Curt Eriksmoen, Published November 02 2013
Man ran for governor of ND and California
Many people know about Houston and Stassen, but who was O’Connor?
J.F.T. O’Connor was a Grand Forks native who ran for governor of North Dakota on the Democratic ticket in 1920. His good friend President Franklin Roosevelt brought him to Washington to solve the banking crisis during the Great Depression, and when he successfully completed that task, he returned to his new home in California to run for governor in 1938.
James Francis Thaddeus “Jefty” O’Connor was born November 10, 1884, in Lanark, Ontario, the youngest of seven children, to Edward and Honora “Nora” (Lane) O’Connor. A year prior to Jefty’s birth, his father went to Grand Forks to build a saloon, and in 1885, the entire family relocated to Grand Forks. When a tornado badly damaged the saloon in 1887, the O’Connors purchased a farm south of the city.
Due to hard work and good crops, the family was able to expand their farm to 800 acres. In 1894, Edward O’Connor died, but through wise investments in real estate in Grand Forks, his family was financially secure.
J.F.T. O’Connor excelled in school and graduated from Grand Forks Central in 1903. He enrolled at the University of North Dakota and graduated in 1907. O’Connor was an accomplished debater and during his senior year won the state oratorical contest. He then entered law school at UND and graduated in 1908.
In 1908, O’Connor enrolled at Yale University, receiving a master of arts degree in 1909. While at Yale, his roommate was his good friend from Grand Forks, Henry O’Keefe. In 1909, O’Connor was asked to join the faculty at Yale and teach rhetoric.
In 1910, O’Connor returned to Grand Forks and joined Scott Rex in his law practice. Another young lawyer who arrived in Grand Forks that year was Sveinbjorn Johnson. O’Connor and Johnson shared much in common, mainly a profound interest in Democratic Party politics, so they joined together to establish the O’Connor & Johnson Law Firm. O’Connor’s former Yale roommate, Henry O’Keefe, later joined them.
When O’Connor returned to Grand Forks, one of his first obligations was to help his older brother, William V. O’Connor, get elected to the state Legislature, which was accomplished. William was also re-elected from District 6 in 1912.
To keep the seat Democratic, O’Keefe successfully ran for this position in 1914, and J.F.T. O’Connor was able to retain it 1916 and again in 1918. During the 1919 session, the Nonpartisan League branch of the Republican Party took control of the Legislature and passed most of its platform goals. The conservative Republicans then formed the Independent Voters Association to oppose the NPL.
O’Connor was also opposed to the NPL, and in 1920, announced his election bid against the incumbent governor, Lynn Frazier, an NPL leader. O’Connor won the June Democratic primary, and in September, a large number of IVA Republicans formed a commission that endorsed O’Connor.
On Election Day, Frazier defeated O’Connor by a vote of 117,118 to 112,488.
Because of the inefficiency of the state Industrial Commission, possible fraud on the part of Attorney General William Lemke in construction of his house and the growing unpopularity of the NPL leader, Arthur Townley, the IVA circulated petitions to recall three NPL state executive members: Frazier, Lemke and John N. Hagan, commissioner of agriculture and labor.
The candidates the IVA chose to replace them were Ragnvold Nestos for governor, Sveinbjorn Johnson for attorney general and Joseph Kitchen for Hagan’s position. The three IVA candidates were all elected on Oct. 28, 1921.
Since O’Connor had lost his law partner, he replaced Johnson with Charles F. Peterson, a man who would later become the law partner of Ronald Davies, the federal judge who put an end to racial segregation in public schools.
O’Connor then set his sights on the U.S. Senate. The Republican who was up for re-election in 1922 was Porter J. McCumber. However, he faced stiff opposition from the NPL, which challenged him in the primary. Their candidate was Lynn Frazier, who had ample free time to campaign now that he was no longer governor. McCumber, a conservative, sought the endorsement of the IVA, but didn’t get it because he never actively opposed the NPL.
In the June primary, Frazier defeated McCumber by a vote of 91,387 to 80,821, and O’Connor easily defeated Frank Hellstrom, the warden of the North Dakota State Penitentiary.
Once again, many IVA Republicans backed O’Connor, and McCumber’s campaign chairman, A. Guy Divet, endorsed him. O’Connor hoped McCumber would also support him, but he instead endorsed Frazier. By a vote of 101,312 to 92,464, Frazier once again defeated O’Connor in the general election.
One factor that hurt O’Connor, a Catholic, was strong opposition from the Ku Klux Klan.
O’Connor was a delegate at the 1924 Democratic National Convention held in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He was asked to give the seconding speech for presidential candidate William McAdoo.
Many delegates at the convention had Klan connections. In O’Connor’s speech, he told the Klan members their religious intolerance had no place at the convention. McAdoo was so impressed with O’Connor he offered him a partnership in his Los Angeles law firm, and O’Connor accepted.
(We will conclude the story about J.F.T. O’Connor next week)
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.