K.D. McKellar Goes To Congress, II

By Ray Hill

The campaigns of Kenneth D. McKellar and his chief opponent for the Democratic nomination in the 1911 special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of George Washington Gordon had heated up.  McKellar and his challenger Thomas C. Looney spoke at the same meeting and exchanged mild words about the campaign of 1910 and who was the more faithful Democrat between them.  Tennessee’s Tenth Congressional District was comprised of four counties: Shelby, Tipton, Hardeman and Fayette.

The mayor of Memphis at the time was Edward Hull Crump.  The Commercial Appeal reported the friends of both McKellar and Tom Looney had been told Crump was remaining strictly neutral in the Democratic primary.  Several of Crump’s “strongest supporters” had lined up behind Looney’s candidacy, while others known to be close to the mayor were backing McKellar.  Evidently, a rumor was circulating in the political circles of Memphis that Crump had reached some kind of understanding with Looney.  The gossip was prevalent enough that the campaign managers of both candidates had to assure supporters there was no truth in the claim.  As Crump and his city ticket was up for election that November, the mayor didn’t wish to offend any of his own supporters and stayed completely out of the congressional race.

Both McKellar and Looney spent time in the “country” areas of the Tenth Congressional District rather than the City of Memphis.  McKellar campaigned in Somerville while Tom Looney visited Hardeman and Tipton counties.  A reporter covering the race noticed both candidates carried the airs of a man confident of victory.

The campaign to succeed George Washington Gordon in Congress was not entirely a sedate affair.  The Tennessean reported the voters in Tennessee’s Tenth Congressional District had not witnessed such a contest since the extraordinarily bitter fight between Congressman Josiah Patterson and his challenger, Edward Ward Carmack.  The Tennessean readily acknowledged the campaign between McKellar and Looney lacked the same bitterness that had marked the Patterson-Carmack contest, but reported the congressional campaign seemed to have generated quite a bit of interest on the part of the people.  When General Gordon had died, “there were as many prospective candidates as there were Abraham’s stars of old” the reporter cheerfully noted, but the race had winnowed down to only Kenneth McKellar and Tom Looney.  Looney had the active backing of Malcolm Patterson, who had succeeded E. W. Carmack as the district’s congressman before winning election as governor in 1906.  Tom Looney also enjoyed the support of his brother-in-law, Arthur S. Buchanan, a justice of the Tennessee State Supreme Court.

Kenneth McKellar issued a challenge to Looney to meet him in debate via a letter mailed to Looney’s campaign headquarters.  McKellar wrote he would be delighted to meet Looney in joint debates and discuss the issues of the day “at such times and places as may be agreeable.”  McKellar’s challenge was immediately accepted by Tom Looney, who made a formal reply.  Evidently, after having had time to think it over, Looney changed his mind.  A few days later, Looney announced he would decline McKellar’s invitation to meet in joint debates across the Tenth District.  After having met with his backers and campaign committee, Tom Looney sent another letter saying he felt debates would only stir up rancor and ill feelings amongst Democrats, something both candidates were trying to avoid.

Speaking in Covington, McKellar made a “forcible” speech calling for party harmony.  Kenneth McKellar correctly forecast that current events portended the election of a Democratic president in 1912 and said Tennessee, being a Democratic state, should not fall behind.

As the date of the special election approached, the Commercial Appeal covered McKellar’s closing, which the newspaper described in a headline as “convincing.”  The Commercial Appeal acknowledged McKellar was “so well known in the county he needed little introduction” to the voters.  It was a different way of saying McKellar had good name recognition inside Shelby County.  In what appeared to be an endorsement of McKellar’s candidacy, the newspaper noted the candidate had talked “Solid Sense to Sensible people” in another headline.

The Commercial Appeal noted that as Kenneth McKellar had “served so excellently” as head of the Tenth Congressional District Democratic Committee for the past eight years, he knew and had worked with the most influential Democrats in the three outlying counties — Tipton, Hardeman and Fayette — as well as Shelby, that comprised the district.  The newspaper especially noted McKellar’s interest in one of the most important constituencies in Tennessee and the Tenth Congressional District: farmers.  “He was born on a farm and numbers among the farmers his most influential friends,” the Commercial Appeal wrote.  The daily newspaper thought McKellar was “always strong in his appeals for the rural vote, for he appreciates the necessities of the farmers possibly better than they do themselves.”  The newspaper also took notice of McKellar’s bid for support from working people and labor.  “Being of the people, he is for the people,” the editorial asserted.

And the people were for Kenneth D. McKellar.  The Democratic primary to determine the nominee for the House of Representatives in the special election to succeed the late George Washington Gordon was held on October 7, 1911, a Saturday.  Most observers thought the race would be close.  The following day newspapers across Tennessee reported Kenneth McKellar’s large lead in the vote returns.  McKellar showed surprising strength in many precincts where Tom Looney had been thought to be well ahead.  K. D. McKellar had carried both the City of Memphis and Shelby County, as well as Fayette County.  Tom Looney had prevailed in Hardeman County and won Tipton County, albeit only just barely, winning by 28 votes.

Inside a solidly Democratic district and with only a Socialist opponent on the ballot in the general election, Kenneth McKellar was a certainty to win election to the U. S. House of Representatives.  As the balloting occurred in an off-year and was a special election, McKellar’s nomination received more statewide attention than it would have otherwise.  The Knoxville Sentinel published on its editorial page a column congratulating McKellar on his victory.  “Mr. McKellar is one of Tennessee’s ablest young men,” the Sentinel wrote, noting the candidate had been considered for election to the United States Senate by the legislature earlier in the year.

Days after McKellar’s election to the House of Representatives, Tennessee newspapers reported the expenses of the candidates.  Tom Looney had actually outspent McKellar, reporting expenditures of $4,362 to McKellar’s $4,338.21.  Looney had actually raised more than he had spent, reporting a $6,000 contribution from his brother-in-law Justice A. S. Buchanan, as well as $500 contributions from L. K. Salsbury and C. H. Raine, and assorted smaller contributions.

The first order of business was for the congressman-elect to select his personal “secretary,” which today would be a chief of staff.  Just as soon as the votes were tallied, the congressman-elect had been deluged with applicants and their supporters.  McKellar had over forty applications to serve as his personal secretary and some individuals had importuned more than 200 of their friends to contact the congressman-elect to give their endorsements.  The applicants came from every nook and cranny inside the Tenth Congressional District as well as the City of Memphis.  McKellar had afforded himself some small measure of protection when he announced he would not consider anyone until after the general election.

The appointment of his secretary revealed K. D. McKellar’s innate political shrewdness, as well as his ability to handle a fragile matter with a delicate touch.  McKellar announced he was keeping G. H. Rhodes in the post.  Rhodes had been the secretary to the late Congressman Gordon and knew the district well.  “After a great deal of deliberation, I have decided to make no change.  Mr. Rhodes is a splendid young man, and his past experience has well qualified him for the work.  I found there was a great deal of unfinished work in Gen. Gordon’s office, with which only Mr. Rhodes is familiar, and I am sure that it would not be wise to do anything else but retain Mr. Rhodes.”

McKellar also wisely noted, “Mr. Rhodes does not wish to make the position permanent, but at my request has agreed to assist me at least until I become familiar with the routine of the office.”

McKellar, had for the time being, fended off the job hunters and had largely insulated himself from criticism by keeping the young newspaperman as his secretary.  The congressman-elect’s logic was impeccable and hard to argue with.

Congressman McKellar was not done with Tom Looney.  McKellar also continued to demonstrate his ability to handle his end of any political dispute.  Reelected without serious opposition in 1912, Congressman McKellar was confronted by a potentially big political problem when Leander Dutro drowned in the Mississippi River while on an outing.  Dutro was the postmaster of Memphis and Tennessee’s United States senators were Luke Lea and John Knight Shields.  Both had been elected by the Tennessee General Assembly as “fusionists,” a combination of Republicans and Independent Democrats over “regular” Democrats.  Yet the two men did not like one another personally and did not get along.  John Knight Shields, a former chief justice of the Tennessee State Supreme Court, was apparently so obstreperous many of his friends and supporters could not get along with him.

McKellar managed to come up with Major J. C. French, an aging former Confederate veteran, to replace Dutro.  Both of Tennessee’s U.S. senators approved and French’s nomination was quickly approved in June 1913.  Then French died in August, meaning a new postmaster had to be named.

After some time bickering over a nominee, the two Tennessee senators finally agreed on a new postmaster of Memphis: Thomas C. Looney.  There could have been few nominees more personally or politically obnoxious to Kenneth D. McKellar than that of Tom Looney.  Senators certainly exercised considerable sway over patronage matters in their home states, even over congressmen.  There was one notable exception; congressmen had the right to name the postmasters of their hometown.

As Kenneth McKellar had predicted, a Democrat had indeed been elected president in 1912.  Of the seven presidents with whom Kenneth McKellar served during his long career, Woodrow Wilson was the person the Tennessean admired the most.  McKellar had already shown an ability to outmaneuver both Luke Lea and John Knight Shields and had secured President Wilson’s promise to appoint Hubert Fisher as U. S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.  Both Shields and Lea were confident their recommendation of T. C. Looney to serve as postmaster of Memphis would be approved by Wilson.

Two weeks later, Charles W. Metcalf, Jr. was nominated by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as postmaster of Memphis.  Both Senator Lea and Senator Shields had protested Metcalf’s nomination.  R. N. Gates, a reporter for the Commercial Appeal sent off a dispatch stating, “For reasons satisfactory only to those responsible for their recommendations, the administration is being importuned in too many instances to appoint men to lucrative federal offices who cannot establish any sort of title to favor.”  Gates wrote the Wilson Administration had been lambasted by critics who disparaged the nomination of men “whose participation in the affairs of their party is limited to the perfunctory act of casting a vote for the nominees.”  Gates reported Democratic senators and congressmen were grumbling “too many undeserving” individuals had already been appointed to high office under Wilson.

U.S. senators have used, albeit it sparingly, the declaration a particular presidential nominee for some federal office in their own state to be “personally and politically obnoxious” to them and the Senate almost invariably rejects the nomination. Observers waited to see whether Senators Lea and Shields would resort to using that tactic with Metcalf’s nomination.

Kenneth D. McKellar won that fight and named the postmaster of his home city.  McKellar later beat Luke Lea and two former governors to go to the U.S. Senate where he remained for the next 36 years.

© 2023 Ray Hill