Perhaps no one politician in the 20th Century held so much power in one state than governor, and later Senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long (1893-1935) , held in the early 1930's.
Long rose to power as the Railroad Commissioner of the Bayou State, when he was elected in 1918, only three years after he was admitted to the bar to practice law. He set about reforming and creating new regulations for public utilities and campaigned for taxes to bear on the mighty Standard Oil Company. He also set about to do battle with the "old regulars" in the do-little Democratic Party machine that was based in New Orleans.
When elected Governor in 1928, he went to work raising taxes on the rich for new public projects: 2,000 miles of new paved roads in Louisiana, free textbooks for school children, a major improvement to the Louisiana State University and major public works projects for charity hospitals and proper facilities for the mentally ill.
Long also was a grafter and a leader who once said to a legislator "I am the law now," in Louisiana. He expected every pubic employee in his state to contribute ten percent of their respective earnings to his "De-duct Box", a personal cache of money in the millions that he planned to use to buy votes and slander his enemies through a newspaper he expected all good public workers to subscribe to. He planned a national campaign for President in 1936, in an alliance with the future anti-semite and pro-fascist speaker, Catholic Father Charles Coughlin, a demagogue figure from Michigan who was the Rush Limbaugh of his day.
Long also proposed a major wealth redistribution that, at least to many , would cure the excesses of the Depression. With so many out of work, his "Share the Wealth" ideas broadened Long's appeal to millions all over the country that, like those in the backwoods of Louisiana, had felt oppressed for far too long.
Long was no shrinking violet when it came to backroom deals: (the following is an excerpt on Long's entry from Wikipedia:)
"On occasion, (while governor) he even entered the legislative chambers, going so far as to sit on representatives' and senators' desks and sternly lecture them on his positions. He also retaliated against those who voted against him and used patronage and state funding (especially highways) to maneuver Louisiana toward what opponents called a Long "dictatorship". Having broken with the Old Regulars and T. Semmes Walmsley in the fall of 1933, Long inserted himself into the New Orleans mayoral election of 1934 and began a dramatic public feud with the city's government that lasted for two years.
"In 1934, Long and James A. Noe, an independent oilman and member of the Louisiana Senate, formed the controversial Win or Lose Oil Company. The firm was established to obtain leases on state-owned lands so that its directors might collect bonuses and sublease the mineral rights to the major oil companies. Although ruled legal, these activities were done in secret and the stockholders were unknown to the public. Long made a profit on the bonuses and the resale of those state leases, using the funds primarily for political purposes.
"By 1934, Long began a reorganization of the state government that reduced the authority of local governments in anti-Long strongholds New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria. It further gave the governor the power to appoint all state employees. Long passed what he called "a tax on lying" and a 2 percent tax on newspaper advertising revenue. He created the Bureau of Criminal Identification, a special force of plainclothes police answerable only to the governor. He also had the legislature enact the same tax on refined oil that in 1929 had nearly led to his impeachment, which he used as a bargaining chip to promote oil drilling in Louisiana. After Standard Oil agreed that 80 percent of the oil sent to its refineries would be drilled in Louisiana, Long's government refunded most of these tax revenues."
There is more than a whiff of fascism in all this.
On the far left, both the Socialist and Communist Parties opposed this income scheme as just a manipulation of a failed capitalist system that had brought about the Great Depression. His fellow Democratic politicos abandoned the somewhat loutish but brilliant "Kingfish" when he turned against Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" and promoted his "Every Man A King" book. Millions of regular people bought his ideas and its clear that his challenge to Roosevelt as a third-party candidate might have swung the election to the Republican candidate in 1936. By 1940, given the GOP's lackluster track record on economic fixes in those days, Huey Long might have been the President of the United States.
Upon his death at 42 from an assassin's bullet in September 1935--by a young surgeon named Carl Weiss, who was upset that his father-in-law was going to lose a judgeship thanks to Long's maneuvering--the point became moot.
What would have become of the country had he lived? Would be have helped the nation--some say he already had by pushing FDR toward Social Security and more public works projects--or would he have destroyed the Constitutional "separation of powers" in pursuit of a Caesar-ian dictatorship that would have unleashed revolutionary ferment in the country?
I.F. Stone, the late prominent progressive journalist, thought Long was not a positive force but more of a Greco-Roman tyrant (i.e., a manipulator of public policy for his own gain) , rather than a legitimate reformer who empowers the people. On this I agree. But he certainly made enemies, like political bosses and big oil companies, who were worthy opponents to any reformer in one of the poorest states in America..
Even today, while Long's legacy is controversial, its safe to say many of his ideas have a modern resonance in the times we live in today.