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Fundamental Documents of Ohio







1935- 1939

Martin L. Davey (July 25, 1884-March 31, 1946) was one of the early sponsors of network radio programs. Every weekend in the late 1920's he traveled from his home in Kent, Ohio, or his office in Washington, D. C., to New York City to personally supervise a Sunday afternoon program of music under the auspices of the Davey Tree Expert Company of which he was president. He, himself, selected the music to be played and delivered a short talk, generally about trees or about his father, John Davey, founder of the tree surgery business.

Any political advertising which Martin Davey received as a result of these programs was purely incidental. Or was it? For Davey was one of the most astute and thorough politicians of his time. He was then in congress. He had aspirations to become governor and perhaps president, and he always planned a long time in advance.

Davey was born in humble circumstances in Portage County. His father, who came from England to America in 1873, did not learn to read and write until he was twenty-one. But in 1901 he wrote a book, The Tree Doctor, which became the inspiration for a profitable business which Davey carried on after his father's death, although his most intense interest was in politics.

Every Davey campaign began with letters to people on his mailing lists, and he had the most complete lists of Democratic voters and other groups ever assembled by an Ohio politician. As a candidate, Davey would ask their advice. As an officeholder he would tell them his problems. These letters served a double purpose. They not only pleased and flattered the recipients but they also provided Davey with an enthusiastic volunteer campaign organization.

One of Davey's favorite maxims was that "people vote their major prejudices." Consequently he always undertook to find out what those prejudices were, as far as his opponents were concerned, and to stimulate them on the theory that people would turn out with alacrity to vote against someone, whereas they might have to be dragged to the polls to vote for someone.

Davey had another theory, that a victor could always afford to be magnanimous. After a hard primary fight, in which he had denounced fellow Democrats with unequaled bitterness and thoroughness, he would set about methodically to appease the defeated candidates, making whatever concessions and promises were necessary to obtain their support.

After serving as mayor of Kent and a member of congress, Davey made his first try for governor in 1928, but was defeated. He did not try again until 1934, when he won, and then began one of the most extraordinary and bizarre periods in the annals of the Ohio governor- ship.

When the legislature refused to appropriate money to replace the threadbare rugs in the governor's office, Davey solicited contributions from the public and he got enough to recarpet the offices. When the legislature refused to appropriate money for a new limousine, he bought one with National Guard funds, observing that he had a right to do so because he was commander-in-chief of the Guard. When he wanted to get rid of the penitentiary warden, he had a National Guard company evict him and move his household belongings into the street.

Before he had been in office six weeks, Davey started a feud with President Roosevelt, charging that the federal administration of relief in Ohio was "cruel, inhuman and wasteful." Roosevelt struck back with the charge that there had been corrupt political interference with relief in Ohio, quoting Harry L. Hopkins, then federal relief administrator, as saying that Davey's campaign committee had extracted contributions from persons doing business with the Federal Relief Administration to finance Davey's inaugural ball. Davey countered by swearing out a warrant for Hopkins on a charge of criminal libel and, in an address to the legislature, asserting that Hopkins was a liar and a coward, and daring him to come into Ohio. He also demanded a legislative investigation, which disclosed that there had been a shakedown, but that it had not been engineered by Davey or his campaign committee but by some minor employees of the state relief administration who hoped to win promotions.

When Davey vetoed more than $10,000,000 in appropriations for Ohio State University, a Columbus newspaper mournfully predicted that the football schedule would have to be canceled because the university did not have enough money to buy coal to heat the athletic buildings. 'This brought a sarcastic statement from the governor to the effect that he realized football was the most important activity carried on at the university and disclaimed any desire to see the schedule curtailed. In fact, he said, he was so sympathetic toward the promotion of football that he had put half the members of the football squad on the state payroll. The repercussions from this one were heard from coast to coast.

In 1936 Davey grabbed a campaign issue which he thought would be popular. He asked the legislature to repeal the sales tax on food sold in stores for consumption off the premises. But by this time there was a full scale feud between the governor and the legislature, and it declined to act. Whereupon Davey had his own organization circulate petitions to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and it passed overwhelmingly. This measure has saved Ohioans millions of dollars a year in sales taxes. But Davey's detractors sneered that he had done it for a political motive, namely, to get reelected. He was reelected, and maybe the sales tax restriction helped, but Ohioans are still saving money by not having to pay the tax.

Davey's feud with the Roosevelt administration was suspended during the 1936 campaign, but it was resumed shortly thereafter when he called out the National Guard to maintain law and order during a steel strike in the Mahoning Valley. The strike was broken as a result, and Davey thereby incurred the undying enmity of John L. Lewis aid the C. I. O., but he also got himself a law and order campaign issue. When the C. I. O. attacked him, he countered with the charge that it was dominated by Communists. He also asserted that during the strike Roosevelt's secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, had called him and urged that he use the state's subpoena power to seize the steel company executives and lock them in a room until they agreed to sign a contract with the C. I. O.

During his second term Davey was in a constant feud with the senate "hatchet" men, a group of a dozen Democratic senators who were out to "get" him. With the help of five Republicans, who held the balance of power, they established a senate investigating committee which probed the Davey administration from stem to stern. Out of this investigation there came a succession of scandals which made lurid newspaper headlines, such as evidence of collusive bidding on the part of "hot mix" paving contractors and of the awarding of a trucking contract to a concern which had no trucks but was headed by a Demo- cratic politician. Though these scandals never touched Davey personally, they had a bad effect on his political fortunes. When he ran for a third term in 1938 he was defeated for renomination by Charles Sawyer, formerly lieutenant governor and later secretary of commerce in the Truman administration. The Roosevelt administration contributed to his defeat by announcing three days before the primary that $1,300,000 in federal pension funds would be withheld from Ohio on the ground that Davey had sent political letters to old age pensioners.

After his defeat, Davey waited to be appeased as he had appeased so many other Democrats whom he had defeated. But the victorious Sawyer forces did not believe in being magnanimous. They ignored Davey and antagonized his supporters. This was conduct which, in Davey's book, called for punishment. Sawyer was defeated for election by John W. Bricker, the Republican candidate, whom Davey had defeated in 1936. Although the Davey forces did not openly support Bricker, there was no doubt that they contributed to Sawyer's defeat.

But the Sawyerites also got their revenge. In 1940, when Davey won the Democratic nomination in another try for a third term, they voted en masse for Bricker at the election, giving Davey the worst defeat any candidate for governor had suffered up to that time. This was his last appearance on the Ohio political scene. He retired to his home and business in Kent, where in 1946 he was stricken with a heart attack and died one evening while playing bridge with members of his family and friends. He was survived by his wife, the former Berenice Chrisman, and their two children. Cleveland Plain Dealer


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