North Dakota citizens received a very unique ballot when they voted in the general election on Nov. 3, 1936. One candidate’s name appeared twice on the ballot, representing two different political parties.
William Lemke was on the ballot as a presidential candidate for the Union Party and as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for the Republican Party. When the state votes were tallied, Lemke received 150,137 votes for Congress, making him the winner, and 72,751 votes for president, a race in which he finished a distant third.
Fifteen years earlier, in 1921, Lemke lost his position as state attorney general when he was recalled in a special election, and his political future seemed in doubt. One person who was trying to sabotage Lemke’s political career was William Langer.
Regarding the war between Langer and Lemke, Agnes Geelan wrote in her book, "The Dakota Maverick: The Political Life of William Langer," “It was the most bitter political feud in North Dakota history. It affected the political fortunes of Langer and Lemke, and had repercussions that affected the political history of their state for more than a quarter of a century.”
In November 1919, Langer began publishing The Red Flame, a monthly magazine that “was devoted to attacking the leaders of the Nonpartisan League (NPL).” One of the magazine issues had a cartoon picture in it of Lemke sitting on a truckload of money and heading for Russia. Langer managed to help divide the League between the radicals, led by Lemke, and the moderates.
With the recall election of 1921, in which Lemke, Lynn Frazier and John Hagan were removed from their state executive offices, the Independent Voters Association (IVA) gained control of the state government, and the moderates gained control of the NPL. According to historian Elwyn Robinson, during this time, “Lemke, the chief figure of the NPL in North Dakota was a powerless, discredited leader, and the League itself appeared dead.”
Also, there were people in the NPL who wanted to strip Lemke of power. At the League convention in October 1923, one delegate said that they not only needed to bury Lemke, but “plant grass on his grave.” However, many, including Langer, greatly underestimated Lemke’s tenacity and determination. Lemke not only later served eight successful terms in the U.S. Congress, but also threw major roadblocks in the career path of the politically ambitious Langer.
By 1928, the radical branch of the NPL regained control, and Lemke once again became a dominant force in North Dakota politics. Langer knew that if he was going to be a major political figure in the state, he needed to mend fences with the NPL. He began giving speeches claiming that he had never been a member of the IVA and had always supported the principles of the NPL. During the 1928 presidential campaign, Lemke threw his support behind Democratic candidate Al Smith, and Langer, along with the rest of the League, followed suit.
Langer decided to run for attorney general and asked for the endorsement of the NPL, which they gave him, but he was narrowly defeated by James Morris in the primary. Lemke was not thrilled to see Langer back in the good graces of the NPL, and he may have breathed a sigh of relief when Langer announced after his defeat, “I am definitely, completely, and finally out of North Dakota politics.”
However, Langer’s political retirement was short-lived. The late 1920s and early 1930s were extremely tough years for North Dakota farmers. Not only was there a severe drought and a big decline in grain prices, but the Great Depression was also just beginning.
In 1929, Lemke began to work out a program to help the farmers that included “a bankruptcy law to scale down farm debts, a refinance law to pay off the debts, and a government-owned U.S. Bank to take over the issuing of paper money from the privately owned Federal Reserve banks.” He also created a government “cost-of-production plan” so that farmers would not lose money from their farming operations. He took this plan to the 1931 North Dakota Legislature, and they endorsed it. Lemke then sent his plan to President Herbert Hoover, but the president’s administration took no action.
Knowing that Franklin Roosevelt, the governor of New York, was considering running against Hoover, Lemke paid him a visit at the governor’s mansion in Albany. “Roosevelt received Lemke graciously, listened carefully, and assured Lemke of his support.” Lemke then worked tirelessly to help get Roosevelt, a Democrat, successfully elected as president in 1932.
In order to get his plan enacted in Congress, Lemke declared his own candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives. Hoping to win a seat in the House at this time had become more difficult in North Dakota because the number of seats allotted for the state had been reduced from three to two, and all three incumbents, James Sinclair, Thomas Hall and Olger Burtness, announced their intention to run for reelection. This was compounded when another popular politician, Usher Burdick, announced his candidacy.
At the primary election on June 29, 1932, Lemke and Sinclair received the most votes, and they were both successful in the general election as well. In 1934, Lemke teamed up with his good friend, Lynn Frazier, who was now a U.S. Senator, and they co-sponsored the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act, which restricted the ability of banks to repossess farms. President Roosevelt signed the act into law on June 28, but the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. Lemke tried to get the act passed a second time, but Roosevelt said he would no longer support it, which caused Lemke to turn against the president.
Lemke was easily reelected in 1934, and he was joined in the House by his good friend Burdick, who defeated Sinclair in the Republican primary. Lemke had also formed a friendship with Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, who was planning to run for president as a third party candidate and was gathering a lot of support. On Sept. 10, 1935, Long was assassinated, and his supporters turned to Lemke to challenge the two major presidential candidates, Roosevelt and Alf Landon, in the general election.
Nationally, Lemke received 2% of the votes cast in 1936, a good showing for a third party candidate. He may not have been elected president, but Lemke was reelected to the U.S. House.
In 1938, Lemke had two victories. First, he easily retained his seat in the House, and second, he assisted with stopping Langer, who was attempting to upset Gerald P. Nye, the incumbent, for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
In 1940, Lemke coasted to another easy victory in the primary election to retain his House seat, but it was a bittersweet victory because his good friend Frazier was defeated in the primary by Langer, who.once again was trying to get elected to the Senate. Once more, Lemke attempted to stop Langer, but this time he believed he needed to be the candidate, so he dropped out of the race for his House seat and announced that he was running for the Senate as an independent. In the general election, Lemke lost to Langer by 8,000 votes.
Despite losing in the election, Lemke still had hopes of acquiring the Senate seat. On Jan. 3, 1941, while Langer was waiting to be sworn in as a new senator, the ceremony was interrupted when it was announced that petitions had been filed by a group of citizens from North Dakota protesting the seating of Langer.
The petitions were then sent to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, which went into session on Jan. 9. On May 23, the petitions were assigned to a subcommittee that was to look into the matter further and make recommendations. On Nov. 3, after the recommendations were made, the full committee began to consider the 10 charges against Langer. The committee recommended, by a vote of 13-3, that Langer should not be seated.
During this action, Lemke let people know what he thought of Langer. He said, “Mr. Langer is not only dishonest, but insane as well. Yet he is shrewd and cunning, but does not know right from wrong. If there ever was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Langer is one.”
On Dec. 23, 1941, he wrote to Gov. Moses and asked to be appointed senator after the expected ouster of Langer. On March 27, 1942, the full Senate voted on the committee’s motion and decided to seat Langer by a vote of 52-30. “The seating of Langer was a crushing blow to Lemke.”
Lemke regained his House seat in the 1942 election, and held it until his death on May 30, 1950. During his time in Congress, Lemke was a tireless advocate for better conditions for farmers, but his most enduring legacy was his work on establishing Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.