Friday, November 17, 2006

Flashback: Billy the Kid was Celebrated as one of the Best Young Governors in the U. S. When the Orville Hodge Scandal Struck.

[Memories from fifty plus years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

As we’ve seen, at age 41, Billy Stratton was a model progressive Republican governor. He it was who first forged an agreement with old Mayor Daley, leading from strength (every mayor is weaker than any governor). They ironed out a tax bill which passed the legislature along with a toll road bill that was a bonanza of patronage for the Republicans (and Stratton enjoyed administering patronage). A general assembly authorized a $245 million Cook county revenue bond issue for expressway construction to be paid out of gasoline tax proceeds. But Stratton was far-sighted enough to worry about patronage abuses and tried to counter the growth in public jobs with passage of a personnel code which set up a Department of Personnel which was mandated to find a balance between civil service and patronage. By the end of the 1955 session he was celebrated as a very good governor, probably the best of the Republican ones. Godfrey Sperling of the “Christian Science Monitor” who traveled here to interview him, termed Stratton a pleasant improvement over Adlai Stevenson.

“He works 14 hours a day,” wrote Sperling who added that Stratton was obsessed with the need to avoid scandal, managing patronage himself and insisting, as Sperling wrote, “a day’s work for a day’s pay.” He hosted the national governor’s conference in Chicago. “Newsweek” magazine published a cover article on “dark horse candidates for president,” saying that if Dwight Eisenhower did not recover satisfactorily from his heart attack, in all likelihood only three Republican governors would be considered: Christian Herter of Massachusetts, George Craig of Indiana and Stratton of Illinois; of the group Stratton was in the lead. Encouraged, Stratton took to the road. Surmising that possibly Ike might not run and certainly that Stevenson would repeat the feat in 1956 as the Democratic candidate and struck with the off-chance that he could wind up with the nomination and opposing Stevenson, Stratton took aim at Stevenson and contrasted the job he was doing in Illinois with the one Stevenson had done. Then with things running at high gear for Stratton, he cruised into 1956. On January 4, he held a mass meeting in Morris and announced he would run again for governor. He was on a high.

But it was to be a troublesome year. Dark rumors about the elected Republican State Auditor of Public Accounts, Orville Hodge, began circulating in early June. The appropriation for his office was dwindling too quickly and reporters, particularly George Thiem of the “Chicago Daily News,” began to look over the record of checks drawn against it. The rumor had always circulated about Hodge, who was in the insurance and real estate business in Granite City, that he was wealthy. He owned two airplanes, four automobiles including a Lincoln and a Cadillac, an luxury home on Lake Springfield and kept a suite at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. He had been a state Rep before he was elected auditor in 1952 and was popular in the General Assembly because he reportedly had moxie and knew how to get a bill passed. He took lawmakers out to lunch and dinner and had many friends. At age 48 he was thought to be a potential governor; he had even considered challenging Stratton in the 1956 primary (State Treasurer Warren Wright had already done so, his campaign resting on the assumption that Stratton was too progressive, too big a spender and builder to please small-government conservatives) and was looked upon as a definite candidate in 1960.

Wright was first approached by Hodge who asked Wright not to cooperate with the press’ request to see the canceled checks saying, “if I go down, we all go down.” Wright took photos of the cancelled checks and showed them to Stratton. Billy the Kid whistled softly to himself as he studied the drafts and said, “Oh-oh, somebody’s going to the penitentiary.” Stratton placed a security guard on Hodge’s office and asked the Illinois Budgetary Commission to investigate Hodge and opened the records to the press. Hodge said he welcomed an investigation but said he feared some records might be missing because of a probe begun earlier by the Sangamon county state’s attorney who had called a grand jury to investigate Hodge’s office. Stratton and the attorney general, Latham Castle, met with Hodge and demanded he give up his candidacy for reelection. Hodge told newsmen indignantly that he would not.

Democrats moved on the issue at once and blamed Stratton for not requiring semi-annual reports from the auditor. Stratton had required similar reports from people he appointed but not from those who were elected on their own. That may well have been Stratton’s initial goof. Then Stratton brought more pressure to bear on Hodge by using an old law that allowed the governor to double his personal bond or be replaced within twenty days. That broke the deadlock. Hodge met again with Stratton and Castle and submitted his resignation. He wept. He confessed his guilt. There is an open question as to whether organized crime in St. Clair and Madison counties forced him to steal to pay campaign debts and other underworld connections. Also, Hodge may have wanted to go to prison quickly to protect his life from the mob. In any event, Stratton accommodated him; he made a special report to the people outlining the steps he had taken to get Hodge to resign and to admit guilt. By the time the Republican National Convention of 1956 was held in San Francisco, Hodge was a dead-letter, having pleaded guilty and faced twenty years in prison which, if restitution were provided, could be shortened to ten. On August 20, he was sentenced to ten and all his holdings were liquidated to begin restitution. The judge who sentenced him moved quickly and sentenced him harshly was a friend of Stratton.

Billy Stratton worried about how he would fare in the general election against the Democratic nominee, Herbert Paschen but it turned out Paschen, the Cook county treasurer, had invested county funds in the Southmoor Bank and Trust company owned by a banker, Edward A. Hinz, who had conspired with Hodge and who pleaded guilty to cashing fraudulent checks brought to him by Hodge’s messengers and kept in a brown envelope in the bank for Hodge to draw on. Since Paschen had invested some county money in Hinz’s bank, he had to withdraw from the Democratic ticket and was replaced by Judge Richard Austin of the Cook county circuit coujrt, with only two months remaining until election day. Mayor Daley participated in the selection of Austin, honest but not well known; Daley’s support of Austin was seen as doing a favor for Stratton.

While the scandal touched both sides and despite the fact that Hodge was elected on his own and ran his own office as Auditor, Stratton took a heavy hit in the matter.

In order to keep the matter before the public, Sen. Paul Douglas, mindful of the defeat Stratton meted out to Douglas’ wife for Congressman-at-Large, called for an FBI investigation. And Sen. J. William Fulbright, (D-Ark.), a friend of Douglas held sessions of his Senate Banking and Currency committee, came to Chicago to act as a committee of one, himself (no one else including any Republican showed up) to bring the glare of publicity to the case in the late campaign season. Orville Hodge was brought from prison in handcuffs. The hearings ran in October, 1956, called to influence the election. Stratton appeared voluntarily before the televised hearing. The jousting between Fulbright and Stratton was good theatre—proving Stratton an adept witness before a kangaroo court with Fulbright acting the prosecutor, the audience stacked with Democrats as the klieg lights were burning.

Fulbright tried to insinuate that Stratton and Hodge were political comrades.

“He was politically active against me,” said Stratton, “and started an abortive campaign against me. I didn’t know what his personal habits were. Politically he was unreliable. Mr. Hodge had a tendency to make abusive remarks at many state officers.”

Despite the theatrics, fearless before a “committee” with only Fulbright present (as a favor to Douglas) so it looked initially that Stratton was a miscreant hailed before a court, the governor’s performance was so masterful it helped Stratton materially. Stratton defended his actions and as usual liberally accused the Stevenson administration that preceded him of worse corruption. He cited the horsemeat and bogus cigarette stamp matters.

Fulbright scoffed and said they were “small potatoes.”

Stratton jumped on the remark. “You talk of small potatoes, Senator…the state lost $13 million in revenue [from the cigarette tax scandal]. Is that small potatoes to you?”

Fulbright stammered and backed away.

The Eisenhower reelection sweep in 1956 and the helpful selection of Richard Austin as an opponent, helped Stratton win reelection by a narrow margin of only 36,877. The judgment of the electorate seemed to be that while Stratton got rid of Hodge once the scandal became known, he had not used due diligence—had not compelled Hodge to submit semiannual reports and the state constitution had authorized him to do and had not reviewed carefully the routine requests for spending submitted to him by Hodge and other elected officials. But there were other issues. Austin charged the tollway project was a patronage dump and a sufficient lack of gambling regulation by the state. But Hodge dominated everything.

In short, Stratton was wounded by the Hodge scandal because while not culpable, he could have done better. But he was reelected to a second term and noticeably relieved. The press noticed one thing that happened to Stratton during the campaign. Before the Hodge scandal, he was a dark-haired governor. By the time he was reelected, he still looked youthful but his hair was turning grey. The Hodge scandal and the climactic joust with Fulbright before the TV cameras seemed, in major part, responsible.

In the campaign he continued hitting hard at Adlai Stevenson on the basis of his record as governor of Illinois. Mrs. Ernest Ives, Stevenson’s sister, wrote a book much later saying that Stratton had gained in wealth during his governorship. Not true. Bill Stratton was never a wealthy man and had to work first at the Canteen Corporation and then at Associated Bank in Chicago until advanced age. I was in his office at the bank where he had a phone and no secretary a few years before he died. Other ex-governors—lawyers like Jim Thompson, corporate board members like Jim Edgar—didn’t have to work. Bill Stratton wasn’t a lawyer. And probably because of the Hodge scandal and what turned out to be a falsetto “scandal” where he was indicted and then acquitted, he wasn’t invited to serve on corporate boards. Being exonerated didn’t change the stain on Billy the Kid.

Familiar black and white photos of his career were on the office wall in the tiny office where his desk was the biggest article of furniture (no couch, no window overlooking a street, just a wooden chair).

“I was too trusting [about Hodge],” he said when we had lunch the first time (the first of many to follow over the years until his death) “Hodge was the darling of the conservatives and was preparing to run against me in the primary and spread the word that I was trying to sandbag him by threatening to look at the vouchers. So I didn’t want to give him anything to complain about to the conservative Republicans. Well, I should have. I don’t know what was the matter with me. When he started buffaloing me with the charge to conservatives that I wanted to look at his checks to may political hay, I didn’t. My fault. Too nice a guy.”

He received a wound from the Hodge matter that was irreversible but he felt exonerated when he was reelected anyhow.

“The long and the short of the 1956 general [campaign] was,” Billy the Kid told me when we first had lunch at the M & M Club in the Merchandise Mart, “if the Democrats had picked a better candidate than Austin I could have been a goner.” He added: “Not that I had anything to do with the Austin choice.”

No. Old man Daley did.

“Good for him.” Billy allowed himself the small, quiet chuckle he was famous for. He wasn’t a crook; but then he wasn’t a political naïf, either.

No comments:

Post a Comment