"I was born into politics, a wedded man with a storm for a bride."
So said the man himself: Louisiana's 40th Governor, a U.S. Senator and a potential president candidate, Huey Pierce Long, Jr.
Long was born on August 30, 1893 in Winnfield, La. to a middle-class farming family. He was initially home-schooled but later attended local schools and he was considered a good student, one with a photographic memory. He completed the 11th grade around 1910 but was expelled from high school, after he circulated a petition objecting to the addition of a 12th grade as a graduation requirement.
Long was a promising young debater. He won a scholarship to Louisiana State University after his showing in a statewide debating competition in Baton Rouge. But he and his family could not afford the textbooks or the room and board. He went to work instead as a 17-year-old traveling salesman.
Eventually he attended seminary classes in Oklahoma, decided he did not enjoy that line of study, and turned to law schools at the University of Oklahoma and Tulane University. After a single year at Tulane, Long managed to pass a special oral exam and win admission to the Louisiana bar in 1915 at the age of 21.
Long returned to Winnfield and set up a law office, focusing on workers' compensation, the oil and gas business, land titles and timber sales. At age 25, Long began his political career, running for and winning a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission, later renamed the Public Service Commission. Long began his work as an unabashed populist in this role, pushing to reduce utility rates and challenging commercial monopolies on oil and other business interests. In one landmark case, Long filed suit against the Cumberland Telephone Company after it raised its rates by 20 percent. The suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922, where Chief Justice William Howard Taft described Long as one of the best legal minds to appear before the court. Long won his case, and the phone company had to send almost half a million dollars in refunds to more than 80,000 of its customers.
Long became chair of the newly renamed PSC in 1921, but his aim soon turned to the Governor's Mansion. He first ran for the office in 1924 on a platform that was, among other things, anti-Big Oil, anti-KKK, anti-establishment and thoroughly populist in nature. He was a groundbreaker in Southern politics for his multi-media campaign style, combining printed leaflets, radio addresses, sound trucks and personal, hand-pumping appearances across the state. When Long could muster only a strong third in the Democratic primary, he cited rainy weather in north Louisiana for poor turnout among his rural support. He won re-election to the Public Service Commission, though, and continued to build his popular support and his campaign organization across the state.
By 1928, Long had developed a powerful base of support among rural Louisianans, many of whom felt disenfranchised by the New Orleans-based political establishment. With their help, Long won the key Democratic primary for governor by a substantial margin against two other candidates, and won the general election with 96 percent of the vote.
Long had campaigned on the slogan "Every man a king, but no one wears a crown," and his policy thrust made clear that Louisiana's wealth would be shared, in the form of huge public spending efforts across the state. "During his administration from May 21, 1928, to January 25, 1932, [the] state massively increased expenditures for public education and raised appropriations to the state university," writes the Dictionary of Louisiana Biography. "A medical school was established. Prisons were reformed and improved. A highway-building program added 2,500 miles of paved roads, 1,308 miles of asphalt roads, and 9,000 miles of gravel roads. Major bridges built across the Mississippi and other large Louisiana rivers. Free textbooks, charity hospitals, old-age pensions, free night schools for adults, sales taxes and higher gasoline, corporate, franchise, and severance taxes were approved by the legislature."
Those efforts did not come without political costs to Long, whose populist policies met direct opposition from commercial interests and the pre-Long political establishment. His attempt to raise a new tax on oil production led to an impeachment attempt in 1929, based on a slew of charges including corruption, blasphemy, misconduct and blackmail. That attempt failed both in the Legislature and in the court of public opinion, where Long's popularity remained strong enough to win him a U.S. Senate race in 1930.
The Kingfish took his Senate seat on January 25, 1932, having developed a network of "Longite" state candidates to hold the reins of power in Baton Rouge. They included his replacement in the Governor's Mansion, O.K. Allen.
In Depression-era Washington, Long initially threw his support behind Franklin D. Roosevelt and figured prominently in Roosevelt's presidential campaign. But after the 1932 election, Long became a vocal opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal policies, considering them inadequate to the task. Long took his own "Share-Our-Wealth" program directly to American voters, using nationwide radio broadcasts to promote it. Long's proposals "would have eliminated personal fortunes in excess of $3 million, provided every family with $5,000 with which to buy a house, car, and radio, provided for old-age pensions, minimum annual incomes, veterans bonuses, and government-paid college educations," according to the Dictionary of Louisiana Biography.
The platform was a clear attempt toward redistribution of wealth, and the U.S. Senate rejected Long's legislative attempts to enact it. In response, Long railed against the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as the powerful families who he said held the vast majority of the nation's wealth in their hands.
In 1934, the senator from Louisiana formed a national political organization called the Share Our Wealth Society, a group that attracted millions of supporters. Long's political opponents suspected the Society was truly a building block for a third party to support his presidential ambitions. President Roosevelt actively opposed Long's political allies back in Louisiana, and Long returned the favor by working against New Deal candidates. The Internal Revenue Service and the FBI investigated Long's finances in an apparent effort to discredit him, but turned up little evidence of wrongdoing.
Senator Long maintained his hold on power in Louisiana. He returned home often to help Gov. Allen and legislative allies push through his agenda, including abolition of the poll tax and homestead tax exemptions for personal property. Yet his ambitions clearly were focused on the presidency. In 1935, he wrote My First Days in the White House, a speculative account of his first 100 days as president. Long seemed well positioned to mount a viable opposition to Pres. Roosevelt in the 1936 Democratic primary.
It was not to be. A gunman named Carl A. Weiss, Jr. shot Long in a capitol hallway in Baton Rouge and the Kingfish died two days later, at the age of 42. His last words reportedly were, "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do." The state buried Long on the grounds of the state capitol itself. In the years to come, Long's brother Earl would rise to the governorship, while his son Russell would serve as a U.S. Senator for nearly 40 years.