By Ray Hill
Joseph Carlton Loser (pronounced Low-ser) enjoyed a successful career in law and politics for decades. The long-time district attorney for Nashville and Davidson County, Loser eventually wound up in Congress and became associated with a spectacular case of voter fraud, which ended his congressional career and launched the career of another Davidson Countian who became a household name in Nashville.
Loser came from modest means and worked his way through the old “YMCA law school” and served as the secretary to Nashville mayor William Gupton (Loser’s father-in-law) from 1917 until 1920. In 1923, Loser became the assistant city attorney for Nashville and six years later was the assistant district attorney for Davidson County. Loser became District Attorney for Davidson County in 1934 during the depths of the Great Depression, a post he held for the next twenty-two years. J. Carlton Loser’s service as district attorney won praise from one resident who wrote a letter to the editor of Nashville’s conservative daily newspaper, the Banner, which said there was scant cause for criticism of Loser as his office had “kept pace with growth of Nashville to a great Southern city far beyond the dream of the pioneers.” “The colonel” thought Loser had grown along with the city and had “kept faith with his constituents and accelerated his pace with progress.”
The death of any sitting politician always alters the political landscape and reshapes events for years to come, oftentimes starting a game of “musical chairs”, which is exactly what happened when ailing congressman J. Percy Priest died unexpectedly in 1956. Priest had already won renomination in the Democratic primary when he passed away on October 12, 1956, less than a month before the general election.
Carlton Loser had been a candidate for Congress in 1936, following the death of Joseph W. Byrns, who had been Nashville’s congressman since 1909. Loser faced Richard M. Atkinson, who had been Davidson County’s district attorney, along with Will T. Cheek, a wealthy local businessman. The election had been extraordinarily close with Atkinson winning by thirteen votes. Loser, having served less than two years as district attorney, ran a respectable third in the Democratic primary. The tally had been Atkinson 14,144 votes to 14,131 votes for Will Cheek and 12,623 for J. Carlton Loser.
The 1956 congressional race in Nashville began in earnest the moment Percy Priest’s heart stopped beating. Almost immediately Nashville’s two daily newspapers, the Tennessean and the Banner, both speculated the most formidable candidate to succeed the late congressman was J. Carlton Loser. Nashville’s city attorney, Raymond Leathers, also quickly indicated his own interest in running.
Prior to the meeting of the Davidson County Democratic Executive Committee, which would name the nominee to replace Percy Priest on the general election ballot, the Tennessean published an editorial declaring Carlton Loser “merited” the nomination. The Tennessean thought J. Carlton Loser to be “an outstanding” local official whose “long and able service to the public” had benefitted both Davidson County and the Democratic Party. The Tennessean noted the candidacy of city attorney Raymond Leathers, but sniffed his candidacy was being pushed by Nashville mayor Ben West in what the editorial said was “one of the crudest drives for public power even the mayor has ever made.” The Tennessean noted General Loser had been a supporter of Congressman Priest, while Mayor Ben West had attempted to bring about Percy Priest’s defeat in the 1956 Democratic primary. The Tennessean thought it would be no less than a tragedy should the local executive committee select a nominee for Congress to succeed Percy Priest who was merely “the tool of a petty politician.”
In the end, the vote of the Davidson County Democratic Executive Committee was as close as could be, 43-42. J. Carlton Loser won the Democratic nomination for Congress by a single vote. Loser was modest in accepting the congratulations of well-wishers and supporters, telling the Tennessean he only hoped he could “serve with the same fidelity and devotion to state and nation” as had Percy Priest. Loser promised he would do his best. The nominee was pleased by the “wonderful” response to the people who had telephoned and said nothing like it had ever happened to him throughout his long political career.
Loser was of course elected in the 1956 general election and won the Democratic nomination for Congress easily two years later, crushing opponent John L. Oliver 41,470 votes to 9,113.
In 1960, Congressman Loser was challenged by a young former state senator, Richard Fulton. Dick Fulton had first run for Congress against Percy Priest in 1956, reminding skeptical voters Andrew Jackson had first been elected at age twenty-nine. Fulton, having succeeded his late brother in the Tennessee State Senate, had been urged to run for Congress against Carlton Loser due to Loser’s vote in support of the Landrum- Griffin Bill, which had highly irked organized labor. Loser had been targeted by the Teamster’s union specifically in a memorandum, which called for the congressman’s defeat.
Ben West, mayor of Nashville, had built up a respectable little machine inside Nashville and the Tennessean thought Dick Fulton could count on support from the West political organization. The Tennessean noted Ben West and Congressman Loser were not at all close politically. “When the mayor is in Washington he does not call on Loser and when Loser is in Nashville he does not visit the mayor,” the newspaper reported. Loser had contended with a strong bid by the West machine to win the Democratic nomination for Congress for Raymond Leathers in 1956.
Dick Fulton announced he would be a candidate for Congress against incumbent J. Carlton Loser. Almost immediately, Jimmy Hoffa, the colorful and controversial boss of the Teamsters’ Union, was an issue. By the end of May, Fulton was denying he knew Hoffa. Fulton tossed the Teamster’s boss back into the lap of Carlton Loser, saying he understood Hoffa was “a personal friend” of the congressman.
“I have never seen Mr. Hoffa in my life,” Congressman Loser retorted. The congressman pointed out he had been targeted for defeat by Jimmy Hoffa, along with Senator Estes Kefauver, and reminded voters he had accepted Fulton’s challenge to wage a campaign on issues and not “sling mud.” Loser said in that spirit he would have little or nothing else to say on the topic.
Neil Cunningham, a columnist for the more conservative daily newspaper, the Nashville Banner, darkly speculated Dick Fulton and Senator Estes Kefauver were being supported by much of the same labor bosses and “other liberal elements” who were hoping to oust Congressman J. Carlton Loser.
Fulton hit the congressman hard for accepting two pensions from his service as attorney general for Davidson County while at the same time opposing medical aid to the elderly as socialized medicine. Dick Fulton said Carlton Loser collected a pension of $10,380 annually (over $90,000 today) in addition to his congressional salary of $22,500 (roughly $197,000 today). Fulton was quick to remind voters Loser had promised not to collect his pension while serving in the House of Representatives. For those who doubted it, the Tennessean published a copy of the check issued to Loser from the State of Tennessee. “He cries socialism at the suggestion that they (the elderly) be provided hospitalization,” Fulton thundered. “Mr. Loser takes the position that they must pass a means test which is to put it simply, a pauper’s oath.”
Dick Fulton said he was for Tennesseans over the age of 65 living on social security to have some sort of coverage to prevent “financial disaster” in the event of illness; in essence, Fulton was for what eventually became Medicare.
Congressman Loser defended his pension, pointing out he had earned it through twenty-seven years of hard work and service. Loser challenged Fulton to reveal his own position on the Landrum – Griffin labor bill and reminded voters Fulton had been highly critical of the late Congressman Percy Priest for Priest’s refusal to sign the Southern Manifesto. Loser recalled Dick Fulton saying if he was elected to Congress, he would sign the Manifesto. “But now,” Loser scoffed, “four years later, my opponent is trying to convince our Negro voters that he was young and inexperienced when running against Priest and that what he said about signing the Southern Manifesto was a mistake. He now says he was too young then to understand what he was talking about. Surely no Negro citizen will be deceived by this demagoguery.”
While Fulton hammered Loser for his pension, the congressman battered the challenger as the candidate of Jimmy Hoffa.
Carlton Loser turned back Dick Fulton’s challenge in 1960, winning with more than 55% of the vote. Fulton made a respectable showing and carried the city of Nashville, while Congressman Loser’s margins came from the county precincts.
The thirty-five-year-old Dick Fulton, then in the real estate business, announced in July of 1962 he would seek the Democratic nomination for Congress. Fulton explained he was running against Congressman Loser once again because “the people of Davidson County do not have the representation they desire and deserve.”
Once again, J. Carlton Loser was the winner of the Democratic primary, although by a much narrower margin. Eventually, George Barrett, an attorney for Richard Fulton, proved voter fraud in the absentee ballots cast in Councilman Gene “Little Evil” Jacob’s district. It soon became evident ballot-rigging by “Little Evil” Jacobs has potentially helped to determine the outcome of the congressional primary. The Tennessean went on the offensive and Congressman Loser did nothing to help himself by snapping at a reporter, “I don’t care to discuss it. I don’t want to discuss it at all.”
Eventually, the primary election ostensibly won by Carlton Loser was ordered by the Democratic State Executive Committee to be re-run. Dick Fulton indicated he would be a candidate in the general election as well. With the resultant confusion about who was the duly elected nominee of the Democratic Party, Congressman Loser had suggested neither he nor Richard Fulton run in the general election as the designated nominee. “I made this request, notwithstanding the fact that I was declared the winner by a plurality of the votes cast in the primary election,” Loser told a newspaperman. “As a result of this action by the primary board of the state, the way is open for a clear-cut contest between Mr. Richard Fulton and myself in November.” Loser said the fundamental question was which of them was better qualified to sit in the House of Representatives “by reason of mental integrity, experience and qualifications.”
The single issue of the general election campaign was Fulton’s insistence Loser had been nominated by a fraudulent vote count. Congressman loser had won by 72 votes while Fulton pointed out there had been more than 200 ballots illegally cast. Fulton had campaigned against Loser, saying he was really a Republican at heart.
The general election was a disaster for the incumbent. Carlton Loser lost decisively to challenger Richard Fulton, winning just over 38% of the vote. Fulton won better than 60% with the remainder being divided between a handful of also-rans.
Carlton Loser’s defeat in 1962 ended his long political career. Loser retired from Congress and resumed the practice of law. Loser was proud his son Joe had become a judge of the Circuit Court for Davidson County. Meticulous in his work, J. Carlton Loser never lost a criminal case while Attorney General which he personally prosecuted. Loser died July 31, 1984, at age 91.
Carlton Loser was reminiscent of days gone by, of the era when Joseph W. Byrns had represented Tennessee’s “Hermitage District.” Byrns typified the old “Southern gentleman” and that is precisely what Carlton Loser was; Dick Fulton exemplified a new era in Nashville politics. Nashville was not only Tennessee’s Capitol but also a great urban city. Dick Fulton was less a representative of times gone by, than a congressman for Nashville’s future. Indeed, Dick Fulton would leave Congress to become mayor of Nashville where he, and the city, both thrived.