By Jerry Harrington
Baird Cummins and Harold E. Hughes were Iowa governors half a century apart: Cummins in the 20th century’s first decade and Hughes in the 1960s, but the had much in common.
Both were amazingly charismatic politicians, claiming the enthusiastic allegiance of legions of followers across the Hawkeye State. Both were elected to three terms as governor. Both left their governorships for U.S. Senate seats in Washington, D.C., and, as senators, briefly sought their party’s presidential nomination. And, most importantly, both were “progressive” governors — aggressively using the tools of Iowa government to better serve Iowans.
There was, however, one difference between the two men. Cummins was a Republican and Hughes was a Democrat.
Despite this difference in party labels, both Cummins and Hughes — allied with supporters in the state legislature and throughout Iowa — were leaders who left the state government different than the one they inherited. This leadership that ignited change makes both Cummins and Hughes governors of significant influence in Iowa History.
Albert B. Cummins: The Progressive Era’s Iowa Governor
Albert Baird Cummins became Iowa’s governor in 1902 as the leader of the Progressive wing of the Republican Party, a political faction that stood for a more open political system and government reforms to curb fraudulent business practices.
A charismatic speaker who appealed to the masses, Cummins pushed reforms through four sessions of the Iowa legislature during the period known as the Progressive Age. This was part of a larger national wave in the early 20th century, led by such politicians as President Theodore Roosevelt, aimed at better government and business regulation to meet the needs of an industrial society in an age of trusts and monopolies.
Cummins and his allies were opposed by the “Standpatter” wing of the Iowa GOP, conservatives who opposed these reforms and the expanded government accompanying these efforts. The result was an ongoing civil war within the Iowa Republican party in the first decade of the 20th century. On many fronts, the governor and his allies won the war as Cummins’ terms ended.
Harold Hughes: Activist Governor in the Turbulent 1960s
For many, Harold Hughes was a force of nature — a leader the state had never before seen and probably never would again.
A native of Ida Grove in rural western Iowa, Hughes was a handsome man with a deep, resonant voice that reverberated throughout every room in which he spoke. With a blunt, direct style — in both word and deed — he was among the most charismatic Iowa politicians of the 20th century. While Hughes was not a political party mechanic, his leadership expanded the Iowa Democratic Party to make it more competitive with Republicans, removing it from its traditional second-class status in the Hawkeye State. His three terms as governor saw remarkable changes in state government, advancing Iowa into modern times.
His greatest legacy, however, is probably his personal story. Hughes was an alcoholic — in his own words “a drunk.” As a young man, a college dropout and a truck driver, Hughes suffered from alcoholism that nearly destroyed his family, leading him to deep despair. On the brink of a suicide attempt, Hughes had a born-again Christian experience that radically changed him. He used this transformation to overcome his alcoholism and pick up the pieces of his life. Hughes was public about his alcoholism throughout his political career, merely calling himself a reformed alcoholic, not a cured one. Among Iowans, it was this honesty and directness, combined with his personal integrity and charisma, which made Hughes one of the most popular vote-getters in Iowa history.