March 15, 1908,
Plaza Ferdinand VII
Frank Mayes enjoyed visiting the Plaza Ferdinand VII park, especially on this pleasant Spring day. A soft breeze rustled the new leaves in nearby trees; the sun was warm, birds twittered here and there on nearby benches. An occasional passerby nodded greetings as he sat quietly gazing at the Chipley obelisk, arms folded across his chest, his hat pushed back on his forehead.
No one troubled him as he sat on the bench alone, deep in thought.
Mayes liked to take a break from the office after the morning edition of The Pensacola Journal hit the streets, to go through the next day’s editorial plan in his mind away from his cluttered desk and the cacophony of typewriters and telephones.
It was a nice place to sit and think. The Plaza Ferdinand VII was near the building where Mayes and his wife Lois, as newlyweds, had their first apartment when they moved to Pensacola in 1898. Pensacola had changed a lot over the last 10 years, and much of it had to do with Mayes’ work, developing The Pensacola Journal into the preeminent newspaper in West Florida. It wasn’t much of a paper when he and Lois first purchased it, with a circulation of a few hundred, but under Mayes’ direction, it was in the thousands. Since 1905, it was the only Florida newspaper with the Associated Press Service. He was setting aside money to invest in a Goss Straightline Press within the next two years, a huge investment, but his wish was for the paper’s news coverage to keep up with the growing population in Pensacola (almost double since 1900).
Success was sweet. Once Mayes tasted success, he wanted more, and he knew that if he were to become a key player in state politics — maybe even national, one day — he’d be set. Mayes’ goal was never political leadership itself (i.e., never would have considered a congressional seat); he was more comfortable as a kingmaker in West Florida politics. So, the goal was to become an advisor, a trusted colleague of the next president. This role as a kingmaker would be an easy segue, he believed, because Mayes knew Florida politics well. He stayed on top of issues and influencers in the Florida Panhandle — if he could eventually become a leader — or the leader — of the Florida Democratic Party…
…but there was no way any Democrat would be able to win against Taft, the candidate hand-picked for the Republican party by the Hero of San Juan Hill. Taft was going to be a shoo-in, the general public being convinced that Roosevelt’s successful policies would simply just continue. No, Mayes would plan for the 1912 election. Four years off, but it was critical to devise his political strategy and stake out his potential state congressional candidates NOW.
Nationally, it wasn’t yet clear who would be the lead candidate four years hence, but there was talk about two men who might be ideal, and both had Southern leanings: Oscar Underwood, of Alabama, and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, a native of Virginia.
Mayes pushed his hat back further on his head, and gazed up at the bright blue sky, and at the obelisk in front of him. Thing is, the magnetism and charisma went over well with Roosevelt’s presence and leadership. Mayes knew Taft was no Roosevelt; he estimated Taft would be a one-term president because both Democratic and Republican parties were embracing progressive policies this time around.
What this meant for Florida: Congressional candidates with magnetism and charisma, and definitely progressive views would be winners in four years.
The contest for the 1908 election would be between Dannite Mays, a wealthy farmer from Madison County, Florida, and local lawyer J. Walter Kehoe. Of course, Frank Mayes supported Kehoe; should Kehoe beat Dannite Mays, that would solve many of his concerns. After all, Walter was a decent, sober man who came from a well-known family; he was steady, well-known throughout the Florida Panhandle as a brilliant lawyer, though not a dynamic politician. One of Mayes’ concerns, however, was that Walter was a devout Roman Catholic, and unfortunately, there was strong anti-Catholic sentiment in parts of rural Florida.
Walter also had strong sense of integrity; of standing by his convictions, even at the cost of professional advancement. While Mayes had plans for the next congressman, he also knew Walter might not be willing to forego ethics, even if it was good for the party.
Still, the 1908 election was months away. Anything could happen; and, should Walter be elected to U.S. Congress, Frank Mayes knew Walter was a reasonable, logical man — especially if he wanted to keep his seat beyond a first term. But oh, it would be such a boon to have the national congressman from West Florida; something that hadn’t happened since the days of Augustus Emmett Maxwell, before the Civil War. A candidate from West Florida would be a tremendous boost for the local economy and political prestige — and his own prestige.
And while that might not be feasible or practical (given his current business interests and success as editor and publisher of West Florida’s largest newspaper), the next best thing was to find someone he could work through; influencing future Democratic political policies on a national level through that person.
A puppet. That’s what he needed: Someone charismatic, engaging, smart, good-looking (because the ladies did influence their husbands’ votes on occasion, docile — definitely someone who would LOOK the part of the modern progressive man — while being amenable to Mayes’ pulling the strings of what to vote on, what to say, what to do while in office.
In the end, after his man was elected, and did Mayes’ bidding, for a few terms in Congress, it would be easy enough to guarantee this individual’s career in Florida politics once he tired of Washington, D.C.: Perhaps an appointment to the Florida Supreme Court, or even the Governorship.
But who would agree to this proposal?
Mayes frowned; furrowed his brow. None of the current candidates impressed Mayes — they were already well known, already established, predictable. None of them were dynamic enough, in Mayes’ mind, to excite the electorate in Florida, which is what it would take over the next three years, as the political pendulum swung back in favor of Democrats controlling all three houses of government in the U.S.
Mayes needed someone as exciting and interesting as Roosevelt — he didn’t like admitting that, but, he was realistic and honest — the Florida Democratic Party needed someone to catch the voter’s attention and hold it.
“I might even have to create that candidate myself,” he muttered out loud, primarily because the current political leaders in West Florida were unlikely to bend to Mayes’ ideas.
Yep. He’d have to start from scratch. But who?
He gazed up at the obelisk dedicated to W.D. Chipley.
Chipley. Something about Chipley.
And Mayes remembered meeting a young man fresh out of law school about three, maybe four years ago, in Chipley of all places. He was full of himself, Mayes recalled, yet he’d admired the straightforward qualities of the young man, who was coldly polite, who openly disliked him.
Mayes remembered that this fellow, who had big ideas, big plans, and had moved away to implement them, only to return home after six months. He’d admired the courage of the young man for leaving everything he knew behind for an important career opportunity, because he had done that too, in 1898, leaving a life behind in Kansas when he moved to Pensacola with a new wife, broke, but with the goals of building a publishing empire, and to succeed no matter what.
The reason why the young man had returned to Florida was curious — he’d heard a few rumors, but nothing substantiated yet. Mayes would need to check out the back story — but he liked that kind of gumption in a young man. Sometimes one had to take this kind of risk, and sometimes, you have to start over…..
…Mayes stood up from the park bench, grinning.
He walked away from the Chipley obelisk, whistling, his hands in his pockets as he headed back toward the offices of The Pensacola Journal.
He had his puppet. It might require persuasion, but Mayes knew how to talk to people, to get them to do his bidding.
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