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Meyers, Victor A. (1897-1991)

HistoryLink.org Essay 8392 : Printer-Friendly Format

Victor Aloysius Meyers, a popular Depression-era Seattle bandleader, got into politics as a publicity stunt, but became one of the most enduring pols the state has ever known. After an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Seattle in 1932, Meyers, a Democrat, ran later that year for Lieutenant Governor and won. He was re-elected five times and finally defeated in 1952. He ran successfully for Secretary of State in 1956, was re-elected in 1960, and defeated in 1964. Although his tenure in office was often remembered fondly for his early publicity-grabbing stunts, one-line jokes, "Vic" Meyers took the work of his state offices very seriously, standing up for workers rights, pensions, and against racist laws.

 A Career in Music 

He was born on September 7, 1897, in Little Falls, Minnesota, the 15th of 16 children. His mother, a pianist, inspired his pursuit of music. He played several instruments, specializing in drums. His father, a longtime Morrison County Treasurer, gave him a model for a life of elected public service. (Deviney)

His family moved to Oregon, and Victor embarked on a fast-rising musical career, playing drums professionally at a Seaside, Oregon, resort while still a teenager. He went on to tour the country with his own 10-piece band and was contracted by Brunswick Records.

The Meyers Band played at Seattle's Trianon at 3rd Avenue and Wall Street; did coast-wide radio broadcasts, and landed a long-term engagement in the Rose Room in Seattle's posh Butler Hotel at 114 James Street. He later built his own Club Victor in a former garage on 4th Avenue in the Denny Regrade.

He often told the story of auditioning a jug-eared, young tenor with a peculiar singing style that prompted Meyers to counsel the singer to seek another profession. The aspiring songster turned out to be none other than the later-to-be-one-of-the-most-acclaimed entertainers of a generation, Harry Lillis (Bing) Crosby.

A Race for Mayor on a Lark

Fearing a dull mayor's race in 1932, Seattle Times assistant city editor Doug Welch (1907-1968) and some of his newsroom cohorts decided Meyers would add a humorous diversion. They promised the bandleader plenty of frontpage coverage if he'd run.

A field of 10 opponents included Robert Harlin, the incumbent appointed when Frank Edwards had been recalled; and John Dore (1881-1938), a defense lawyer who was a former crime reporter. With the help of the wags at the Times, Meyers cooked up gags, publicity stunts, and comically staged photos, and proposed outrageous policies, all of which never failed to make the front page and became the legendary "Clown Prince of Politics" of Seattle political lore.

His most famous stunt was when the candidates were invited to speak three days before the primary at a Shrine Club luncheon at the Olympic Hotel, Meyers arrived in robes in the style of Mahatma Gandhi, wearing a top hat and leading a rented goat. There were stories in Variety and Time magazine; and famous band leader Guy Lombardo, wrote "Here's to Seattle and its next mayor, Vic Meyers."

"I won't tell any lies about my opponent," Meyers said, "if he won't tell the truth about me."

He proposed putting hostesses on the city's streetcars and appointing a City Gigolo. To prove he was against waste, he suggested putting flower boxes around the fire hydrants so as not to waste any water that dripped out.

Meyers was eliminated in the February primary, garnering 4,798 votes. Dore was elected after a run-off with Harlin.

A State-wide Race and a Win

After the mayoral race, Meyers decided he liked politics, and tried to talk Welch and the Times into sponsoring him for a run for governor later that year. When they declined, he drove to Olympia to file. According to popular lore, when he learned the filing fee was $60, he said, "That's too much -- what do you have for $20?" The clerk said, "You could file for lieutenant governor for $12." Meyers reportedly replied, "I can't spell it, but I'll take it." 

In a crowded field of 12 candidates to succeed Republican John A. Gellately, Meyers took the state campaign only slightly more seriously. Sometimes campaigning by playing a saxophone instead of giving a speech, he donned the Gandhi costume when needed, and won the primary on name recognition and his ability to distinguish himself from the pack. The State Democrats were not amused and tried to persuade him to drop out and let a more serious Democrat take his place. He refused, saying, "To the victor go the spoils and I'm Victor." He won in the 1932 Roosevelt landslide along with conservative Eastern Washington Democrat, Clarence Martin (1887-1955).  (Deviney)

Serious Senate Parliamentarian

Although the Vic Meyers Orchestra played for the Inaugural Ball, he and Martin clashed. Taking the Lt. Governor's legal role as presiding officer of Senate seriously, Meyers studied Robert's Rules of Order, became proficient in them and ran the Senate with fair, but strong hand. He sometimes defied Martin, and surprised his critics, who had always dismissed him as a buffoon. 

The Depression had brought economic pressures, and Meyers, who identified with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, championed state government interventions, social remedies, and economic reforms mirroring the federal programs of the New Deal. The left was often thwarted by more conservative Democrats from Eastern Washington, including Governor Martin who opposed such measures.

"Vic was a master of the rules, and very serious about it, but he was considered fair by everyone." said Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) who was later to be elected governor. "His expertise was very helpful to the leadership." The liberal Seattleite served as Majority Leader of the Senate during much of Meyers's tenure, and led many of the battles against Martin and conservatives in both parties.

Stepping away from the traditionally passive role of Lieutenant Governor, Meyers intervened between Martin and such activists as the Unemployed Citizens' League (UCL) a controversial left-wing group who organized relief measures and provided an umbrella for reformers, liberals, trade unionists, communists, and other radicals. When the UCL marched to the capital to confront Governor Martin, Meyers opened his home to the marchers. He successfully led the fight to defeat an anti-miscegenation bill proposed by Renton Senator Earl Maxwell. 

"If I'm a Communist, then I'm the only one who was ever named Aloysius," he retorted to an opponent accused him of being a far-left liberal. (Duncan)

In 1938, the pressure was on Martin to call a special session to deal with state pensions; but he said he wouldn't do anything until the 1939 regular session. Meyers was sympathetic to the pensioners' cause, but couldn't legally call a special session unless the governor was out of state. While Martin was in Washington D.C., to argue for the Olympic National Park, state pension proponents saw their chance. The problem was: Meyers was out of the state, as well.

In a political farce that fascinated and amused the entire nation, the left-wing legislators tried frantically to find Meyers, who was in California on a fishing trip. They finally contacted him. He caught a train as far as Portland; got a ride from the Portland police to Vancouver; commandeered a State Patrol car, to Seattle. He needed to be in Olympia, so the Secretary of State could attest his proclamation, so he chartered a plane but arrived after the office had closed for the day. He went back to Seattle and announced over KOL that he intended to call a special session. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a banner headliner: RADIO SEARCH FOR VIC MEYERS.

Thus alerted, the governor got wind of all this and hopped a flight as far as Chicago. As there were no direct flights to Olympia, he chartered a plane to Spokane. At 8 a.m. next morning, Meyers was at Secretary of State Bella Reeves' office demanding an official stamp be affixed to his proclamation. Reeves refused -- she'd gotten word that Martin had landed in Spokane just 10 minutes earlier, and Meyers was no longer the acting governor. (Deviney)

While serving as Lieutenant Governor, Meyers ran for Seattle mayor -- an office considered in those days more powerful than the governor's -- twice more; but election to that position eluded him. He lost to Arthur B. Langlie in 1938, and to William F. Devin (1898-1982) in 1946. Considered flamboyant and erratic, he had problems gaining support from the progressives he was supposedly allied with.  

In 1952, after 20 years and five terms, Meyers was defeated in an Eisenhower landslide not unlike the 1932 Roosevelt landslide that had swept him into office.

Another Successful Run for Office

Declaring himself as "former bandmaster, former lieutenant governor and formerly unemployed," Meyers filed for secretary of state, in 1956, telling voters, "The last time I talked to you people, I asked you to help old Vic out, and you did; now I'm asking you to help old Vic back in." He won easily.

Meyers's hands-off style as Secretary of State drew some criticism. His were mostly ceremonial duties; he left the day-to-day operations of elections to be run by his deputies. He considered himself an unofficial  "ambassador of goodwill," traveling the state in a State-owned Cadillac. (Duncan)

In 1963, however, his office was brought into sharp focus in of one of the state's most enduring political mysteries. In what was known as "The Great Petition Robbery," petitions with 82,955 signatures supporting an anti-gambling referendum were stolen from Meyers's office by two mysterious men dubbed by the press "Shorty," and "Fiddleface." The referendum would have rejected an act passed by the 1963 Legislature permitting pinball games, punchboards, card games, and bingo under license by local authority.

The scandal rocked the state, and proved to be Meyers's political undoing, although if he knew that, he never let on. Speaking at an Olympia luncheon the day after the theft was discovered, he stood up and began, "I hate to be a name-dropper, but ..."

The embarrassed Meyers quickly certified the referendum for the November 1964 ballot, arguing that it would have qualified since the abundance of  signatures obtained were obviously in excess of the number required by state law.

The thieves were never caught. And the Great Petition Robbery was, in the end, for naught. Voters rejected Referendum 34 by a margin of more than 10 percent.   

Meyers ran for re-election on the same ballot, and he lost too. He was ousted by a young reformer, A. Ludlow "Lud" Kramer (1932-2004). who campaigned alongside Bellevue Senator Dan Evans (b. 1925), a fellow moderate Republican whose challenge to two-term governor Albert D. Rosellini also proved successful.

"The Pagliacci of Politics" retired to his home near Kent. He died on May 28, 1991.

Sources:
Patrick Diviney, Lieutenant Governor Victor A. Meyers: Pagliacci of Politics or Compassionate Activist, thesis presented to the faculty of Pacific Lutheran University for the degree Master of Arts in social sciences, 1996; Murray C. Morgan, "Vic Meyers Enters Politics," Tacoma Public Library website accessed November 29, 2007 (http://www2.tpl.lib.wa.us/v2/nwroom/morgan/Meyers.htm); Don Duncan, "Vic Meyers' Main Legacy Is Laughter -- Quick Wit, Wild Stunts Marked His Long Career," The Seattle Times, May 29, 1991 (www.seattletimes.com); Michael Hood interview of Governor Albert D. Rosellini, October 25, 2006; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, " Kramer, A. Ludlow 'Lud' (1932-2004)" (by Kit Oldham), "Liberal-left Washington Commonwealth Federation is founded on June 8, 1935" (by David Wilma), and "'Shorty' and 'Fiddleface' steal anti-gambling petitions from Washington Secretary of State Victor Meyers' office on June 21, 1963" (by Phil Dougherty) http://www.historylink.org (accessed November 29, 2007).


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Vic Meyers (1897-1991)
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