In 1907, El Paso was the only Texas city that was considered a “party town.” A “party town” was a city dominated by one political party. In the 1900’s, El Paso like the rest of Texas, was politically dominated by the Democratic Party. El Paso’s Democrats were the only Democrats in the state organizing municipal elections around “party tickets.” According to a 1907 letter to the newspaper, the El Paso Democrats, who were “in the majority” wanted to “hog all the offices” by “drawing party lines” in municipal elections. Another issue facing El Paso was election fraud. To address these two issues, an organization was formed in El Paso. It was the Good Government League. [1]

The Good Government League’s primary purpose, according to its leadership, was fair elections in El Paso. But there was an undercurrent objective wrapped around the “clean elections” mantra it purported to embrace. The “prime object of the league, and the main purpose for which it was organized” was to eliminate “the alien vote” from the city’s elections. [2] The citizenship requirement to vote in Texas was enacted in 1902. [3]

The 1907 version of the El Paso Good Government League was reorganized at St. Clements Church on January 18, 1907. It had existed since the early 1900s. Its purpose, according to the organizers, was “purely to see that clean elections” were held in El Paso. It’s “chief duties shall be the prosecution of election frauds.” To address poll tax fraud, the group proposed to “employ a man to remain in the county collector’s office and watch on the politicians in the vicinity, to at least prevent the distribution of corruption money right at the very doors of the place where the poll tax receipts” were issued. [4] As we discussed in our previous article, one of the ways the poll tax was used to corrupt elections was by candidates paying the poll tax of individuals for their vote.

Publicly the Good Government League in El Paso focused on “clean elections.” In addition to the broad support of El Paso’s businessmen and the public, the group enjoyed the political support of the labor unions. On March 13, 1922, the Central Labor Union gave its “hearty support” to the League. [5] All of it was under the banner of “clean elections.” But eugenics and immigration was at the center of it.

Readers should note that the El Paso Good Government League should not be confused with San Antonio’s scandalous pro-business Good Government League that operated between 1950 and 1970. They were two separate entities. Also, Good Government Leagues were appearing all over the country in the early 1900’s, several under the banner of “clean elections.” (see note 1)

Poll tax fraud was well known at the time, but few were willing to stop it for various reasons. The poll tax was essential for the operations of the schools. Political bosses used it for controlling the community’s political institutions. Although the poll tax was used for controlling how minorities engaged in politics, this was seldom discussed at the time as poll tax receipt fraud was the topic about voting in El Paso at the time. The fraud permeated in all levels of government. “It is notorious that the police have been handling these poll tax receipts, and there is no other way to stop it,” complained the Good Government League in 1903. The man speaking for the League added that the police “handed out [poll tax receipts] to any man, white or black, who will support” the political Ring of the time. [6]

The Good Government League was entrenched in city politics, but by 1922, the League had begun to expand towards the county. The “purity ballot” group expanded after the school board elections on April 1, 1922, by absorbing other ballot groups in the county into its organization. One of them was the 53-member Civic and Commercial Club of Ysleta, who espoused “clean elections.” [7] It was through the absorption of other political organizations that the League expanding its reach across the county. Central to its power grab was convincing voters to pay their poll taxes.

The Poll Taxes

As previously explored, the poll taxes were both a revenue source for the government and a way to control how minorities voted. Poll taxes were due by January each year. Voters who paid their poll tax were allowed to vote in the elections for that year. [8] Poll taxes in Texas were used to provide free schooling. Between 1869 and 1876, the $1 poll tax imposed on men between 21 and 60 years old was not a requirement to cast a vote until 1902. [9] Women were not allowed to vote until March 1919 in Texas. In 1902, the Texas legislature amended the Texas Constitution making the poll tax, now between $1.50 and $1.75, a requirement to vote. [10] Today, $1.50 in 1902 is about $50. As readers can observe, it was an expensive annual fee imposed on voters, and thus was used to control who voted.

“The poll tax was high enough to discourage people from voting, particularly African-Americans, Tejanos and poor whites,” Walter Buener, a University of Texas at Austin historian told The Dallas Morning News in 2018. Interesting to today’s ongoing national debate about voter fraud is that the poll tax was ostensibly “to regulate elections, prevent voter fraud and ensure a better class of voters.” [11]

Readers should note that in addition to the poll tax, the party in power at the time, the Democratic Party, kept minorities away from the polls with the requirement that only white men were allowed to vote in the Democratic Party primaries. As the party in power, the white-only voter requirement ensured that the winning candidate would be elected to office. Elected officials in El Paso were put there by white Democrat voters.

Poll taxes were outlawed by the 24th Amendment in 1964, [12] but Texas did not repeal the poll tax from the Texas Constitution until 1966 with a legislative resolution on November 8, 1966, on a vote of 659,604 to 466,119. Worse was that the Texas legislature did not formally approve the resolution ending the poll tax until 2009, [13] although the poll tax had not been used in Texas since 1966.

Prior to the repeal of the poll taxes, get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives focused on having voters pay their poll taxes by January of each year. Without a tax poll receipt, voters could not cast a vote. The poll tax allowed political operatives to predict likely election outcomes by identifying campaigns that succeeded in having their voters pay their poll taxes. It also allowed political operatives to force voters to vote for a certain candidate by either paying their poll tax for them or intimidating them into voting for a certain individual. The poll taxes also kept poor white and people of color from the polls, unless they were needed by the campaigns. For women voters, after they achieved suffrage, in addition to inherent racism, the poll tax funded schooling which forced women to support the poll tax scheme as voters.

Mexican Voters

The issue of Mexicans voting in El Paso elections was often discussed. Voters needed to be U.S. citizens after 1902. Election fraud through the poll tax was perpetuated two ways. The first was to identify voters by their poll tax receipts and lobby them or intimidate them into voting for a slate of candidates. The second was by paying the poll taxes of voters for their vote. Mexican laborers working on public works were vulnerable to the poll tax scheme. The city required poll tax receipts for the laborers to collect their wages.

For city officials, the payment of the poll tax was essential for the operations of the schools as most of the funds raised by the poll taxes went to schooling. Thus, officials had little incentive to qualify those who paid the poll tax. Most Mexican laborers had little knowledge of the basis of the poll tax receipt, only that they needed it for their wages. When someone offered to pay their poll tax for their vote, they willingly accepted it without understanding the legalities behind it. Poorer residents were also vulnerable to the scheme as they had little resources to pay the poll taxes. Poll taxes had “been bought for men without their knowledge,” was another part of the scheme. [14]

The Racism Of The Good Government League

In the early 1900’s, El Paso’s leaders depended on the Texas legislature to make changes to the city’s charter. The charter is the governing document of the city. Today, changes to the city charter can be made by a majority of voters in a city election. In 1907, city officials wanted to update the city charter. To do so, the Good Government League held a meeting at the Crawford Theater on January 21, 1907. “After discussing political graft and rottenness as it has prevailed in and ruled El Paso for years and years, and denouncing the methods of the ward heeler, the vote herder and the ballot box corruptionist,” the newly minted League proposed to change the city’s charter. [15] They sent a city official to Austin to lobby for changes in the charter.

According to the El Paso Herald’s contemporaneous report of the meeting there were about 700 El Pasoans in attendance. [16] The proposed charter envisioned modeling El Paso’s city government to the ones then used by Galveston and Houston in 1907. Opponents to the charter revision were the banks. The banks opposed the charter’s new requirement that the city’s bank accounts be bid out to the highest bidder: banks willing to pay the highest interest on the city’s money. The proposed charter also adding a franchise tax to the city’s public service corporation for the use of the city’s streets. [17]

In the 1900’s, public service corporations were the owners of services like the telephone and railways. The public service corporations were semi-public corporations providing necessary services to the city. Today’s closest example is the El Paso Water utility which is owned by the city but operates independently of it. At issue in the 1900’s was that the service companies did not pay to use city-owned streets and other city services. Readers will note that there is a franchise fee on their water bills today. This “tax” can be traced back to the 1907 city charter amendment.

One of the leaders of the proposed charter amendment was Henry Easter, who was the priest at St. Clements Church. Easter argued that the Good Government League was not “in the interest of any candidate or set of candidates” but was “in the interest of good citizenship.” The “one topic” of the League was to be “The Duty of Citizenship,” which was to “Pay your Poll Tax.” [18]

The poll tax was central to the belief that citizenship required paying it. Easter told the crowd that the poll tax was the ticket to good government but the “paltry price of $1.75, which some men seem so afraid of wasting” were not paying it. [19] In today’s dollars, the $1.75 in 1907 is about $53.82, an amount that is not “paltry” to poor people, then or today.

Felix Martinez, an El Paso politician in the 1900’s spoke to the audience about his experiences in El Paso politics. He told the audience that “every election in El Paso in the past had been bought and that every man in politics had either bought votes or connived at it in others.” Martinez added that “as long as we allow the ballot box to be polluted and corrupted for fear of losing a dollar, just that long, El Paso will remain in control of the political boss and the purchasable vote will elect” El Paso’s leaders. He continued, “quit this business of hustling for the almighty dollar,” and “take a stand for honesty and decency; pay your poll tax; fight corruption and vote for the best man for the office.” [20]

Among the issues facing El Pasoans at the time were “absolutely inefficient and incompetent” police officers. Speakers in support of the revised charter suggested that policemen be subjected to “take examinations for their positions and compel them to qualify” to be policemen. “Salaries for mayor and aldermen [be] raised” was another important political need because, according to John M. Wyatt, the American National Bank cashier, higher salaries “would induce the best men” to run for office. [21]

But the underlining racism could not be hidden from the discourse. Zack L. Cobb was the next speaker. Cobb told the crowd that El Pasoans were “tired of marching in the lock step between ignorant Mexicans” and Black El Pasoans. (see note 2) Cobb continued that El Pasoans were “tired of having their votes killed by men who cannot speak the language” and “ballots cast by men with skins too black to be seen in the darkness.” [22]

Readers should note that Cobb worked closely with Tom Lea in Lea’s campaign to oust the so-called Ring governing El Paso in the early 1900’s. [23] Tom Lea II defeated the Ring led by Henry Kelly when Lea won the mayor’s seat on February 16, 1915. By all accounts, Lea and Cobb were close allies for many years. Cobb was clearly racist as evidenced by his speech on the charter amendment.

Cobb addressed ring politics in his 1907 speech on the proposed charter amendments with, “the people of El Paso are going to arise and say to any political boss, any political ward heeler, any political trickster, any voter that would sell his vote, that the day we shall be governed by him is passed.” [24] This was same battle cry used by Lea’s campaign eight years later.

Although framed as a clean government movement the underlining racism was present in 1907, as well as in the women’s suffrage movement and in Lea’s election in 1915. Cobb explained to the audience that in 1907 the Good Government League sent 3,000 postcards to “the white men in El Paso.” Cobb added that they had to mail an additional 3,000 postcards because “it takes 6000 postal cards to reach the white men of El Paso, who can cast a vote.” Cobb clarified the underlining racism in the good government movement when he told the crowd, “you are the white men of El Paso…this is a white man’s government…this is a white man’s country.” Cobb concluded his racist rant to applause with “if you, gentlemen, do not appreciate the country that God Almighty has given you, enough to pay $1.75 to get to vote, in God’s name, leave this country and let better men take your place.” [25] The proposed charter amendment before the Texas legislature in 1907 was an attempt to wrestle political control away from Henry Kelly’s ring but its underlining racism was clearly present.

An El Paso Herald political advertisement on March 6, 1907, paid by the Citizen’s Ticket, an anti-vice organization and endorsed by the Good Government League exposes the hypocrisy of the Good Government League. Motivating voters for the March 7, 1907, Democratic primaries the advertisement explains that control of El Paso’s political establishment was now in the hands of “the citizen, the taxpayer, [and] the business man [sic]” who now control “the business of greater El Paso.” Only white men were allowed to vote in Democratic primaries at this time. Important to note is what followed next, “one has but to look at the list of poll taxes paid to readily discover that the intelligent vote controls the list by over two-thirds.” The advertisement added that “the business man [sic] is represented more liberally than ever.” [26] More important is that although the Good Government League proclaimed it was non-partisan and would not endorse any candidate because they were focused on clean elections, the political advertisement they endorsed included a list of candidates for the primary, many of which were anti-Ring candidates. [27] Readers may remember from our article that one of the accusations made against the Ring was that they used Mexicans to vote in elections. By 1922, the League was no longer hiding its support of certain politicians aligned with it when it “announced its intention to suggest names for election officials” in an upcoming election in 1922. [28]

The KKK Aligns With Good Government League

One of “the most hotly contested elections” in El Paso’s history was on February 24, 1923. It involved two political factions in the Democratic Party. As the newspaper explained it in 1923, “the Democratic nomination in El Paso is considered equivalent to election” because the Republicans were not competitive. The Democrats had taken control of the city’s politics on April 9, 1889, by “force of arms against the Republicans.” During the 1889 election, Adolph Krakauer was “declared elected” by the courts two years after the election but “never took office” because the Democrats held the office at gun point, literally. [29]

In the 1902 and 1903 political seasons the El Paso Democratic Party was divided with two factions plying for control, the Morehead and White factions. Morehead won that contest. Behind the Morehead faction was the political “boss” of El Paso, Henry Kelly. Gambling was the dividing issue between the two factions with the Morehead slate of candidates in support of it. [30]

In 1923, the two Democratic Party factions were the Dudley versus the P.E. Gardner factions. The Gardner ticket was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and had the support of the Protestant community. The Dudley candidates had the support of the Catholics and Jews. [31] There was however another issue boiling over in this latest fight between the two Democratic Party factions. The self-proclaimed “clean elections” organization sent letters to U.S. citizens of Mexican-American heritage telling them they “were not qualified to vote in the approaching school elections.” The letter, in Spanish, was dated March 26, 1922, but was sent a few days before the February 24, 1923, school board elections. The letter had been repurposed for the 1923 election. The March 26, 1922, date was corrected in red pencil to the February date. The letter to the Hispanic voters declaring “you are not qualified to vote” was sent to “numerous citizens, men and women, whose qualifications to vote” were “matters of public record and whose right to vote” was “easily” established. [32]

The Dudley factions suspected that the letters “sent to all poll tax receipt holders with names indicating Mexican or Spanish-American origin” was “an effort at intimidation of Latino voters by the KKK-backed Gardner candidates endorsed by the Good Government League.” The League defended the letters mailed to qualified voters as a “clerical error.” [33]

After the 1923 city Democratic primary, the Good Government League promised to expose “startling irregularities” in the election. Among the problems included a “woman, who is of the underworld, bought six poll tax receipts for herself and her husband under three different names.” The allegations centered around poll taxes being paid by others in return for votes. C.L. Sirmans, a Ku Klux Klan official complained about voting in precinct 26 while another unidentified Klansman testified about an “alien” voting in the school elections. [34] As readers may remember, the Protestant churches were instrumental in the rise of the KKK in El Paso. It was those same Protestant churches that backed the Good Government League’s “clean elections” efforts.

The Good Government League never articulated its desire to disfranchise Hispanic voters in El Paso because it took great pains to always argue that it supported the right of all voters properly authorized to vote in elections. Nonetheless, its KKK affiliation, its racist history as articulated by Zack Cobb, and its operations disfranchising Hispanic voters, especially in the 1922 elections proves that racism was its underlining objective. In 1922 there were two political groups vying for the open seats in the school board. S.J. Isaacks and two other candidates who were Klan members. Against Isaacks was William H. Burgess with his own two-candidate slate challenging for the same two seats. Isaacks was supported by the Good Government League. It is the Isaacks win that gave the Klan control of the El Paso school board until 1923 when the anti-Klan slate of candidates took back control.

The El Paso Chamber of Commerce And The Resurrected Good Government League

For all intents and purposes, the Good Government League went silent on its allegations of voting fraud in 1923. This was not the first lapse of the Good Government League. Although initially organized in 1907, newspaper reports in 1928 reported the organization as being reorganized 15 years later, in 1922. [35] It appears that the Good Government League arose each time it was needed only to sunset for a while until it was needed again. In an October 26, 1911, El Paso Herald report, “a new political party” was “christened ‘Good Government League’…for the purpose of making war on ‘the ring’.” The League was often resurrected as a political organization under the banner of fair elections. However, 1923 was the last time the Good Government League operated as a political entity in El Paso until 1973, when the Good Government League was resurrected again.

When Judson Williams announced he would be leaving public office, several of his “friends” went looking for his replacement. The ad-hoc group of friends included names such as Ray Pearson, Leonard Goodman and Peter de Wetter, among others, most of whom were also El Paso Chamber of Commerce members. They met informally in 1975 under the Good Government League moniker. For its part, the chamber said the League “was not the political arm” of the chamber. [36] Nonetheless, the influence of the resurrected Good Government League “extends to a vast area including banking, monopolies, and even some of the local media,” complained Adrian Baca who was seeking to run for county judge. [37]

Political power in El Paso emanates from the wealthy. The railroads and the bankers dominated the political process with political “bosses” like Henry Kelly in the early 1900’s and Jonathon Rogers in the 1990’s controlling who was elected. In the 1950’s there was the so-called bloc votes like Aurora Mata in Segundo Barrio who “could deliver you about 1,500 votes.” In Ysleta there was Alex Gonzalez who “was good for 2,000 or 3,000 votes.” [38]

From the bloc votes arose the latest iteration of the Good Government League in the 1960’s, although its members like Goodman argued that it wasn’t a thing until 1975. As the El Paso Times wrote in a 1978 article, “for the last 15 years, the so-called Good Government League has continued the tradition of the 1950’s, of trying to determine who can run for office and who can win.” The League was “an amorphous group” in 1978, “with its full membership unpublished, although those in and out of the league say ‘look at the Chamber of Commerce’ to find its composition.” [39] The names associated to the League in 1978 now included Ted Karam, William Hervey and Ray Pearson. The group was credited with getting William Hervey, Judson Williams, Peter DeWetter and Don Henderson elected. Its only failures were the elections of Bert Williams, who represented the labor unions and Ray Salazar, El Paso’s second Latino mayor. Ruling El Paso was not the goal of the resurrected Good Government League. Instead, it was protecting the local economy for its membership. W.J. McDuffy, the president of the Mutual Savings Association and a member described the League in 1978: “The Good Government League was sort of an understanding if the political structure is such that it’s a threat to the economic well-being and future growth, then the Good Government League would step in.” [40]

In 1983, the Good Government League was still putting candidates into office, according to an accusation made by Bill Squires against Jimmy Goldman during the runoff election for the westside city representative seat. George Finger, Leonard Goodman and Ray Person, all League members, were the “vested interests” that supported Goldman said Squires. [41]

The Good Government League shutdown for good in the late 1980’s only for its purpose of determining “who can run for office and who can win” rising again in the form of Woody Hunt. Behind the political power structure in El Paso since the 1900’s has been one name: Leonard Goodman. To be clear, the name represents three generations of Goodman’s; Lito, Nardo and Tripper. They have been influencing El Paso’s elections since the 1900’s to today. In an upcoming article we will explore the Goodman’s in depth and their political fingers on El Paso’s political scales. Ostensibly they sell insurance while influencing El Paso’s politics for over 100 years.

Racism continues to play a part in political movements proclaiming clean elections. Meanwhile the Goodman’s have been playing kingmakers for around a century.

Notes:

  1. A note about the Good Government League in Hidalgo County. In 1930, a Good Government League in Hidalgo County alleged voter fraud by Mexicans. On November 4, 1930, the “Democrats were completely routed…after a 22-year reign” in Hidalgo County in that day’s election. The Republican takeover of Hidalgo County “was an outstanding victory for the Good Government League,” according to the El Paso Evening Post.
  2. The original quote used a term which is now considered offensive and thus we elected to not use it.

Footnotes:

  1. “The Folly of ‘Party Nominations’ For City Offices,” El Paso Herald, January 28, 1907, 4.
  2. “Many Surprises In The Primary Voting Saturday,” El Paso Herald, July 24, 1922, 3.
  3. Brianna Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax, and when did it end? Curios Texas investigates,” The Dallas Morning News, September 25, 2018, https://www.dallasnews.com/news/curious-texas/2018/09/25/why-did-texas-have-a-poll-tax-and-when-did-it-end-curious-texas-investigates/
  4. “Good Government League Formed To Enforce Cleaner Elections,” El Paso Herald, January 19, 1907, 1.
  5. “Good Government League Is Backed By Organized Labor; Steps Taken For Clean Ballot,” El Paso Herald, March 14, 1922, 14.
  6. “They Do Just Like Pat,” El Paso Herald, March 17, 1903, 1.
  7. “Pure Ballot League Plans An Extension,” El Paso Herald, March 17, 1922, 4.
  8. “’Pay Your Poll Tax’ Banners Strung,” El Paso Herald, January 24, 1907, 7.
  9. Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax,”
  10. Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax,”
  11. Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax,”
  12. Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax,”
  13. Stone, “Why did Texas have a poll tax,”
  14. “Good Government League Is Backed By Organized Labor,” 14.
  15. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” El Paso Herald, January 22, 1907, 1.
  16. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 1.
  17. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  18. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  19. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  20. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  21. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  22. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  23. “Edwards To Try To Be Collector,” El Paso Herald, November 8, 1912, 1.
  24. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  25. “Hundreds Occupy Seats,” 5.
  26. “City Politics: El Paso Now In The Hands Of Her Citizens, What Will They Do With Her?,” El Paso Herald, March 6, 1907, 2.
  27. “City Politics: El Paso Now In The Hands Of Her Citizens,” 2.
  28. “A Victory For Clean Politics,” El Paso Herald, March 15, 1922, 11.
  29. “Hot Election Comes To End In 1 More Day,” El Paso Herald, February 23, 1923, 1.
  30. “Hot Election Comes To End,” 4.
  31. “Hot Election Comes To End In 1 More Day,” 1.
  32. “Warning Sent To Voters And Non-Voters By The Good Government League,” El Paso Herald, February 23, 1923, 4.
  33. “Warning Sent To Voters And Non-Voters,” 4.
  34. “Klan Yells ‘Stop Thief’ After Votes Are Counted; Irregularities Charged,” El Paso Herald, February 28, 1923, 8.
  35. Gerald Dailey, “Clique Lines Are Broken In County Races,” El Paso Evening Post, June 14, 1928, 1.
  36. Steve Peters, “A Courthouse View Of The City, Newcomers Keep Popping Up,” El Paso Times, February 9, 1975, 13.
  37. Tom Butler, “’Wait Awhile, Fellows,’ Adrian Baca Implores League,” El Paso Times, January 30, 1978, 9.
  38. Paul Sweeny, “The League Is Weaker, But Still A Force,” El Paso Times, December 20, 1978, 15A.
  39. Sweeny, “The League Is Weaker,” 15A.
  40. Sweeny, “The League Is Weaker,” 15A.
  41. Molly Fennell and Gary Scharrer, “West Side declares front-runner short on experience,” El Paso Times, April 21, 1983, 6B.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.