April 9, 2022
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Emmett’s command performance for Whit Kelly in Columbus, Georgia on October 24, 1911 wasn’t solely to placate Kelly. Someone else was watching this play out for a good reason, and it wasn’t Byrd Kelly.
It was Frank Mayes.
Mayes and the Florida Democratic Executive Committee were looking for a fresh, new, progressive man to represent West Florida (for the first time since Emmett’s own grandfather, A.E. Maxwell was in congress), and the U.S. Congressional seat was on the 1912 ballot — as was the next U.S. President.
Mayes, ever prescient and politically savvy, knew a change was coming in national politics. The country was growing. Industry was booming. It was logical (to Mayes, at least) that as the need for growth and progressive polices increased, the country needed political leadership for the future. Mayes wanted to influence the growth of Florida as directly as he could; the best way to do that, aside from controlling the largest newspaper in West Florida, was to choose the next U.S. Representative from Florida. That person should to be dynamic, sharp, young, and progressive-thinking. A man with an eye on shaping the future, as Mayes thought of himself.
Mayes didn’t want the office himself; so, the prospective candidate should be someone Mayes could influence.
Mayes had a few people in mind, specifically Judge Charles B. Parkhill, and J. Ed O’Brien. Walter Kehoe wanted desperately to be considered, but Mayes didn’t want to put his name forward to the committee. There was something about Kehoe that Mayes felt wasn’t quite as progressive; but really, I think it was more that Kehoe was not easily manipulated. Mayes knew Kehoe was a good politician, but also an idealist, and not a total chump; i.e., he wasn’t easily manipulated.
Although the ticket seemed to be set, Mayes knew anything could happen by the time 1912 rolled around, so it was a good idea to have a backup plan. If the two front-runners couldn’t or wouldn’t face Mays in the primary, would Emmett Wilson be able to pull it off? Although Mayes thought Emmett had done very well for himself at this point, there were still nagging doubts clouding Emmett’s reputation. Emmett’s age, for example: If he were to run and be elected, he’d be the youngest congressman in the United States. But Mayes knew that age wasn’t the issue as much as Emmett’s political experience was (which was not extensive).
Another issue was Emmett’s reputation for heavy drinking. Mayes was a prohibitionist; but, since most of the people he knew in politics and elsewhere drank, Mayes was willing to let that one slide a bit, but in reality, Mayes knew he could use Emmett’s drinking problem as one way to keep him in line.
Mayes was concerned about shadowy stories he’d heard about Emmett. Questions about why he was almost 30 years old and still not married. Questions about why he didn’t own any property though he had a very well paying job and was considered successful. And then, the drinking. Mayes knew Emmett had a reputation for drinking too much — well, he was a young man still sowing his oats — and if he wanted to prove that he was able to settle down and handle the responsibilities that went with a congressional office, he had to prove it.
Ironic that Emmett (with the help of the Kehoes) chose Byrd Kelly, the ultimate straight-laced, well-connected, prim-and-proper young woman for a fiancé. Well, Emmett didn’t ‘pick’ Byrd; the Kehoes picked her; Emmett had only to approve or disapprove of her. He probably thought she was nice. She was witty. She came from money. She looked fine. She seemed perfectly acceptable.
And that’s the thing. She was perfectly acceptable to everyone else; Emmett barely knew her. Any affiliation with Byrd Kelly would disperse the ‘problem’ rumors; i.e., the drinking, the womanizing, the unsettled image. An engagement to Byrd Kelly meant that wasn’t true, that he was solid, dependable. Why would the Kelly family announce the engagement if Emmett had questionable behavior?
At this point, Emmett knew all he had to do was to remain steady and consistent — do consistent, outstanding work as District Attorney; remain out of the news except for reports on court activities, or, important society events where he was in attendance, and the like. He’d proven to Mayes that he was ready to take on larger responsibilities. Hell, he’d proven to Mayes he would do whatever it took to be his chosen candidate for U.S. Congress. Thing was, Frank Mayes was only one member of Florida’s Democratic Party’s executive committee; he was powerful, but he wasn’t the whole committee.
By January, 1912, the Democratic Party’s executive committee tapped a top contenders as candidate, and it wasn’t Emmett:
Charles Breckinridge Parkhill, a lifelong resident of Tampa, a member of the Florida Senate and the Florida Supreme Court (and eventually became the Tampa city attorney), was well-known, well-regarded, and well-funded (he had the means to run for office full-time). He was clearly well qualified to run for office, and would represent the state effectively.
But although Parkhill was the top candidate in the eyes of Frank Mayes and the members of the Democratic Party leaders, it also meant he would not be under Mayes’ influence as much (which was fine with the rest of the party leadership).
Parkhill appeared to be a shoo-in on the Democratic ticket; he would face incumbent Dannite H. Mays, a successful farmer and businessman of Monticello, Florida. Everything seemed to be settled that day, Friday, January 5, 1912; Emmett likely accepted the fact he was not the first choice — maybe not even the second choice — for the party’s ticket this time.
Emmett probably spent that Friday evening at The Osceola Club with his friends and associates, toasting Judge Parkhill’s good fortune. Emmett likely endured several of his colleagues’ — perhaps from Frank Mayes himself! — encouraging words and advice not to give up on his political aspirations just yet; he was a young man just getting started — after all — one never knew what happened in politics from day-to-day in Florida politics….
….and how prescient those words would be for Emmett in the coming days, especially if they came from Frank Mayes.
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