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  1. Opinion

Perspective: The man who switched, then won

Sidney Catts lost the Democratic primary, then became governor as the Prohibition Party’s candidate, serving a tempestuous term.
Sidney Catts lost the Democratic primary, then became governor as the Prohibition Party’s candidate, serving a tempestuous term.
Published Oct. 10, 2014

In a triumph as improbable as it was electrifying, voters chose to ignore the fact that a candidate with no political experience, one who barely met the residency requirements, was running for the highest office in Florida. Rumors circulated that he had committed a frightening crime. Astonishingly, he had switched political parties and survived. A prude, he refused to attend his own inaugural ball.

He was Sidney J. Catts. When asked how a one-eyed, red-haired, circuit-riding demagogue could become governor, an aide explained: "Florida Crackers have only three friends in this world: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck and Sidney Johnston Catts."

Born on an Alabama plantation in 1863, Sidney Johnston Catts was named after a fallen Confederate general. In 1886, his life as a comfortable cotton planter and lawyer changed dramatically. Awakened by a voice, he wandered to a Baptist revival meeting. "I knew old Catts had gone wrong," he confessed. In the midst of a searing religious reawakening, "an angel came to comfort me" as he held tight the "old black stump."

Born again, he preached the parable of the "old black stump" countless times, comforting poor whites reeling from the depression of the 1890s. That decade also witnessed a terrifying spike in racial violence. In one episode, when a black man threatened him with a knife, Catts killed him with a shotgun blast.

In 1911, Catts moved to DeFuniak Springs, Fla., where he saved souls and peddled insurance. The parson arrived at a moment when the Panhandle was aflame.

In country churches, the new preacher tapped a deep vein of discontent and anger, and Catts fanned the fires of temperance and anti-Catholicism. Few issues roiled the waters of America more so than Prohibition. Across Florida and the South, county by county, the drys were crushing the wets. A movement deftly led by females (the Anti-Saloon League and Woman's Christian Temperance Union) and Protestant preachers, Prohibition promised to outlaw jook joints and offered an uplifting message of family values and moral improvement.

Ironically, anti-Catholicism flourished in a region and state with so few Catholics. In 1915, Catholics made up a scant 5 percent of Florida's population. Pope-baiting has deep roots, but anxieties resurfaced in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries with the massive immigration of Irish, Slavic and Italian Catholics. Indeed, Catholicism and Demon Rum existed as evil twins, as cartoonists and ministers caricatured German brewers and Irish saloon keepers. Catts explained bluntly: "There is no question that rum and Romanism go together."

In 1914, in equal measures of audacity and foolhardiness, Catts resigned his pastorate and announced his candidacy for governor of Florida. He understood the hardscrabble lives of mule skinners and charcoal burners, sawyers and farmers.

Called the "Cracker Messiah," Catts branded Democratic Party leaders as modern Pharisees. His message was simple: "Nothing in Florida above the nation's flag: the red schoolhouse against the parochial school ... America for Americans, first, last and forever."

The election of 1916 combined elements of a religious revival, David vs. Goliath, the drama of a political outsider against entrenched interests, North Florida vs. South Florida, and courthouse drama. Smart Tallahassee money bet on state Treasurer William B. Knott and former Speaker of the House Ian Ferris. Frank A. Wood, a banker and former state legislator from St. Petersburg, also tossed his hat into the ring.

In 1916, Florida was part of the Solid South, an era when the only election that counted was the Democratic primary. The June primary brought more confusion than clarity. Two weeks after the election, the press announced that the maverick Catts had upset Knott by a thin margin of 544 votes. Knott asked for a recount.

After four months of bickering, the Florida Supreme Court announced that William Knott would serve as the Democratic nominee. His margin of victory was 23 votes. "Even today," concludes Catts biographer Wayne Flynt, "no one can be certain who won the Democratic primary."

The legal maneuvering to deny Catts the nomination backfired. Catts was now seen by Floridians and the press as a martyr whom nervous elites had shoved aside. On Oct. 9 — less than a month before the election — Catts agreed to become the nominee of the Prohibition Party.

Energized, Catts crisscrossed the state. When rumors circulated that Apalachicola Catholics wished to assassinate him, Catts brandished two loaded pistols.

Newspapers waged ferocious editorial battles. The Pensacola Journal declared, "Every time Catts says anything he hits the nail on the thumb." The DeFuniak Breeze defended its hometown hero: "It has been asked who is financing Mr. Catts' campaign? The great common people with voluntary contributions of from a nickel up ... (but) who is putting up the thousands of dollars that have been expended for Mr. Knott?" The Lakeland Ledger asked readers if they had ever seen "a more hay-seed looking and acting candidate than Knott?"

The St. Petersburg Times endorsed William Knott, editorializing, "The Times is a Democratic (Party) newspaper. ... Because it is a Democratic newspaper, it believes in the doctrine of party loyalty. ... Shall Florida be the first Southern state to weaken the chain of the Solid South?"

When the votes were counted in November, Sidney Catts carried the day. Locally, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco and Pinellas county voters preferred the third-party upstart to the establishment candidate. The Times graciously saluted Catts' "meteoric career in which he rose from private life to the state's highest office within a single year." The New York Times called the upset "spectacular."

Huzzahs shook the Capitol on Jan. 2, 1917, as Sidney Johnston Catts took the oath of office. The iconoclast was now an insider. "This is the supreme hour of your triumph," he reminded Floridians, sprinkling his address with allusions of Oliver Cromwell's triumph over the royalists and the parable of the "little red schoolhouse."

The new leader declined to attend his own inaugural ball, as he opposed dancing. A wartime governor, Catts erected a pigpen behind the governor's mansion to promote food production. He promised that the first legislator found drunk would be jailed for 60 days.

Unlike Lord Protector Cromwell, Gov. Catts could not dismiss the Legislature. Floridians confronted a maelstrom of crises from 1917-21: war and peace, women's right to vote and workers' right to a living wage, and the dignity and place of African-Americans.

He talked like a prairie populist, but governed like a Southern Democrat. Catts advanced some radical ideas — a state income tax, the taxation of church property and women's suffrage. But the conservative Florida Legislature found these ideas abhorrent. Catts urged legislators to become the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment, women's right to vote. The Legislature finally approved the 19th Amendment — in 1969.

Horrified when he first witnessed convict laborers in West Florida, Catts persuaded legislators to abolish the disgraceful practice in 1919. He advocated the distribution of free textbooks to Florida students. He was also responsible for boosting the "Good Roads" movement, providing more funds to link villages and cities. When 3,500 Polk County phosphate workers went on strike in 1919, the governor defended the laborers, under siege by powerful interests.

While Catts fought for phosphate workers, many of them black, he was a racist and failed even to denounce lynchings. "The negro is an inferior race," he declared. Urging the funding for a mechanical arts building at Florida A&M, he questioned why African-Americans needed to study the liberal arts.

Like many politicians, Catts proved better at campaigning than governing. Friends and enemies suffered the wrath of Catts. The publisher of the Palm Beach Post had supported Catts; he even purchased the threadbare governor-elect a new suit for his inauguration. But when he criticized administrative actions, Catts lashed out, "If you publish one more page in your paper like this last one ... I will go to West Palm Beach with my double-barrel shotgun loaded with buckshot and have a final settlement with you."

While he ran for office repeatedly, Catts would never again find the stars in alignment as in the magical year 1916.

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council and the Frank E. Duckwall professor emeritus of Florida history at USF St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.