October 10, 2022
Chevy Chase, Maryland
On Friday, May 11, 1912, both candidates for the second primary, Emmett Wilson and Dannite Mays, were in Apalachicola for the Florida Democratic Executive Committee meeting. The purpose of the meeting: To confirm the final votes across the district, and to name the two candidates who would face off for the Democratic party nomination (the winner facing the Florida Republican candidate in November). Emmett hung around, but didn’t stay for the entire gathering, because he was stumping in Franklin County. Because Emmett was also working as the state’s District Attorney for the panhandle, he had to take advantage of every opportunity — Franklin County was one of the counties he hadn’t visited during the primary election — and he was keen to make up for the deficit.
Emmett’s opponent Dannite Mays, the wealthy, well-established incumbent, had not yet begun his second campaign. Likely, he needed a day’s break — after all, Mays was a busy man. In addition to his service as U.S. Congressman, he had a large farm, and a prosperous business in Madison. It wouldn’t be unusual to take a day or so before jumping back into the campaign fray.
On the surface, nothing looked out of place or appeared awry except it really was weird that Mays — and his campaign — were absolutely quiet during this time.
And this was strange, given how close the race was for Emmett and Mays — Emmett won by only 761 votes. That was not a large margin, and campaign staff for both candidates knew the race could go either way at this point.
Imagine the shock and surprise across the district when the following story was published on May 12, 1912:
Obviously, Emmett and his campaign were overjoyed — and probably relieved — since this meant Emmett was a shoo-in for the office. Emmett would campaign, obviously, leading up to the general election, Florida was a one-party state in 1912; a Republican opponent in those days simply did not have a realistic chance of winning the general election during this era.
But something was definitely going on behind the scenes among the members of the Florida DEC (led, conveniently, by none other than Frank Mayes) probably well before the primary totals were made official. Of course, there were no hints in panhandle newspapers about any political deal-making behind the scenes before the headlines were published on May 12.
An article published on May 14 from The Pensacola Journal reported:
“It had been remarked by many in Pensacola and elsewhere that Congressman Mays had not thanked the voters since the first primary, inserted any advertisements in the newspapers or given any other intimation that he would continue in the race. In view of Mr. Wilson’s long lead in the first primary many expected Mr. Mays to withdraw after several days had passed and nothing had been heard from him as to his intentions.”
It was certainly suspicious. Why would Dannite Mays back out of the race so quickly; the second primary campaigning only a week underway, and the primary results were quite close. He, as the incumbent, had a viable race ahead of him. And “long lead?” Emmett’s lead was only by 761 votes. That’s not as significant as Frank Mayes would have his readers believe. Even though it was believed that votes won by the third candidate, Flournoy, would likely go to Emmett, that wasn’t guaranteed. And as we know, The Pensacola Journal‘s reporting about Emmett and Dannite Mays, was not objective.
Though it is never put on the record, Frank Mayes, editor of The Pensacola Journal –and the chairman of the same Florida DEC — influenced Dannite Mays’ withdrawal from the contest. Dannite Mays’ home paper came closest to reporting behind-the-scenes manipulating of the Wilson-Mays primary race, but again, nothing definite was specifically mentioned.
After sifting through the articles and information about Dannite Mays’ decision to withdraw from the second primary race of 1912, I’ve been thinking also about what Emmett may have known about the behind-the-scenes machinations of his election to U.S. Congress.
First, despite his good showing in the primary, he was still considered untested and inexperienced. This was the very first campaign of his life; I’d go further to say it was one of the very few jobs in his life where he had to compete with another to prove his ability/competence. If he was doing well in that primary, why not let him go further, truly prove himself in the second primary, which he probably could have won — it would have been close — but not out of the realm of expectation. Unless Emmett’s ‘character defects’ were becoming more apparent publicly (i.e., the alcoholism and [as it was hinted at by family descendants] homosexuality). He was a nice guy; maybe not quite ready for national office yet, and this was going to be the theme he’d have to overcome in the second primary.
Second, to protect his own political aspirations, Frank Mayes would stop at nothing to put Emmett Wilson in national office. I don’t necessarily think Frank Mayes was a villain, as much as he was the man who saw opportunities and took them head-on. Frank Mayes wanted someone in office that he could point to, and say, “I did that.” Mayes liked being a ‘kingmaker’. It would bode well for him down the road, certainly from a business standpoint, and, if he ever had his own political aspirations. Frank Mayes saw Dannite Mays as an obstacle to his plans, and so probably made Dannite Mays an offer he couldn’t refuse. Dannite Mays could also run for other offices later; perhaps he was also tired of the Washington, D.C. life. It’s not for everyone, and, if you had a family (as Dannite Mays did), it was difficult being away from them for months at a time.
Finally, I wonder how much Emmett was aware of this wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to get him elected. He must have know about some of the strings Frank Mayes was pulling, just so he would win election to a national office. Emmett certainly wasn’t a total idealist; he grew up in a political family with national office connections, so he heard the stories and understood what it took to be successful.
I think also about the writeup after the Emmett Wilson Club was formed a day after he was declared in the second primary runoff — how the reporter observed Emmett to be ‘visibly moved’ by the reception of his supporters. Was Emmett acting? Was he truly feeling the impact or gravity of what had happened, realizing what would be ahead of him? Was he realizing the costs, perhaps, of some of the questionable ethical actions over the past year that happened (for example, the ‘fake engagement announcement‘) just for him to win this particular race?
The more I think about Emmett and his story, as it has unfolded over the past (almost) 10 years, the more I realize how complicated it is to capture the man accurately, and I lament that there are holes in this story that I won’t be able to fill because I cannot speak to him directly, because his primary documents are essentially nonexistent.
Emmett was complicated; that’s basically all I do know with 100 percent accuracy.
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