History is known to repeat itself, and in Texas politics, a pattern of scandals and corruption has been set within its highest office. But when did these unethical, corrupt political practices begin? They can be followed back to one couple that set a precedent for dirty politics in Texas. For two decades, from 1914 to 1932, Jim “Pa” Ferguson and his wife, Mariam “Ma” Ferguson, took control of the Texas Capitol and used the governorship for personal gain, at any cost. As the Fergusons’ role as governor developed, so did the opposition to scandal and “Fergusonism,” becoming major issues in Texas politics for years thereafter.
For Jim “Pa” Ferguson, the mastermind behind countless political schemes and scandals, serving as Texas Governor was his most direct way to gain the political power and recognition he so clearly desired (Stayton). After a successful first term, Ferguson immediately began his second term with an egocentric mindset that led him into troubled waters with Texas officials. After disagreeing with The University of Texas Board of Regents’ choice of president, the former governor abused his powers by vetoing the university’s entire appropriations budget. This bold act of rebellion shocked and angered UT students, professors and government officials. On July 21st, 1917, charges were made that led to the first impeachment of a governor in Texas history (Steen).
For instance, he resigned the day before his impeachment, fully intending to enter the race again and reclaiming his “rightful” spot in the Texas capitol (Steen) After being defeated for the Democratic nomination, Ferguson was unable to get back on the ballot for governor. Except his pride would not allow for failure to define his career. He made the decision to extend his political power to and through his wife, Mariam “Ma” Ferguson (Huddleston), and had her run on his behalf in the 1924 Gubernatorial race.
Ferguson’s need for control and blatant opposition to his adversaries became even clearer during his wife’s campaign for office. “Ma” Ferguson ran with campaign slogans like “Me for Ma and I ain’t got a durn thing against Pa” and “Two governors for the price of one” (Patrick). These blatant messages showed voters that “Pa” would still be in charge if elected. With outspoken messages against the KKK and Prohibition, “Ma” won the election and started “her” career as the first women governor of Texas, and once again the Fergusons were back in office. Even after receiving a second chance at the governorship, however, the couple continued their pattern of public controversy and corruption within the state capitol.
Despite running on a platform of honesty and reconciliation, Ma’s first two years in office were more contentious than voters had hoped. The couple was prosecuted of cronyism, after granting friends and political supports contracts from the state highway commission (Huddleston). By the late 1920s to early 1930s, public sentiment towards the Fergusons took a turn for the worse (Dallas Morning News). At that point, Texas citizens were tired of the couple’s unethical behavior and their lack of respect for the office. The people’s hope diminished as their weariness grew, because of the notorious greed and fraud that marked the Fergusonian period. In fact, the media, which opposed the couple’s political antics, coined a new term—
“Fergusonism”—in the 1920s to refer to and to underscore “Pa” and “Ma” Ferguson’s corrupt actions (Brown).
For the last time, Mariam decided to run against incumbent Governor Ross Sterling in the 1932 gubernatorial election. In an article entitled, “Sterling Support”, the Dallas Morning News published the article to officially announce its support for the Sterling candidacy and to revoke support for the Fergusons, candidates who had once enjoyed the newspaper’s endorsement. At the time, The Dallas Morning News stated that it was “primarily against the spoils system which Fergusonism represents,” most likely referring to the 1924 state highway commission contract scandal, as well as the many other political transgressions during the two decades the Fergusons held office. The Dallas Morning News’editorial both explained how its opposition to the couple resulted from the “bitter disappointment of the faith put in the Fergusons in 1924” and also asserted, “in complete unison,” the newspaper’s support for Ross Sterling.
The political cartoon, “He Remembers the Old Shell Game” by John Knott, appeared in the same issue of the Dallas Morning News on August 15, 1932. After decades of the Ferguson’s strong grip on political office, Knott depicts “Old Man Texas,” a representative of the everyday, average Texan (Perez), standing up to “Jim” Ferguson and the political games he played while in power at the Texas State House. The politician is playing a “shell game” which is a game “where a person hides a small object underneath one of three nutshells, thimbles, or cups, then shuffles them about on a flat surface while spectators try to guess the final location of the object (YourDictionary)”. The phrase shell game also refers to “any scheme for tricking and cheating people (YourDictionary)”. Within the cartoon, the shells, Labeled, “Ma”, Jim and Gov. Office, represent the control and responsibility that Ferguson had over the Texas people during the “Fergusonian” period. By depicting Ferguson’s political motivations as a shady gambling game, humor is used to show the realization of the Texas people and how they no longer wanted to be under the control of a politician who covertly shifted his responsibility and power for years right before his constituents. Through this cartoon, the artist conveys the fact that public opinion had shifted from trust in, to skepticism about, Ferguson’s leadership.
Ultimately, Knott’s political cartoon depicts the frustration that grew towards former Governor Jim Ferguson and all his tricks to maintain control over Texas politics. After controlling the gubernatorial office for over two decades, the Fergusons set an unfortunate precedent for unethical leadership. As their time in office continued, power was never enough. Always hungry for more, the couple did whatever it took to keep their name relevant and political control in their hands, even if it harmed the voters who gave them their position in the first place. Unfortunately, “Fergusonism” has become a norm in politics today. It is now common for corruption and indictments to make headlines. The Fergusons paved the way for new, boisterous politicians to pander to the public and continue the tradition of dirty Texas politics for years to come.
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