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The Election Case of Truman H. Newberry of Michigan (1922)

Photo of Senator Truman Newberry
Truman Newberry

Issues
Campaign financing; recount of ballots.

Chronology
Petition received: Sep. 17, 1918
Referred to committee: Sep. 17, 1918
Committee report: Sep. 29, 1921
Senate vote: Jan. 12, 1922

Result: Newberry retained seat, but later resigned; not expelled.


Background
A growing national concern about the need to regulate the use of money in political campaigns mushroomed as a result of the 1918 senatorial contest in Michigan. Each of the candidates—Truman H. Newberry, the Republican industrialist, and Henry Ford, the Democratic automobile magnate—was a person of enormous wealth. Henry Ford, asked to run by President Woodrow Wilson, entered both the Republican and Democratic primaries. Wanting to ensure that Ford, with his wider name recognition, did not win both primaries, the Newberry organization plunged into the Republican primary contest with vigorous rhetoric and an unrestrained budget that was used especially to buy advertising and other publicity. Newberry's campaign charged Ford with pacifism, anti-Semitism, and extreme efforts to keep his son, Edsel, from military service. As a result, in the August 1918 primary Newberry gained the Republican nomination, while Ford won the Democratic contest. In the general election campaign, Henry Ford's prestige failed to offset the impact of the Newberry attack, and on November 5, 1918, Truman Newberry won the Michigan seat.

A groundswell of protest erupted from the many citizens offended by the Newberry campaign's blatant spending practices, both in the August primary and the November general election. Newspapers called for Newberry's removal, and Republican associates advised him to resign. Choosing to brush aside these warnings, Newberry took the oath of office on May 19, 1919, at the beginning of the Sixty-sixth Congress, in which Republicans had a narrow two-vote majority.

Statement of the Case
Truman Newberry's Senate problems had begun even before the Michigan general election, when, on September 17, 1918, a resolution was introduced in the Senate calling for an investigation into the Michigan primary. The complaint was based on a report filed by Newberry's campaign committee stating that it had received and spent more than $175,000 on the election, far in excess of the $3,750 limit imposed by Michigan law and the Federal Corrupt Practices Act on the amount of his own money a Senate candidate could spend on his campaign. Then, on January 6, 1919, Henry Ford filed a petition with the Senate, formally contesting the election and asking for a recount. The Senate referred the September resolution and Ford's petition to the Committee on Privileges and Elections at the time each was received.

On the day after Newberry assumed his seat, Henry Ford filed a second petition. He again contested the election and charged Newberry with making unlawful expenditures and intimidating voters. The Senate referred the complaint to the Committee on Privileges and Elections and then, on December 3, 1919, adopted a resolution officially calling for an investigation into the election.

In the meantime, Newberry's problems acquired a new dimension when he and 134 campaign associates were indicted on November 29, 1919, and charged with violations of federal and state campaign laws. Despite Newberry's assertions that he knew nothing of illegal contributions and disbursements, a massive array of evidence, gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice with the help of agents financed by Henry Ford, indicated otherwise. Found guilty on March 20, 1920, Newberry appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction by a 5-to-4 ruling on May 2, 1921. The justices narrowly struck down as unconstitutional the power of a federal statute to control state primaries, but they unanimously agreed that the judge in the case had given erroneous instructions to the jury. The favorable ruling concluded Newberry's difficulties in criminal court but not in the Senate.

Response of the Senate
On September 29, 1921, the Committee on Privileges and Elections reported that it had carried out a recount of the general election ballots and determined that Truman H. Newberry had been legally elected senator. A majority of the committee also concluded that the charges of fraud and voter intimidation were unfounded. After reviewing the testimony in the court case regarding Newberry's campaign expenditures, the majority found that no evidence sustained "the charge of improper use of money at the primary or the general election." During the primary campaign, Newberry had been away from Michigan, serving as a naval officer in New York City. According to the committee majority, the large amounts spent on Newberry's behalf were not his own funds but were contributed by his relatives and friends without his solicitation or knowledge. Although condemning the expenditure of so much money—totalling at least $195,000—the majority noted that "there was no concealment whatever . . . and it was spent entirely for legal and proper purposes." The report therefore exonerated Newberry and recommended that the Senate declare him a duly elected senator.

A minority report signed by three Democrats contended, however, that Newberry had in fact known about the excessive expenditures and that much of the money had been transferred from his bank accounts. As a result, the minority concluded that, because of the illegal actions of the campaign, the Senate should declare Newberry not elected.

The Senate conducted an extensive debate on the matter in November and December 1921 and January 1922. Newberry and his defenders told the Senate that he regretted the large expenditures but had known nothing about them and therefore had not testified either at the trial or before the Senate committee. His opponents, however, strongly believed that the vast expenditures could not have occurred without his knowledge. Progressive Senator George W. Norris (Republican-NE), for example, took a satirical approach, announcing that "they had a public sale up in Michigan [for] a seat in the United States Senate." A vote to clear Newberry, he claimed, would lead to a Senate made up primarily of wealthy men, which, he added sarcastically, would "insure a high-class membership."

On January 12, 1922, the Senate adopted the majority view. It "severely condemned" Newberry's excessive expenditures as "harmful to the honor and dignity of the Senate" but voted, 46 to 41, that he was a duly elected senator from Michigan. The vote divided generally along party lines, with independent and radical Republicans joining Democrats against Newberry while regular Republicans supported him. This vote concluded the formal Senate action in the Newberry-Ford contest.

Conclusion
Even after the January 1922 Senate vote, Henry Ford, single-minded when angered, appeared unwilling to accept the decision as final. Faced with this threat of a possible renewed challenge from Ford, and also with the results of the November election, which sharply reduced the number of regular Republicans likely to support him if the question came to another Senate vote, Newberry resigned his Senate seat on November 18, 1922. He returned to his business in Michigan, where he lived until his death in 1945.

The case of Truman Newberry focused national attention on the peculiar power of the monied candidate. Although Henry Ford did not win the election, he, too, had enjoyed the special political benefits of his wealth. When he felt personally insulted by the Newberry campaign, Ford was able to marshal his vast resources to pursue his grievance in the courts. Although in some ways the contest was an intensely personal one between two bitter antagonists, in a larger sense, Ford could not have succeeded in his vendetta without the powerful public spirit of a lingering progressivism that sought to rid political campaigns of financial corruption. Progressive-inspired attempts to control federal campaign expenditures were severely weakened by the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Newberry v. United States. In response, Congress in 1925 passed a new Federal Corrupt Practices Act designed to correct some of the defects of earlier legislation. Despite these endeavors, financial irregularities in congressional campaigns continued to occur throughout the next several decades.


Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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