Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Doomed Political Career Creates Second Chance

George W. Donahey (third from left) and William Jennings Bryan (second from left)
stand with unnamed dignitaries at Malvern in 1910.

As voters finish at the polls, it is fitting to reflect on the end of a political career of a once powerful politician and the start of his new legacy in Arkansas. The end began in 1912 for Gov. George W. Donaghey after he decided to run for a third term. It turned out to be a disastrous decision for him.

Born in Texas, Donaghey came to Arkansas in the 1880s and settled in Conway. He became involved in Conway’s civic life and in the prohibition movement in Faulkner County. In 1908, he entered statewide politics by becoming a candidate for governor. He won his election by pledging to finish the new capitol building, a project that had languished for over a decade due to mismanagement. 

According to his memoirs, Donaghey had misgivings about running for a third term. His wife, Louvenia, pleaded with him not to run again. “You don’t look so well. They’re working you too hard. Besides, how can you be elected three times?” she said. 

Despite her urgings, Donaghey decided to run anyway.  His said he wanted to strike a blow against the “whiskey ring,” a group of alcohol producers who were dedicated to thwarting any attempt to restrict the free sale of alcohol. 

Donaghey’s opponent in the Democratic primary was Joseph T. Robinson, a U.S. Congressman from Lonoke County.  Robinson was a powerful speaker and could easily defeat Donaghey in debates.   

Donaghey’s campaign seemed doomed nearly from the beginning. While campaigning in Lawrence County on Jan. 21, Donaghey ended up trying to cross the Black River, which had swollen from heavy rains. The small boat capsized after hitting ice and springing a leak. Luckily, everyone on the boat reached the edge of the river before hypothermia took hold. “It was an exciting experience,” Donaghey recalled later, “and one that I wouldn’t care to repeat.” He returned to his hotel and changed clothes, then headed back out on the campaign trail.

Later, while still on the campaign trail, Donaghey learned his house in Conway, which he had been renting to a traveling salesman, had caught fire.  Donaghey had underinsured his $10,000 house by half. As he reflected over his sudden misfortune he muttered to himself, “Bad luck’s after you, George Donaghey.” 

On top of that, Robinson outmaneuvered Donaghey at every turn. When Donaghey tried to nickname himself “Boxcar Donaghey” – saying he carried all of his accomplishments with him like a boxcar – Robinson fired back that boxcars are generally empty. The capitol building remained unfinished, too, which made Donaghey look like he wasn’t fulfilling his previous campaign promises.

At Rison, Donaghey finished his last speech before Election Day. Afterward, he told his wife he believed he was going to lose the election. His prediction came true. 

On March 27, 1912, Robinson crushed Donaghey in the primary election with 90,520 votes for Robinson and 46,701 votes for Donaghey. Donaghey only carried Faulkner County, his home county, by 87 votes. 

After the election, Donaghey oversaw the completion of the Capitol building and spent the rest of his life on building projects and philanthropy. In addition to numerous buildings still standing statewide today, Donaghey contributed to the development of what later became the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Around the time that F. Scott Fitzgerald was opining that “There are no second acts in American lives,” Donaghey was proving him wrong. His legacy as a builder now looms much larger than his political legacy.

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