Reynolds Got First Bit Of Northern Exposure To Wallace in ’64
Historic Tidbit: “What’s the difference between a pigeon and an Iowa farmer? A pigeon can still make a deposit on a tractor.” Mo Udall stumping in Iowa during his 1976 campaign for the Presidency.
After securing an international reputation for famously staring down federal marshals at the University of Alabama schoolhouse door in 1963, Governor George Wallace moved quickly toward promoting his fame to capitalize on his pet cause. Though the territory would be unfamiliar and in many cases hostile, Wallace would try his hand at a series of Presidential primaries. And from the very first primary — Wisconsin, foes would learn that Wallace was definitely not a force to be taken lightly, even in a region as starkly different from his home state as can be.
President Lyndon Johnson, assured of the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination, had stopped putting his name on the ballot in a series of states. Wallace was putting his name in contention, not with the expectation of winning, but in hoping to bring his message of segregation north. He’d start in Wisconsin. The fact that Wallace would have the slate to himself meant that delegates would be bound to vote for him, something the rank’n’file were not about to do. So Democratic Governor John Reynolds was persuaded to put his name on the ballot as a “Favorite Son” candidate, thereby serving as a stand-in for the President.
WisconsinHistory.org notes that Wallace’s entry in the Wisconsin primary was not a foregone conclusion. His quest for momentum was meant to result from addresses to university campuses, but many came away impressed. Among the admirers was a couple, Dolores and Lloyd Herbstreith of Oshkosh, who encouraged him to jump in and helped finance his bid. Wallace was not expected to do much better than 5%, though “privately” hoped for 50,000 votes, while Reynolds suspected he could get as much as 100,000. But Senator William Proxmire felt that figure could go significantly higher. He emerged with 266,000 votes.
Wallace was picketed nearly everywhere he went. He called Joe McCarthy “ahead of his time” and boasted of belonging to the same church as a Green Bay player. But everywhere he went, he would be greeted with exuberance. Reynolds wasn’t. As Richard Carlton Haney observed in Wisconsin Magazine, it “wasn’t that district and county officials disliked Reynolds: they were merely apathetic and overconfident.” Even Johnson, asked days before the vote about Wallace, replied simply, “I think the people…will give their answer at the time designated. I don’t care to speculate or anticipate it.”
Reynolds tried a counter strategy. He saw the reception Wallace was getting, particularly in urban and ethnic neighborhoods, and became concerned. Nowhere was that more evident in Milwaukee’s heavily Polish south side, which prompted Reynolds to proceed to enlist the United States PostMaster General John Gronouski to rally that base.
But Reynolds had another problem: Republicans. Many were not about to openly support Wallace but, their own “Favorite Son,” Congressman John Byrnes, was running unopposed and with Wisconsin’s easy crossover procedures, cast a vote for him to further soften Reynolds up for the fall campaign.
Reynolds, an Attorney General prior to winning the Governorship, was known as having uncharacteristic traits in politics: among them, speaking with complete candor. He was also a solid progressive who had taken heat from many in his own party for arduously promoting open housing legislation. But he also worked on advances (highway construction, mental health issues, etc), and resisted repealing the state sales tax. Reynolds hadn’t been Governor for long, having been elected in 1962 after an acrimonious race in which some Democrats were lukewarm.
Outgoing Governor Gaylord Nelson was against his plan to do away with the sales tax. But Republicans had promises of their own, including primary winner Phillip Kuehn’s vanquished rival accusing his campaign of circulating a letter tying him to communism. Kuehn had benefited from backing by the John Birch Society which didn’t go over well at that time. Reynolds had called the Wisconsin GOP “among the most fanatically right-wing Republican groups in the nation,” noting “most of the good, progressive Republicans left during the McCarthy era…These are not Rockefeller Republicans we’re up against.” That was enough. Kuehn outspent Reynolds but was able to eke out a razor tight win, 50.4-49.6% a difference of 12,000 votes.
During that campaign, Reynolds had said of Kuehn,“It is an insult to the common sense of the people of Wisconsin to claim that a man can accept support from members of a vicious, reactionary group bent on destroying all who disagree with its 19th century image of the world and then claim that acceptance of such support is irrelevant to that man’s qualifications to serve as governor of Wisconsin.” Undoubtedly, that served him well for Wallace.
Wallace may have cut to the essence of his campaign when he told detractors that “Instead of worrying about Negroes in Alabama, why don’t you worry about Indians in Wisconsin,” which earned some admiration from people in those communities (one tribe sent him a head-dress). Wallace pointed out that integration could affect union positions, which led Reynolds to counter that Alabama was a right-to-work state. On primary night, Wallace took 34%, doing well in Milwaukee, Racine, and Waukesha. And he did well on the south side, prompting him to joke that he’d make it his second home “if I ever left Alabama.” Turnout among Democrats had dropped 10% in Dane.
On primary night, Reynolds quipped, “All that Mr. Wallace has demonstrated is something we have known a long time – that there are prejudiced people in Wisconsin.” That helped spark a group in of Wallace voters in Wisconsin, jocularly named “Bigots Against Reynolds.”
Wallace meanwhile proclaimed, “We won without winning….the result of our movement.” He was partially right. “And the schism he created may have been enough to deny Reynolds a second term. Reynolds was already struggling in his bid for a second two year term against Warren Knowles, who was accusing Reynolds of raising income taxes on low income Wisconsinites. Knowles called him “High Tax Jack.” A referendum of Reynolds’ proposed “Project 66,” a major road project, was defeated. But Wallace’s high total further embarrassed him, to the point that he bluntly admitted he “wouldn’t have a prayer for re-election if it wasn’t for Johnson.” That helped, but wasn’t enough. LBJ did sweep Wisconsin, but Reynolds fell short by a single percentage point, or fewer than 18,000 votes. But his impact on race would not end.
In 1965, Johnson appointed Reynolds a U.S District Judge, an apparent payoff of Reynolds’ agreement to serve as a Johnson surrogate. Indeed, LBJ later told Wallace he had “cost him a Judgeship. I had hoped to give it to someone else.” Nonetheless, Reynolds would see his political dream come true. He would eventually preside over his long sought goal of seeing open housing in Milwaukee. He died in 2002 at 80.
Wallace meanwhile, would enter two more primaries — Indiana and Maryland. In the former, he’d take just 32% to Governor Matthew Welsh, but in the latter, astounded prognosticators by holding Senator Daniel Brewster to just 53% (the Eastern Shore accounted for much of that margin). In true Wallace form, he said he would have won if only had it not been for the “ni–er block.”