It turns out there was a Philadelphia election scandal. And the scandal morphed into a fight on Capitol Hill for the soul of the Republican Party.
The leader of the Republicans – more or less – was a charismatic populist who hated his enemies and encouraged his supporters to fight like the dickens.
No, the scandal – a stolen election, no less – did not take place in 2020, and the Republican in question is not the former president of the United States recently exiled to Florida.
The year was 1926 and the leader was Gifford Pinchot, a two-term governor of Pennsylvania. Unlike the recently departed one, Pinchot was as honest as the day was long, and he couldn’t wait to rub your nose in it.
If you were on the opposite side of the political skirmish line from him, you were almost certain to get a snout full, regardless.
Campaigning for the Republican nomination for governor in 1922, Pinchot set his rhetorical sights on Pittsburgh Strip District political boss Max Leslie. He told reporters:
“Next to my pride in my friends is my pride in my enemies. I should be sorry if there was any doubt in anyone’s mind about where I stand about Max Leslie or where he stands with me. I am against him and I am proud to say he is against me.”
However, Leslie had been conspicuously silent during the canvas. This did not suit Pinchot because it did not confirm to the tenor of the campaign he wanted to run.
He said, “(Leslie’s) outspoken antagonism is the only thing lacking to make the situation perfect.”
Preparing to leave office at end of his first term, Governor Pinchot reiterated his “hearty contempt” for the “morals” as well as the “minds” of his foes.
“I loved the guy for his candor,” said a fellow Republican. “Weighing Pinchot’s virtues against his faults, the score is heavily in his favor.”
It’s certain that the three Vare brothers of Philadelphia didn’t feel this way about Pinchot. The Vares were political bosses of the first order. They controlled that portion of Philadelphia known as “the Neck.” The Vares were the “the dukes of South Philly.”
In those days, the state of Pennsylvania was boss-ridden. This aggregate of corruption ran from east to west across the commonwealth. Most of the bosses were Republicans, since the GOP was both the hub and axle of state politics.
Republican control of Pennsylvania was nearly absolute, a result of the Civil War. It would take the Great Depression to give Democrats a fighting chance. The era of mixed control – in which the governor represented one party, the General Assembly the other – was many years down the line.
Elected governor in 1922, Pinchot left Harrisburg for the first time in 1926, at the same moment Willam Vare was trying to snag a seat in the United States Senate.
William Scott Vare was a member of the U.S. House for better than a decade. Campaigning for his party’s nomination for the Senate, Vare pitted his political fortunes against incumbent Sen. George Wharton Pepper and Pinchot himself, who also sought the Senate nomination.
On primary election day 1926, Vare carried just two counties, Philadelphia and Dauphin; Pepper bagged 42; the remaining 23 counties went to Pinchot. Yet, Vare ended the night on top, thanks to the state’s largest city, which delivered 47 of 48 wards for the congressman.
Reports of voting irregularities were rampant, whole ballot boxes disappearing and reappearing. In one voting district, opposition poll watchers left for a 20-minute break during which an astounding 433 votes were cast – all for Vare.
As governor, Pinchot refused to certify Vare’s victory in the November general election, citing the events of the spring. “I am convinced,” the governor told the Senate, that Vare’s victory was “partly bought and partly stolen. ... His election returns do not ... correctly represent the will” of Pennsylvania voters.
An investigation followed. Denied his seat by a Senate vote, Vare said he felt as if his head had been chopped off. He said he had been “politically guillotined.”
Vare’s national political career ended on a sour note. Pinchot would run for governor again in 1930 and win. His second four years in office were taken up by the Great Depression.
The Vare-Pinchot fight has little in common with today’s GOP wildfire featuring a faithless ex-president, an embrace or at least a tolerance for loony conspiracy theories, and the emergence on Capitol Hill and in state capitals, including Harrisburg, of a solid cadre of democracy-deniers.
In short, today’s crisis is far worse than the one in 1926.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. His latest book, “JFK Rising,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.