- The Washington Times - Friday, November 24, 2000

DALLAS Many Texans, fearful that the counting and recounting in Florida will cost Gov. George W. Bush the presidency, recall a similar election that played a major part in the political career of another Texan, who eventually occupied the White House.

Back in the summer of 1948, nobody talked about hanging or falling chads, as they didn't have voting machines here. But some of the other elements that have become daily topics in today's election accusations of fraud, state and federal courts countermanding each other and questioned ballots recall a long-ago disputed nomination between Lyndon B. Johnson and Coke Stevenson.

There was even an armed standoff in the 1948 election squabble, featuring a famed Texas Ranger who stared down almost a dozen dissidents who did not want a south Texas county's votes examined.

That election, held on Saturday, Aug. 28, 1948, was for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Johnson, 40, a several-term congressman, was running against Stevenson, 60, a conservative who had served both as governor and lieutenant governor in the 1940s. Since the Republican Party in those days was virtually nonexistent except in Houston and Dallas, the Democratic win was tantamount to victory in November.

Most of the polls had given Stevenson the edge, though it was noted that Johnson, campaigning widely by helicopter, seemed to be gaining as the election neared.

That Saturday night, statewide returns trickled in to the Texas Election Bureau, and by 2 a.m., it looked like Stevenson had eked out a close but definite win. He led by 854 votes out of almost 1 million cast.

Several counties' election officials had telephoned to say that they either were still counting or were recounting, but almost no one expected the few hundred votes still to be tabulated would make an appreciable difference. At first, that seemed the case.

After five days, LBJ had made slight inroads but still trailed by more than 350 votes. Only a couple of more counties were left to tally, election officials assured. One of those counties cut about half of Stevenson's lead. That Friday the sixth day after the vote a whopping 202-2 tally in favor of LBJ was reported out of tiny Jim Wells County in south Texas.

The "corrected" totals from Jim Wells County thus gave LBJ an 87-vote lead one that stood after several days of harsh rhetoric, court challenges and threats of violence and finally was certified by the state Democratic Committee.

Jim Wells County and adjoining Duval County an hour's drive west of Corpus Christi were part of a fiefdom controlled by George B. Parr, unquestionably the most powerful political machine in Texas at the time. Parr used force, bribery and cajolery in the form of political jobs to make sure his favorite candidates won.

It was not unusual to see the Parr candidate get an unreasonable number of votes. When the votes arrived on election day, nobody questioned, but when they suddenly appeared six days after the voting ended, that was different.

Stevenson immediately sent several lawyers to the town of Alice to investigate, but they were told the ballots were locked up tight in a local bank and nobody knew where the key was. One suggested that a young man named Luis Salas, an election judge in precinct 13, probably had the key.

Mr. Salas, it seemed, had suddenly taken a vacation to Mexico. The Parr folks said they didn't know where in Mexico he was.

Chagrined, Stevenson called on a Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, to accompany him to examine the voting lists. Hamer, 14 years earlier, had set up the fatal ambush of Bonnie and Clyde. He was considered a legend in law enforcement circles.

As several described the scene, San Antonio lawyer T. Kellis Dibrell equated it to a scene straight out of "High Noon," with the governor and the ranger strolling toward the bank as 10 or 12 armed men sidled together in menacing fashion intent on not allowing Stevenson and Hamer to go inside the bank.

Nago Alaniz, a local lawyer and Parr confidant, described it to this reporter in 1977:

"Hamer had his hand resting on his gun as he approached. He stared at me like a snake ready to spring. We all had guns, but we weren't about to kill somebody over an election."

Somebody evidently had found a key because the bank president allowed the Stevenson team to look at the signature lists.

Though they were refused the right to copy the lists, they did recall several names from Box 13 enough to later collect affidavits from those people swearing they had not voted. They noted also, said Mr. Dibrell, that the names were in alphabetical order, written in the same handwriting and in the same blue ink. The rest of the signatures were in black ink, he added.

Then like in Florida at the present day the legal machinations began.

LBJ went to court first, obtaining a state court restraining order to squelch a "reform" group in Alice that was intent on throwing out the 200 late votes.

With affidavits from several who claimed they never voted and whose signatures they knew would not match the precinct records, Stevenson went to an Alice courtroom to try to get the restraining order lifted.

"There were four 'signatures' of dead men on that list," said Mr. Dibrell. "We thought we had a real shot to knock out the contrived votes right there, where they were manufactured."

But it was not to be. A Parr-controlled state district judge ruled the Stevenson presentation didn't impress him and the lists would remain sealed and locked up. That same day, in Fort Worth, LBJ was certified as the winner by the Democratic State Committee, by a 29-28 vote.

Stevenson quickly went to federal court, claiming his rights had been violated because the state committee had not investigated the "obvious fraud."

A crusty old federal judge in Dallas, T. Whitfield Davidson, ordered a temporary injunction, keeping LBJ's name off the November ballot and suggesting that both men's names should be on the ballot.

"Without this, you will have the feeling among some in Texas that the winner has won on a technicality," the judge wrote.

After LBJ turned this proposal down flat, the judge named a team of special masters to look into the Jim Wells County situation. He set a hearing in his court "so we can clearly deal with the facts" for Sept. 28, a month after the election.

The LBJ forces, arguing that the federal courts had no jurisdiction in a state election, took their case to an appeals court, then to the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

As the federal court masters sat poised in Alice, ready to order the opening of all Jim Wells County ballot boxes, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black accepted the LBJ argument, dissolving the temporary order by Mr. Davidson and allowing LBJ's name to be on the ballot. The boxes were locked away, not to be seen publicly since.

In 1977, Mr. Salas, the man in charge of Precinct 13 that election day, admitted he had certified enough fictitious ballots to give LBJ the winning edge.

Mr. Salas said he was in failing health and had wanted to come forth earlier, but was afraid to do so. His revelation came two years after political boss Parr had committed suicide.

"I'm 76 years old and have had this on my conscience for a long time," he said. "Johnson didn't win that day; we stole it for him."

Mr. Alaniz told this reporter that at least two boxes in Duval County and another in Jim Wells County beyond Box 13 had been tainted with "imaginative balloting." He said he personally heard Parr tell half a dozen men to "make sure you understand what we need here."

"What Mr. Parr wanted, he usually got," said the Hispanic lawyer. "If you wanted to exist here, you did what Mr. Parr said to do."

LBJ, of course, went to the U.S. Senate, moved up quickly to became majority leader, then vice president under John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was slain in 1963 in Dallas, Johnson became president.

John Connally, LBJ's strong right arm through much of his ascendancy, and one of his top advisers in the Stevenson controversy, said in later years that LBJ did not personally call in late votes to win the 1948 election.

"I know he didn't because I saw him every day, consulted with him every step of the way," said Mr. Connally. "But George Parr obviously knew what was needed and he supplied it."

Mr. Connally, who later became a Texas governor and served twice in cabinet posts, said LBJ never would have become president had he not won that 1948 race.

"Never," he said. "He was just at the right place at the right time."

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