Gouverneur's Rhoda Fox Graves, NYS Political Trailblazer — by Lawrence P. Gooley
During Rhoda Fox’s efforts on behalf of the Republican Party from 1918 through 1923, there was plenty of praise for her in the media and no criticism, but she was a non-office holder. When she decided in 1924 to run for an Assembly seat, anti-woman resistance was evident, gently discouraging the idea by praising her activism but insisting the job was best done by a man. When she surprised most people and won, the anti-woman factions maintained their stance but were forced to grudgingly accepted her.
Now, with the announcement of a run for the Senate, the kid gloves were off. The party split, evidenced by the strong support she received from the Watertown Daily Times and the virulent attacks emanating from Ogdensburg, especially in the Republican-Journal, when Rhoda’s opening salvo went right to the heart of the matter.
“I am making this announcement with full knowledge that a generation or more ago, a so-called ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ attempted to dictate that the door of the State Senate should open to a St. Lawrence County resident only in event the congressman from the 31st district resided in Franklin County. I am a firm believer in party regularity, but I cannot agree that the right to hold public office in 1933 should be foreclosed against me by some ancient political deal.”
That deal, of course, guaranteed continued widespread support for US Congressman Bert Snell and State Senator Warren T. Thayer (of Franklin County), the latter of whom was Rhoda’s direct opponent. But it was clear that by challenging Thayer, she was also challenging Snell’s influence as the de facto leader of regional GOP members, which numbered about 18,000 in St. Lawrence County and 11,000 in Franklin County. Rumblings of discontent were heard, but the initial party response to her announcement was somewhat restrained, mostly because she was expected to lose, and lose badly.
But that position failed to account for her immense popularity among the voters, despite the occasional flaunting of party rules and practices. Her battles in the halls of Albany on behalf of the people versus corporations resonated among them, but annoyed party leaders. She began making inroads in Ogdensburg when media coverage mentioned her push for public ownership of utilities, which was the case in Prescott, Ontario, on the opposite shore of the St. Lawrence. In Prescott, 500 kilowatts cost a customer just $7, while in Ogdensburg, citizens paid $45 for the same amount of electricity because utilities were privately owned, and the principal goal of those companies was financial profit.
While the Watertown Times was critical of Senator Thayer’s record, the Ogdensburg Republican-Journal was downright nasty in a blistering editorial against his opponent. “How can she claim any credit when her only action on this important water-power development was to oppose her own party and vote as an insurgent?…. An examination of Mrs. Graves’ record of eight years in the Assembly shows nothing accomplished. She has occupied no committee membership of any consequence; she has not been able to get any legislation passed except a few minor, routine bills.
Those people from Ogdensburg who have had business in Albany know that Mrs. Graves has had no influence whatever in the Assembly…. With a record of eight years which is a blank as far as any accomplishment is concerned … a lone woman in the Assembly or the Senate is out of place. She is hopelessly handicapped in representing her district. Mrs. Graves’ ‘record’ proves it. She has given her assembly district no representation, has been able to accomplish exactly nothing, and now asks to represent the interests of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties in the State Senate.”
A week later, the Republican-Journal ran the following headline: Guardian of State Finances in Albany Declares Mrs. Graves, After Years in Assembly, Has Proven Total Failure — Says Thayer’s Influence Big Asset to Northern New York. Referring to comments made by Senator Charles Hewitt, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the paper said that Thayer’s record “so far surpasses” Graves that “a comparison … would be laughable.” Thayer, said Hewitt, had built friendships necessary to passing legislation, but “Mrs. Graves’ attitude in the Assembly has been such that her own colleagues in the Republican delegation can not seem to work with her.” With such a poor record, her pursuit of a Senate seat “puzzles me,” he said.
Charles Cantwell, managing editor of the Republican-Journal, followed with several scathing attacks of his own. Using headlines like Mrs. Graves Claims Credit for Ogdensburg Bills, But Records Show Identical Bills Offered in Senate by Thayer Usually Passed Before Her Measures — Thayer Helped Her Repeatedly But She Failed to Reciprocate, Cantwell did all within his power to ensure her defeat. Support for his efforts came from Attorney George Bowers of Canton, whose publicized speech noted that, “It is not my purpose to throw stones at, or say unkind things, about either of the candidates.” But he followed with, “It has become a question of whether or not Mrs. Graves shall or shall not overthrow the Republican organization of St. Lawrence County. She has announced that such is her purpose.”
After lauding Bert Snell’s performance on the national stage (Snell presided at the national convention and personally informed Herbert Hoover that he was the GOP candidate), Bowers added this: “I know if she secures the nomination, that every Democratic paper from Boston to San Francisco will carry on its front page in letters an inch high the statement that Bert Snell has lost the confidence of his constituents and been defeated in his home bailiwick. I know that under such circumstances he would go back to Congress with a serious loss of prestige, and with lessened ability to be of service to his district and his party. And I know another thing that would cut still deeper; the feeling on his part that his home people had gone back on him.”
Taking the other side, Attorney H. Walter Lee said, “One of the arguments that is being used against Mrs. Graves is that the senatorship from the 34th district is a man’s job. The implication is that men are endowed by their Creator with a special aptitude for passing laws that will bring happiness and prosperity to the people. Well, men have been making the laws of this country for the past 150 years, and you can see for yourselves [in the throes of the Great Depression] just how happy and prosperous we are today.”
For her part, Rhoda seized on two main issues: fighting for low electric rates, even while Senator Thayer enjoyed a suspiciously cozy relationship with power companies; and her unwavering support of New York’s farmers. She also continued to reject the gentlemen’s agreement as especially unfair to women, who had recently gained the right to vote. What good was suffrage when the options themselves were dictated by draconian restrictions imposed (by men) on the nominating process?
Countering the attacks on Rhoda were supportive comments from many prominent Republicans, which, in combination with her longstanding popularity, helped her carry St. Lawrence County, but only by about 300 votes. She lost in Canton, Massena, and Potsdam, but won big in rural areas. However, it wasn’t enough to counter heavy losses in Ogdensburg and in Thayer’s base, Franklin County, where she did reasonably well among farmers. Overall, she fell short in the primary by fewer than 1,000 votes, ensuring Thayer’s return to Albany.
But Rhoda did not go away silently. Speaking to the Syracuse Herald, she attacked the GOP’s process of choosing a candidate, and said, “Corruption equaled anything ever seen in Tammany…. We [including husband/campaign manager Perle] do not concede the election. We maintain that we won the nomination by the people, but corruption and political bosses gave it to Thayer. We propose to carry evidence to the courts and ask for an honest election.”
Calling it “one of the hardest fought campaigns in the history of the 34th Senatorial district,” the Ogdensburg Republican-Journal declared (gloated) that, “The vote in Ogdensburg proved beyond any question the regularity of the enrolled Republicans in this city who rallied to the support of Senator Thayer and Congressman Snell with vigor.” And her corruption comments, said the paper, “created a stir in Ogdensburg where she went down to defeat under an avalanche of 958 votes. Local leaders called her charges ‘the result of a political defeat that was hard to swallow.’ Mrs. Graves’ supporters now claim they will investigate ‘certain alleged acts of the Snell-Thayer machine in appointments in Ogdensburg.’ Just what she means by that hasn’t been clarified.”
During a back-and-forth between Thayer and Graves, she accused him of corruption, prompting this response: “Mrs. Graves’ charges of corruption are ridiculous and absolutely unfounded. Everything in this election was open and above board. So far as court action is concerned, I welcome any investigation.”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, covering political happenings up north, said, “The plump representative from St. Lawrence County” took on Thayer, chairman of the Public Service Committee. “The row ended disastrously for the lady and successfully for the businessman from Chateaugay.”
Without legislative duties in 1933, Rhoda was busy in other areas, having risen to become a New York State Director of the DAR. But while many dismissed her as political poison after a failed coup attempt of the regional GOP, a comeback was already in the planning stages. In November, her letter in the Albany Evening News proposed as a candidate for governor her good friend, solid supporter, and editor of the Watertown Daily Times, Harold B. Johnson. “The political bosses would be against him,” she wrote, “but why worry? They are being thrown into the discard. The people are coming into their own. It’s about time.” What surprised many were her bold comments in the letter about the party she had supported for nearly two decades. “I have always said that the key to the almost complete annihilation of the Republican Party in New York is to be found right here in our own North Country.” Within that statement, discerning readers may have detected a portent of what was to come.
Senator Thayer would soon regret earlier statements welcoming any type of investigation into his past. While some party members were privy to behind-the-scenes developments, most GOP members were stunned in late March 1934 when Thayer was charged by the Federal Trade Commission with corruption on behalf of the Associated Gas and Electric Company. He denied all wrongdoing, and his supporters among North Country media stuck by him to the end — which really meant they continued living in denial. He resigned before the Senate could convict him in person, saying he did so to save his colleagues the embarrassment of voting on his fate. But the question was posed: why would a vote be embarrassing if he were innocent as claimed? Further investigation, he said, would reveal an unsullied record.
But none of that was true. In a special session eight days after he resigned, the Senate unanimously voted him guilty of official misconduct. Had Thayer still been in office, he would have been removed.
The story of years of corruption is a lengthy one, but can be summarized in a short list of key points.
1) Thayer owned the Chasm Power Company in Chateaugay.
2) In January 1925 he was appointed chairman of the Public Service Committee, which oversaw utility legislation, including power companies.
3) A few days later, he sold the Chasm Power Company to the Associated Gas and Electric Company of Albany for $87,500. In advance of the sale, he purchased the holdings of unknowing fellow stockholders and sold them to the company at previously agreed-upon inflated prices.
4) Over the next seven years, he was paid installments totaling $21,600, purportedly as salary he would have earned as manager had he kept the company.
5) He was elected president of an AG&E subsidiary without having any investment in the company.
6) AG&E provided him with funds for village elections.
7) Among his letters read aloud during hearings was one to AG&E, saying that he hoped his services as chairman of the Public Service Committee had been “satisfactory to your company.” (He had killed or passed bills based on the whims of the company, and citizens paid the price through higher rates.)
Rhoda, it was proven, had been right all along. (© Lawrence Gooley, 2019)
Photos: Rhoda Fox Graves, Elmira Star-Gazette (1929); headlines, Ogdensburg Republican-Journal (1932); headlines, Massena Observer (1932); headline, Ogdensburg Republican-Journal (1932); headline, Ogdensburg Advance-News(1934).