Harry P. Cain lost the first election he won.
As contradictory as that statement sounds, it is nothing compared to Cain himself. The “Fighting Mayor” of Tacoma, and later U.S. Senator from Washington, held political opinions that nearly everyone could hate.
Somehow former Tacoma economic development director C. Mark Smith both highlights Cain’s head-scratching political transformations and then makes sense of it all in his very readable new biography “Raising Cain: The Life and Politics of Senator Harry P. Cain” (www.raising-cain-book.com).
“In light of his later well-deserved reputation as a civil libertarian, (Cain’s supporters) wondered how a former progressive mayor could have been transformed into a dogmatic, ultra-conservative, reactionary U.S. Senator and then switch back to being a liberal again,” Smith wrote.
“Throughout Harry Cain’s life, principle always trumped politics, ultimately leading to the grudging respect and long-term friendship of some of his greatest political adversaries.”
Smith, whose family was friendly with the Cain family, said Cain was what today would be called a libertarian, a philosophy he nurtured as a student at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
“If there’s one theme that runs through his inconsistency, it’s that,” said Smith, who now lives in Richland.
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Cain defended Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Nor should it be inexplicable that he could be considered a Democrat until he first ran for U.S. Senate as a Republican or be thought of as a liberal Republican before becoming an ally of Sen. Joe McCarthy and his crusade to rid government of Communists.
“They were close friends,” Smith said of the relationship between Cain and McCarthy. “They were outsiders in their own way. They loved sports. They both loved to drink.”
Following a single, and quite disastrous, term in the U.S. Senate (Time magazine included him in a list of “The Senate’s Most Expendable”), Cain would become a national figure for criticizing the U.S. security apparatus. Cain, then on a board that helped oversee the system, publicly complained about the way it trampled on the rights of those accused of disloyalty and for how it labeled legitimate political dissent as suspect.
“America without dissenters might be secure,” he told a reporter in 1956, “But it would not be America.”
Late in life, as a commissioner in the Florida county around Miami, he supported one of the nation’s first indoor smoking bans and first gay rights ordinances.
“He was a terrible politician,” Smith said. “He was a great guy but a terrible politician.”
How terrible? With two years left in his own term, Cain considered running against fellow U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, a move designed to knock out Maggie and allow a Republican governor to appoint a Republican to fill Cain’s own Senate seat.
He voted for the Taft-Hartley labor relations law while representing a state with strong unions. He voted against an expansion of the U.S. Air Force that would greatly benefit a company in his state called Boeing. He was one of just two votes against an expansion of Social Security.
Smith quotes from a 1949 interview in which Cain said, “There is no sure way to stay in public office. Anyone may get licked, no matter what he does, so why not do what he wants to?”
But he was not without political appeal. Smith calls him a publicity hound who knew how to use the media, especially the emerging medium of radio, to boost his attempts to modernize Tacoma and its government. Cain appears frequently in the Looking Back feature in the News Tribune because the Tacoma Public Library photo archives are filled with photos of Cain hobnobbing with beauty queens and visiting celebrities, leading bond drives, and attending festivals and dances.
Cain won two terms as mayor in a commissioner system that saw him share power with four other elected officials who controlled various aspects of the government. After taking leave to join the Army during World War II, he ran for and lost a relatively close election for the U.S. Senate in 1944. He then won easily two years later in the post-war Republican sweep.
Finally, after losing to Henry “Scoop” Jackson in 1952 despite the Eisenhower landslide, he took a job with a Florida bank as a community relations officer and was later elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission.
Now, back to that first election. The 34-year-old banker had made a name for himself running a successful celebration of the state’s 50th birthday. But it wasn’t enough and he finished third in the city’s mayoral primary in 1940.
But four days before the general election, the leading candidate, G.B. Kerstetter, keeled over dead after making the opening statement of the last debate. Supporters went to court the next day and petitioned to have Cain replace him on the ballot. The court agreed and Cain won, much to the disappointment of loser Melvin Tennant.
HARRY P. CAIN TIMELINE
Jan. 10, 1906 – Harry Pulliam Cain and his twin brother George are born in Nashville, Tenn. They would move to Tacoma with their father, George, and mother, Elizabeth, in 1910.
Sept. 1925 – Cain enrolls in the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
Sept. 1929 – Cain forgos a reporting job with the New York Times to return to Tacoma after his father becomes ill. He is hired by the local office of the Bank of California.
Sept. 22, 1934 – Cain marries Marjorie Elloise Dils. A year later the couple takes a 12-month tour of Europe where they witness the rise of Adolf Hitler.
June, 1939 – Cain agrees to manage the Washington Golden Jubilee Celebration in Tacoma.
March 12, 1940 – After being placed on the ballot by court order, Cain is elected Tacoma’s youngest mayor at age 34.
March 2, 1942 – Cain is one of just two witnesses to oppose the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans at a congressional hearing in Seattle.
May 5, 1943 – Cain takes a leave of absence as mayor and is sworn in as a major in the U.S. Army. While on duty, Cain serves as a military government specialist in North Africa, Italy, England and Germany. After the defeat of Germany, Cain is responsible for the welfare of 500,000 refugees and displaced persons.
Nov. 7, 1944 – While still in Europe, Cain loses the Washington state U.S. Senate race to Democrat Warren Magnuson.
Nov. 5, 1945 – Cain is discharged from the Army at Fort Lewis.
Nov. 5, 1946 – Cain defeats incumbent U.S. Sen. Hugh Mitchell.
Nov. 29, 1949 – Despite a newly obtained reputation as a conservative and anti-Communist, Cain defends liberal Truman appointee Anna Rosenberg after she is attacked by Sen. Joe McCarthy.
Nov. 4, 1952 – Cain is defeated for re-election by Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
Aug. 18, 1955 – After being appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve on the Subversive Activities Control Board, Cain does battle with administration officials and eventually the president himself over treatment of those accused of disloyalty. The rift becomes public in an article in Collier’s Magazine.
May 22, 1957 – Cain testifies on behalf of playwright Arthur Miller during his contempt of Congress trial before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Jan. 8, 1964 – Cain travels to Okanogan, Wash., to testify on behalf of former state Rep. John Goldmark who has sued those who accused him of Communist sympathies.
April 18, 1970 – Cain resigns from his job with a Miami savings and loan to take an appointment to the Dade County Commission in Florida.
Dec. 28, 1977 – Cain makes his final trip back to Tacoma to accept an award from the Pierce County Japanese American community.
March 3, 1979 – Cain dies in his sleep in Miami.
April 15, 2011 – A stretch of Broadway between the Hotel Murano and the convention center will be dedicated as Harry Cain Promenade. It was once the heart of the city’s Japantown.
Source: “Raising Cain: The Life and Times of Senator Harry P. Cain” by C. Mark Smith (www.raising-cain-book.com).