Claude Pepper v. Ed Ball – The Rivalry That Defined Florida Politics


Tracy Danese’s book is a must read for anyone interested in Florida Political History

Florida much like other southern states in the early part of the century had an inherent conflict between business and populism. Florida was the boom state of the 1920s but after the land bust, stock market crash and onset Great Depression (something we will discuss more in our Florida 500 series debuting in January) a liberal New Deal hero emerged -Claude Pepper.

Ed Ball was the inheritor of the DuPont fortune and for all intents and purposes Florida represented in the 1920s the boom state or even the last frontier in America. Thus, Florida attracted all types of people, both wealthy industrialists like the DuPont’s and get rich quick schemers/land speculators.

Pepper rose in the 1920s as well and when he was elected to the US Senate in the 1930s became among the nation’s leading liberals. In fact, during the 1940 election no liberal Senator was more in demand on the stump throughout the nation than Claude Pepper. Pepper was the quintessential New Dealer, remaining steadfastly loyal to President Roosevelt while most southerners drifted towards Senator Josiah Bailey’s (D-NC) “conservative coalition” of southern Democrats and Midwestern/Western Republicans.

At the same time Ball was pushing his influence throughout the state, particularly in the legislature. But Pepper’s liberalism was threat to Ball’s control of the state which was becoming consolidating in the 1940s. Ball was a critic of the New Deal which he felt was little different than Joseph Stalin’s Soviet economic system and railed against FDR.

Ball ran George Smathers in the 1950 Democratic Primary against Pepper and won, in perhaps the most negative campaign in the state’s history. Pepper’s advocacy of New Deal and Fair Deal programs as well as his echoing of Henry Wallace’s calls to engage the Soviet Union rather than create a Cold War left him susceptible to attack. Much like Wallace, Pepper would eventually move to the middle on foreign policy but in 1950 he was firmly anchored to the left in an era where McCarthyism was taking hold. Pepper was elected to the US House from Miami in 1962 and served until his death in 1989. To call him a legend would be an understatement. Pepper must rank as one of the great Americans of the 20th Century.

From the 1940s to the early 1960s Ball’s allies in the Pork Chop Gang enforced his economic agenda, benefiting his companies especially St Joe Paper Company which he founded in 1938 and is still the largest landowner in the panhandle. The Pork Chop Gang controlled the state, clashing with populist Governor Fuller Warren and later with Leroy Collins. These rural, conservative Democrats were a throwback to the pre-New Deal era “bourbons” that had run the state. The political philosophy of the Pork Chop gang was to maintain the interests of large landowners, keep as much state money in rural north Florida counties and to reject any attempt to weaken racial segregation.

Ball in adherence with his political allies and Florida law kept his mill strictly segregated. Ball continued to exert influence over the state into the 1960s, but reapportionment  following the Baker v. Carr decision and the 1968 Constitution greatly diluted his influence.

Tracy Danese’s book on these two men is a must read for those interested in Florida Political History. Additionally, those truly interested in Ed Ball should visit the lodge at Wakulla Springs State Park, which Ball constructed in the late 1930s. The lodge hosted several historic events including the Southern Governors conference in 1948 where the “States Rights Democratic Party” aka Dixiecrats was first conceived as a protest to Harry Truman’s embrace of Civil Rights.


3 thoughts on “Claude Pepper v. Ed Ball – The Rivalry That Defined Florida Politics

  1. I read this book years ago and highly recommend it. Pepper is a legend as you mention but Smathers wasn’t as bad as you may think he was. He was great buddies with JFK.

  2. Smathers being JFKs friend didn’t mean he wasn’t more conservative on everything from economics to race. He signed the southern manifesto and was generally a deal cutter. He and JFK were drinking buddies but he still backed LBJ at the 1960 convention. He voted as did everyone from Florida outside of Dade County reps against the 1964 Civil Rights Act but was one of only 3 southern senators to support the Voting Rights Act after Selma.
    Smathers had a playboy reputation around the capital and was a jovial character. But he was in no way shape or form anywhere near comparable to the great Claude Pepper. Not even remotely close. Smathers did get Florida some influence in both the Kennedy and Johnson White House’s though and passed away just recently (2007) in Indian Rocks Beach.

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