The political world often produces very strange predicaments and can make the unexpected normal. As such, George Washington Hays, a reliable figure but otherwise unknown outside Ouachita County rose to become governor in one of the strangest turns of events in state history.
Hays was born into a farming family near Camden in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. The family faced great difficulty facing armies marching through Ouachita County in addition to the struggles of helping rebuild a shattered community after the war.
He attended schools in Camden and dedicated his early life to the soil with his family. After 1888, Hays was anxious to try new things. He worked as a store clerk for several years before serving as a school teacher for less than a year. He decided to make a try at a legal career and attended the law school at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He returned to Camden and began his own law firm in 1897. He served as Ouachita County Judge from 1901 to 1905 while also serving as a probate judge. He was later elected as a circuit judge for South-Central Arkansas in 1906 and re-elected in 1910.
In 1913, Arkansas politics took a bizarre turn. U. S. Senator Jeff Davis died on January 3. Meanwhile, popular congressman Joseph T. Robinson of Lonoke was inaugurated as governor on January 16. At that time, state legislatures still elected U. S. Senators as the Seventeenth Amendment had not yet been ratified. Impressed with Robinson’s service in Congress and leadership skills as governor, legislators overwhelmingly elected Robinson to succeed Davis in the Senate. Robinson graciously accepted the honor and resigned as governor on March 10.
A political storm filled the vacuum that resulted. Since there was no lieutenant governor, the post fell to the President of the Senate, William K. Oldham of Lonoke County. Oldham was in his second term as a state senator and generally well-regarded. However, one of his colleagues, State Sen. J. Marion Futrell of Paragould, worked to undermine Oldham. When the regular session of the state legislature ended on March 13, Futrell had his colleagues elect him at Senate president pro tempore. Twisting legal logic around, Futrell argued that Oldham’s position a state senate president had ended with the legislative session, making Futrell the acting governor. Oldham argued that he was the rightful governor, and the two fought their way to the state supreme court. On March 24, the court stated that Futrell was the rightful governor.
To avoid further chaos, legislators ordered a special election to fill the remainder of Robinson’s term. At this point, Hays jumped onto the scene, announcing his candidacy. In the Democratic Primary on June 21, he faced two opponents, popular history and political science professor Charles Brough of the University of Arkansas and former congressman Steven Brundidge of Searcy. Brundidge had served six terms in Congress before stepping down for a failed run for governor in 1908. Though Brough’s colorful antics attracted attention, the race soon came to be a close contest between Hays and Brundidge.
The primary results showed an extraordinarily close finish statewide, and the results came down to Phillips County. After several days of delays, the Phillips County results put Hays over the top. Brundidge and his allies charged Hays with election fraud. However, the State Democratic Central Committee and a state court hearing found no evidence and awarded the nomination to Hays on July 11.
This left Hays just three weeks before the regular special election to make his case to the people and unite the party. As it turned out, Hays won easily, taking the July 23 contest with 64% of the vote against Republican, Progressive, and Socialist candidates.
Arkansas had four governors in the just over six months. Now it was up to Hays to guide Arkansas through the tumultuous age.