HomeIdahoWhy Idaho’s 15th Governor is considered one of the jewel state’s “most fascinating political figures”
Why Idaho’s 15th Governor is considered one of the jewel state’s “most fascinating political figures”
October 30, 2022
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of stories about former Gem governors in eastern Idaho.
THE FALL OF IDAHO – When Charles Benjamin Ross was elected 15th Governor of Idaho in 1930, he differed from his predecessors in many respects.
Pocatello, 54, was 16,000 votes clear of his Republican opponent, John McMurray, and was the state’s first Democratic governor in more than a decade. He was also the first native Idahoan to hold this position.
An essay by Michael Malone in Idaho Governors indicates that Ross was born in Parma and was an influential farmer and rancher in the State of the Jewels. Known to friends and voters as “Cowboy Ben”, his love of agriculture has been the cornerstone of his political platform throughout his life.
“He grew up a Republican, but switched over to the populist-dominated Democratic Party on the eve of his 21st birthday in 1896. For the rest of his long life, he remained a democrat in politics… celebrating the farmer as a pillar of American society, writes Malone.
The campaign as a “Farmer’s Friend” earned Ross a seat on the Canyon County Commission in 1915. He is recognized as one of the founding fathers of the Idaho Federation of Farm Bureaus, although the written history of the Farm Bureau does not mention his name.
Noting Ross’s shift in party affiliation, Idaho State University history professor Kevin Marsh says Ross may have been influenced by the domestic political climate.
“Silver coin issues (there were talks at the national level) and were certainly very popular in Idaho. The policy they followed in 1896 was to try to increase the money supply (following the economic crisis), ”explains Marsh.
The workers movement of the 1920s, while prospering for most of the nation, was a time of depression for the domestic agricultural industry. According to USHistory.org, falling farm prices and the need to purchase expensive machinery made the 1920s a “continuous cycle of debt” for farmers.
So it makes sense to Marsh that Ross would run as a Democrat candidate for mayor in Pocatello. Marsh says voters at the time cared less about party labels and more about specific issues. Ross was a huge believer in helping farmers, and most people could have focused on this idea.
But the problem of depression in agriculture had little to do with Ross’ victory in the 1930 governorate election. The reason for Ross’ success, according to Malone, was the promise to restore the immediate mainstream party nomination system instead of using party conventions.
“The case garnered Ross thousands of independent progressive votes and made him a democratic winner, surrounded by a Republican-dominated legislature, an official family, and a delegation from Congress. Thus, he took office as an independent, lone wolf in politics, not a partisan. He will always remain that way, ”writes Malone.
He was the mayor of Pocatello for three consecutive terms when he was elected governor, and then for three terms he served as governor, the first chief executive of the State of Gems to do so.
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Ross’s personality and achievements
It is clear from information about Ross’s life that he was a polarizing character with a dynamic personality. Malone describes him as “a colorful and flamboyant activist who revived and ultimately polarized the political order in Idaho.”
Ross served as governor during the height of the Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program created extensive government programs to provide jobs and wages for struggling Americans. Ross’s greatest political achievement, according to Marsh, was the distribution of infrastructure and aid dollars at the state level.
“Under Ross’ administration, Idaho gained more per capita federal New Deal spending than any other state in the country. Or at least very close, ”he says.
However, the implementation of federal policy places an obligation on states to help pay for it. Ross raised state taxes at one point to pay for the FDR New Deal program, which Marsh said was controversial to voters and ultimately led to his death.
His critics coined the phrase “a penny for Benny” to mock him.
“The selfish governor of Idaho was not an orthodox new trader,” writes Malone. “Fully aware that he did not owe his office to the FDR’s cloaks, he freely expressed his voters’ dislike of the federal bureaucracy, even taking every New Deal job and every dollar he could get.”
Ross’s seemingly inconsistent view and occasional criticism of the New Deal meant that he was slowly losing favor with the Democratic Party. Some experts attacked him in print for “overbearing, Hitler-like attitude towards members of his own party.”
The creation of the Works Progress Administration led to many road and bridge projects in Idaho, but ultimately resulted in a “complete take over of federal” state relief efforts, reports Malone. Fully funded by state sales tax funds, the Idaho Cooperative Relief Agency was created to help fund Gem’s Social Security program.
Voters blamed Ross for federal abuses. Democrat Barzilla Clark succeeded him as governor, and Ross led the unsuccessful campaign to overthrow US Senator William Borah of Idaho.
Ross made a bid for governor in the next election in 1938, but lost to Republican CA Bottolfsen of Arco.
“Returning to his ranch in Canyon County, Ben Ross continued to hope for a political revival until his death at 69 in 1946. Such hopes were illusory, however, because neither his deteriorating health nor his numerous democratic enemies had ever allowed it. Writes Malone.
Ross apparently died of a heart attack at St. Alfonso in Boise from a heart attack, the University of Idaho Life Sketch says. A year earlier, he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and was mostly incapacitated.
Ross make-up today
Today, as voters prepare for elections in an increasingly polarized political climate, historians such as Marsh and Malone offer a noteworthy look at Idaho’s past.
Reflecting on Ross’s time in the office, Marsh says it’s hard to say if anyone else could have done a better job during this time. Despite the lack of support among voters after three terms as governor, Marsh records his time as a government official at the beginning when he was worshiped. Marsh doesn’t want to judge too much.
“Would anyone else be successful in distributing this money? I do not know. But (Ross) did it pretty well. And he did it in such a way that the Idahoans felt as if he were defending their interests. He was never fully involved in the New Deal. He always pushed me away when he thought it was inappropriate, ”says Marsh.
Malone notes that some observers like to refer to Ross as a demagogue and radical, but Malone describes him as a moderate who generally “behaved quite responsibly while in power.”
“Governor Ross has inherited the Democratic Party bitterly torn apart by factionalism. This fact, coupled with his own determination to control the government without party restraints, has contributed to a turbulent policy throughout the New Deal era in Idaho, ”writes Malone. “He came out as a moderate, practical, and successful reformer. He remains one of Idaho’s most fascinating and historic political figures. “
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