I heard it's the 75th anniversary of Huey Long's assassination, but I don't know why he was killed or whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. What do you say?
Confused in Uptown
Huey Long was shot 75 years ago this week. As to whether he was good or bad, opinions vary — as is often the case with powerful people.
Huey Pierce Long Jr. was born in Winnfield, La., in 1893. His populist political style won him many admirers among the disadvantaged but made him the scourge of the wealthy. He served as Louisiana governor from 1928 to 1932 and as a U.S. senator from 1932 until he was shot in 1935. He reportedly planned to run for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.
Nicknamed "The Kingfish" by friends (after a character on the radio show Amos 'n Andy), Long built a formidable political machine and ruled the state with an iron fist. He built his political empire on the idea that government should level the playing field between rich and poor — and that wealth should be redistributed toward that end.
With the country reeling from the Great Depression, Long in 1934 created his "Share Our Wealth" program, which called for the government to confiscate individual wealth in excess of $5 million (or an individual's income in excess of $1 million) and redistribute it to the less fortunate. As governor, he launched massive public works projects for bridges, roads, hospitals (including Charity Hospital in New Orleans) and colleges (most notably expanding LSU and building the LSU Medical School in New Orleans).
Long began his political career at age 25, when he was elected to the Louisiana Railroad Commission, a precursor to the Public Service Commission. He had a flair for politics and for innovation. He was the first Southern politician to use radio addresses and sound trucks while stumping for governor in 1924. He lost that race but was re-elected to the PSC, then ran successfully for governor in 1928 with a campaign slogan, "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown."
As governor, Long required state employees to pay a portion of their salaries directly into his political war chest, nicknamed the "deduct box." During his tenure, he gave schoolchildren free textbooks, instituted night courses that taught 100,000 adults to read, provided cheap natural gas to New Orleans and began his public works programs. He also bullied anyone who stood in his way, sometimes ruthlessly.
He was impeached by the Louisiana Legislature in 1929 but dodged conviction via a now-infamous device known as the round robin. It took two-thirds of the state Senate to convict him, so his allies got more than one third to sign a document pledging not to convict him no matter what the evidence against him might be. He then extended his power over all of state government and several local governments, including New Orleans. In the U.S. Senate, Long's political views (and popularity among the poor) reportedly pushed President Roosevelt farther to the left and inspired many New Deal programs.
Though busy nationally, Long continued to control state government. He was in Baton Rouge on Sept. 8, 1935, to oversee a special legislative session when he allegedly was shot by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, whose father-in-law, Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy, had been gerrymandered out of his district as payback for opposing Long. Weiss was shot 32 times by Long's bodyguards and died. Long died two days later in a Baton Rouge hospital. He is buried beneath a massive monument that faces the State Capitol, which he built in record time.
Even today, 75 years after his death, Long casts quite a shadow over Louisiana politics — and he continues to spark heated political debates.