By Patricia Ray
A successful businessman with no political experience decides to run for office and finds success while taping into populist sentiment.
Sound like a modern political tale, huh?
As the old saying goes, nothing is ever truly new under the sun.
The 1916 Florida gubernatorial election was not an ordinary election and Sidney Johnston Catts was not an ordinary candidate.
He was a political outsider to say the least – an ordained Baptist minister in Alabama who later moved to Florida and became an insurance salesman.
Only a few years after moving to Florida, he decided to run for governor as a Democrat, despite having no prior political experience.
In addition to his lack of experience, Catts also was known for having outlandish beliefs.
He was staunchly anti-Catholic and anti-African American, and he believed that monks from St. Leo’s Abbey and the African American population of Florida would take over the state for Kaiser Wilhelm II, and if Germany won the war, Pope Benedict XV would move the Holy See to San Antonio, Florida.
Yep. He seriously believed that.
He even carried a gun in fear that the Pope has sent an assassin to kill him.
Catts advocated for radical ideas such as women’s suffrage, taxation of church property, and a state income tax, much to the chagrin of the conservative, Democratic-controlled Florida legislature.
At the same time, his racism went so far as to claim African Americans were “an inferior race” in response to lynchings in Florida.
Catts supported prohibition and did not attend his own inaugural ball because he opposed dancing.
Catts’ slogan was “Florida Crackers have only three friends in this world: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, and Sidney Johnston Catts,” and he became known as the “Cracker Messiah.”
“People did not take him seriously [as a candidate], and when they finally did, it was too late,” Dr. Gary Mormino, a Florida historian and the Professor Emeritus at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg said in an interview with RISE NEWS.
As eccentric as Catts’ beliefs were, many of them resonated with the public.
Due to the anxiety of World War I, anti-German sentiments were high, and Catts’ fear mongering heightened anxieties.
Florida was a primarily Protestant state, with Catholics comprising less than 5% of the population at the time.
In the years before 1916, millions of Irish, Slavic, and Italian Catholics immigrated to the United States, and many people felt uneasy about these immigrants. The Protestant population largely was also in favor of prohibition, and Florida was already in the midst of becoming a dry state.
Catts played into the zeitgeist of the prohibition movement.
These views went hand in hand, and Catts claimed, “There is no question and rum and Romanism go together.”
Dr. Mormino describes Catts as a “larger than life figure” and attributes some of Catts’ success to his charisma and strength as a speaker.
People liked his message and viewed him as “one of them”.
In past elections, whoever won the Democratic nomination for Florida governor typically won, as the Republicans were a minority party in much of the American South.
But in 1916, the Democrats were spilt in Florida.
Catts originally won the Democratic nomination by a margin of 544 votes but then lost it to William Knott by a mere 23 votes after a recount.
The underhanded dealings surrounding the nomination and the recount garnered support for Catts and painted him as a martyr the party establishment had robbed of the nomination.
In wake of this support, he ran for the Prohibitionist party nomination and won, going on to win the election with 43% of the vote and becoming the first Florida governor to win as a third-party candidate.
During his term as Governor, Catts reformed the convict lease system. He also made labor and tax reforms, furthered his prohibitionist agenda, improved transportation systems, and passed legislation relating to the care of the mentally ill.
He supported women’s rights and even appointed a woman to his staff. Despite opposition from the legislature, Catts was able to pass several legislative measures.
As you’ve probably guessed, there are many parallels between the 1916 Florida gubernatorial election and the 2016 presidential election.
Sidney Johnston Catts was a political outsider like Donald Trump whereas Hillary Clinton is seen as more of an establishment candidate, much like William Knott.
Many people also did not take Trump’s campaign very seriously until he won the Republican nomination.
In 1916, the fear of war fueled anti-immigrant sentiments towards Italians, Poles, and Slovaks, and Catts was able to play into the public’s fears, making his crazy ideas seem more palatable.
Today, fears stemming from 9/11 and other recent events has allowed anti-Muslim ideas and policies to gain alarming traction.
For example, Trump has called for a blanket ban of Muslims from entering the country.
In 1916, the conditions were just right for Sidney Johnston Catts to win the seat of governor of Florida.
After leaving office, he ran for governor twice more and once for the U.S. Senate but was unsuccessful each time.
As strange as Catts’ gubernatorial election seems, some aspects of it are paralleled today, and perhaps this oddity of the past should be considered as we look to the future.
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Cover Photo Credit: Public Domain/ Library Of Congress