely beat back the challenge.  Murray fared much better in the general election, defeating his Republican opponent easily.

It was during his second term of office that James Murray changed political courses.  While always a relatively strong supporter of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal, Murray was also an isolationist, like his senior colleague Burton K. Wheeler.  Wheeler was one of the most ardent isolationists in the Senate, a body where some of the most powerful members were deeply opposed to involving the country in affairs outside its own borders.  Like many Irishmen, Murray was skeptical of the aims of the British Empire and disliked England in general.

Burton K. Wheeler, too, had been supportive of FDR, but broke with the president when Roosevelt proposed enlarging the U. S. Supreme Court in 1937.  Wheeler led the opposition to FDR’s court packing scheme, but Murray backed Roosevelt, causing a serious breach between the two senators from Montana.  It was a risky proposition for Murray, as Wheeler was quite popular in their home state.  Wheeler opposed the reelection of a Democratic Congressman in 1938 whom he believed was sympathetic to the Communists.  A Republican won the general election that year, despite being a virulent anti-Semite and ultra reactionary.  Murray remained loyal to the Democratic Party and its candidates and the hostility between he and Wheeler continued to fester.

Wheeler had presidential hopes and in 1940 the senator thought he very well might be the Democratic candidate, although he later professed he had little interest in the presidency and thought there was no hope for any candidate once it became clear Franklin Roosevelt would accept a third nomination.  Wheeler won another term in the Senate that year and relations between the Montana senators continued to deteriorate even further.  A fist fight nearly erupted between Charles Murray, his father’s chief administrative aide and Bailey Stortz, Wheeler’s own chief assistant while the two men were attending a political function in Montana.

Senator Murray had to run again in 1942 and Wheeler, now acknowledged as the leader of the powerful “bipartisan machine” in Montana, was openly against his colleague, preferring the Republican nominee, Wellington Rankin, a wealthy lawyer and rancher.  1942 was not a good year for many Democratic incumbents; the war was going badly for the allies and voters were discontented.  Murray narrowly won reelection and Wheeler grumbled that Rankin had run a terrible campaign.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and American entry into World War II, isolationism was a discredited, if not entirely dead, political philosophy.  One by one, the Senate’s most prominent isolationist voices were silenced by death or defeat.  Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota lost his reelection bid in 1944; Senator William Borah of Idaho died before Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.  Senator Bennett Champ Clark of Missouri was defeated in the Democratic primary of 1944, as well as Senator D. Worth Clark of Idaho.  Senator Frederick Van Nuys of Indiana died in January of 1944 and Senator Hiram W. Johnson of California died in August of 1945.  The election of 1946 would consign many of the remaining isolationists to defeat, including Burton K. Wheeler.

Having barely won reelection himself in 1942, Senator Murray was hell bent on ridding himself of his colleague.  Murray backed Leif Erickson, who had been the Democratic candidate for governor in 1944.  Senator Wheeler had been opposed to Erickson, preferring the Republican incumbent, Sam C. Ford.  Wheeler, overconfident, did not return home to campaign until weeks before the primary.  In his autobiography, Wheeler wrote that he sensed Montanan’s attitude toward him had changed.  He quickly concluded he had a fight on his hands.  It was a fight he lost.

Burton K. Wheeler lost his primary campaign and went on to become a highly successful Washington attorney.  Jim Murray shed no tears at Wheeler’s defeat and he became the most prominent Democratic politician in the state.

Wheeler came back to Montana to campaign for the Republican candidate against Murray in 1948, but the senator won reelection handily.  Senator Murray faced a stiffer challenge in 1954 when he was seventy-eight years old and was challenged by Republican Congressman Wesley D’Ewart.  Murray only barely won that contest.

Murray’s seniority in Congress grew each year he remained in Congress and he chaired the Senate’s Interior Committee, a post of prime importance to Montana.  During his tenure in the Senate, Murray championed many liberal and losing causes, not the least of which was free medical care for seniors.  Murray also strongly advocated the Missouri Valley Authority, based on the same concept as the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Murray also eventually chaired the Senate’s Labor Committee, where he strongly supported the cause of organized labor.

James E. Murray had five sons, the youngest of whom was also his chief aide.  Charles Murray became somewhat controversial, although by all accounts he was both effective and qualified.  As he aged during his last term in office, Senator Murray seemed to be suffering from dementia and many charged the real senator was Charlie Murray.

Eighty-four in 1960, Senator Murray, to the horror of his family, announced he would run again.  Murray’s family knew he was not in any shape to run yet another statewide campaign and for whatever reason, the senator was bitterly opposed to the idea that Congressman Lee Metcalf would succeed him in office.  With the greatest of efforts, the senator’s family finally convinced him to declare his withdrawal from the race and announce his retirement from the United States Senate.

Jim Murray returned to Montana after leaving the Senate.  He moved in with one of his sons and his health began to seriously deteriorate.

The former senator had been in Florida when he was flown home to Montana and back to the home of his son, Judge W. D. Murray.  The old senator slipped into a coma.

Murray only lived little more than three months after his retirement, dying on March 23, 1961.

Murray’s wife Viola, originally from Memphis, had predeceased him and the fortune left to him by his uncle was largely gone.  The family did keep the Murray Hotel for almost two decades after the senator’s death.

Despite having lost as many legislative battles as he won, James E. Murray would be fondly remembered by many progressives and liberals for his refusal to bend to the ebb and flow of popular opinion.  James E. Murray remained the longest serving senator from Montana, a record broken only years later by Max Baucus.

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