Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Think this election is crazy? Tampa's seen worse

Voters of Tampa Bay, take heart: No matter what happens today, it could hardly offer more drama or dysfunction than our worst-ever local election — the primary in the Tampa mayor's race of 1935.

"The infamous day in history when this city hit rock bottom," the late historian Hampton Dunn once wrote.

On Sept. 3, 1935, a hurricane sideswiped the Gulf Coast, lashing Tampa with 65-mph winds.

That wasn't the worst of it. Supporters of two candidates, former Mayor D.B. McKay and incumbent Mayor Robert E. Lee Chancey, transformed Tampa into two armed camps.

McKay was backed by a county faction, Chancey by the city machine. Both sides had their own muscle. The city deputized 1,150 "special police," some from out of state, for $10 a day, arming them with sawed-off hoe handles. The sheriff had about 500 special deputies of his own.

With violence threatening, the governor sent in 270 troops and officers from the 116th Field Artillery of the Florida National Guard. They set up machine gun nests on street corners.

"It did not stop the irregularities of the election organizations, but it dampened the ardor of the irregulars, some of whom were underworld characters and ex-lawbreakers under arms on both sides," guard commander Col. Homer W. Hesterly later reported.

Still, trouble started as polls opened, with rival camps trying to control ballot boxes, arrest each other or both. Four people were shot, none fatally. When someone tried to arrest Tampa's fire chief, men started swinging their hoe handles.

"Scores of heads were cracked," the Tampa Morning Tribune reported. A man at Precinct 8 suffered a broken nose after being struck with a blackjack. A special policeman was charged with stuffing pre-marked ballots for Chancey into a ballot box. Some boxes were seized and locked inside the county jail for safekeeping.

The publicity was a disaster. New York newspapers ran front-page stories detailing Tampa's "bitter skull-cracking election."

Chancey won. McKay's camp claimed more ballots were counted than voters who entered the polls. The ballot-stuffing, which was not new, led to a switch to voting machines.

Today, if you know where to look, you can find a colorful reminder of this sordid episode.

On a little-used stairwell at Old City Hall is a large painting of that day by Ferdie Pacheco, the Tampa-born fight doctor and artist who watched the chaos unfold as a boy of 8. In vibrant primary colors, he depicted the cops, the firefighters, the voters, the goons, the fixers and the soldiers with their steel helmets, rifles and bayonets.

Its title: Election Day 1935: The Day the Governor Called Out the Troops In Order to Ensure Every Citizen's Right to Vote Twice.

   
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