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Rhoads: Good Conservative Governor was a Democrat



By Mark Rhoads - Horner_henry

When I rate past governors of Illinois, I always to put Gov. Henry Horner in the top rank. He was a fiscally conservative Democrat back when that was still possible. Horner was the first Jewish governor of Illinois when he was elected in 1932 during the Great Depression. He was also a Lincoln scholar. He saw his mandate as saving state money and meeting the pressing needs for public services.

My favorite legend about him was confirmed for me by a former Chicago American reporter that I knew and trusted. The legend is that when Horner took office in January 1933, his secretary found many boxes of stationery left over from his Republican predecessor, Gov. Louis Emmerson. Horner told his secretary to draw a line through Emmerson's name and write in Henry Horner at the top and he said she could not order any new stationery until all the old boxes had been used up.

This was typical of Horner's frugality and integrity with public money and his respect for taxpayers. He saved money any way he could from allowing prisoners to grow their own food to using long-lasting carbon-filament lights in the Capitol and other state buildings. Some of them lasted 25 years. Horner was hatred the Kelly-Nash Machine in Chicago because he removed no-show patronage jobs from the prison system and other state agencies. But he was liked by downstate Republicans some of whom crossed over into the Democratic primary of 1936 to protect Horner from attacks by the machine in his own party so Horner won the nomination a second time and in the fall Horner was re-elected to a second term.

Because of the severe state fiscal crisis during the Depression, Horner did sign the first statewide sales tax at 2 percent in 1933 and raised it to 3 percent in 1935. But the urgent state need and his reputation for frugality and integrity insulated Horner from GOP criticism when the taxes went into effect. Because he was Jewish, Horner was disliked by the incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator from Illinois, William Dieterich, who was of German heritage and who was anti-semitic. Dieterich came to office the same year that Horner did and the same year that Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Horner succeeded in helping his ally Sen. Scott Lucas of Cass County win the nomination to succeed Dieterich when Dieterich retired in 1938. Lucas became Senate Minorty Leader but lost to Republican Sen. Everett M. Dirksen in 1950.  But when Horner died in office just before the end of his second term in October 1940, one of his political enemies backed by the machine, Lt. Gov. John Stelle, became governor for only three months because Stelle was defeated in the election of 1940 by Republican and former federal prosecutor Dwight Green who had successfully prosecuted Al Capone for income tax evasion in 1931. The integrity of Horner's administration from 1933 to 1940 is a good example for both parties.


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  1. Horner was a decent man, but he made his share of mistakes by taking orders from the Cook County Democratic Machine. He signed a bill to permit the Chicago City Council to appoint Edward Kelly as to the unexpired portion of Anton Cermak’s term as mayor (Alderman Corr was the temporary interim mayor). Chicagoans were also deprived of the opportunity to choose their new mayor in a special election because the past precedent was that such an election was a one round, winner take all, open election, and the Democrats were afraid that Bill Thompson would enter the race and secure a plurality.
    The Republican Party was weakened when Horner also approved legislation to consolidate the Lincoln Park District and West Side Park District into the newly formed Chicago Park District. Heretofore, the governor controlled both of these park boards and they served as employers of numerous Republican precinct captains (once upon a time, the governor’s office was usually occupied by a Republican). Horner transferred to power of appointment for the new Chicago Park District to the Chicago Mayor.

  2. How’s the research going on proving Dieterich was an anti-semite? Since you haven’t posted any verifiable proof I am figuring there is nothing out there. I did a little internet research of my own and discovered this is not the first time you made this allegation. In an IR post of 3-21-2012 (Two Good Governors from Illinois) and an Illinois State Society post of 5-5-2012 (Illinois State Society Past Presidents) you make similar claims against the character of Mr. Dieterich. However, at least in the Illinois State Society post (and in the same vein in the 2012 IR post) you qualify the anti-semite claim by stating, “because Horner feared that Dieterich as a German-American had sympathies for the new anti semitic Nazi regime of the dying Weimar Republic in Berlin that also came to power in 1933. In spite of the worries of Gov. Horner, Dieterich, a former House member, kept politics out of the social events of the society and had one successful year as society president.” At least that time you had the decency to state it was Horner who surmised that Dieterich was an anti-semite and you also gave credit to Dieterich for keeping politics out of society events. I am not sure if you would be capable of doing the same.
    So I am still waiting for your proof that Dieterich was an anti-semite. Although you tout yourself as an author and historian you certainly did a face plant this time, especially charging someone with something as serious as anti-Semitism when you don’t have any proof other than hearsay. If you can’t prove the allegation you should at a minimum revise the recent IR post and apologize.
    I await your response; if you don’t want to communicate via the comment section of IR, send an email.

  3. I did not write the biography for Horner on Wikipedia that states in part: “Horner supported the election of Scott Lucas to the Senate in 1938 to succeed retiring incumbent William H. Dieterich, who had proven to be anti-Semitic and somewhat pro-German.”

  4. I did not write the Horner biography in Wikipedia that states in part the following:   "He supported the election of Scott Lucas to the Senate in 1938 to succeed retiring incumbent William H. Dieterich, who had proven to be anti-Semitic and somewhat pro-German." 
    My friend Gladys Erickson who died many years ago was a reporter for the Chicago American newspaper and she was one who first referred to the anti-Semitism of Dieterich as common knowledge in a conversation with me.  Very little has been written about Dieterich who was from Cass County and since I wrote about him many years ago before my book was published some of my notes have been lost but if you have reason to think I have done him some sort of injustice I am happy to continue to research the matter from contemporary news sources. The fact that Dieterich was a booster of several German-American organizations is a matter of public record and the fact that American Nazis infiltrated many of the groups in the 1930s is also a matter of public record.  If you are related to Sen. Dieterich and think I have slandered his name with no basis, I will continue digging and looking for my notes from 2004. Anti-Semitism was sadly not limited to German-Americans then and was far too common in Illinois and the general public at the time.  FDR ignored some warnings from his own Secretary of the Treasury  Henry Morgenthau, Jr. that Jews were in great danger in Nazi Germany.

  5. I am in no way related to Mr. Dieterich; in fact I had no idea who he was until I read your post. It seemed quite odd that you went out of your way to make such a claim about Dieterich when the focus of your article was Horner’s conservatism. It seemed to me like you had an axe to grind with Dieterich. I wonder if Dieterich might have just been critical of Horner, who played the anti-Semitism card in reaction to the criticism. That continues all too often today when someone is even the least bit critical of Israel. Don’t conservatives rail against Jesse Jackson when he plays the race card if someone is critical of him and/or his organizations?
    How convenient that your main source of the slanderous claim is dead and your notes are missing. Did the dog eat your homework as a child too? And then there is your reliance on Wikipedia as some kind of final arbiter of the truth. The claim made in Wikipedia has no citation and you can’t even find out who made that addition to Horner’s biographical entry, because they are only identified by an IP address (the claim was added 1-19-2009 by that noted author You take the cake for intellectual sloth, Mark!
    Finally, in your response early this morning you try to correlate Dieterich’s support of German-American groups and anti-Semitism. That is a real stretch to claim support of German-American groups at that time made one an anti-Semite. How is that different from correlating being a Catholic and monetarily supporting the Catholic Church today with supporting pedophilia? It is public record that priests have molested children for over 50 years so I could claim that anyone who remains a Catholic Church member and financially supports them must see nothing wrong with pedophilia. If you are a Catholic, which I believe you are, I don’t think you would agree with that logic.