Coke Stevenson, LBJ and the mysterious Box 13

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Six days after the election, it looked like Coke Stevenson had beaten Lyndon Johnson in the 1948 Democratic Primary runoff for the U.S. Senate seat from Texas, but there was a little problem with arithmetic down in Jim Wells County.

Coke Stevenson was born in a log cabin in Mason County in 1888. His formal education consisted of seven threemonth school terms.

As a teenager, he hauled freight between Junction and Brady. A round trip took a week. Every night he read books on history and government by the campfire.

He passed the bar in 1913 and began a long career in law and politics. Kimble County appointed him district attorney in 1914. Voters elected him Kimble County Judge in 1918.

In 1928, voters elected Stevenson to the House of Representatives in Austin. Five years later he won election as Speaker. In 1938, the voters of Texas elected him Lt. Governor.

When U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas died in 1941, Governor W. Lee (Pappy) O’Daniel defeated Lyndon Johnson in the special election to fill Sheppard’s spot. When Pappy left for Washington, Coke Stevenson moved into the governor’s mansion.

Stevenson was the first Texas governor from west of the Colorado River. He won reelection twice. At the time, he was the longest-serving Texas governor and the only man to hold each of the top three elective offices in Texas.

From district attorney to governor, Coke Stevenson had never lost an election. Then, in 1948, he ran against Lyndon Johnson for the U.S. Senate. Johnson, on the ropes politically after losing the election for senate in 1941, was fighting for his political life.

In the July Democratic Primary, Stevenson got 477,077 votes to Johnson’s 405,617, but candidate George Peddy siphoned off enough votes to deny Stevenson a majority. The Democrats scheduled a runoff between Stevenson and Johnson.

The Aug. 28, 1948 Democratic Primary runoff election for U.S. Senator from Texas is shrouded in controversy. Looking back, it is clear that the results of that election held enormous long-term consequences for Gillespie and Blanco counties, the state, the nation and the world.

Coke Stevenson was extremely popular in Gillespie County — a place most people considered Johnson’s home turf. In the primary, Stevenson received 772 votes to Johnson’s 262. In the runoff, Stevenson swept the county by 4 to 1 over Johnson.

It was a horse of a different color in the runoff down in Jim Wells County where Johnson got 1,786 votes to Stevenson’s 769.

But this election had not heard the last of Jim Wells County. There was that little problem with arithmetic.

Votes trickled into the Texas Election Bureau in Austin that August. Stevenson surged ahead, but Johnson came back.

Three days after the election, with all but a few of the votes counted, Stevenson held a razor-thin lead of 349 votes. In those days, the vote count in state elections could take a week or more to finalize, leaving lots of time for political mischief.

Then, six days after the election, with Stevenson holding a slim lead, the Election Bureau in Austin got a telegram saying that Jim Wells County officials discovered some uncounted votes in Box 13. The corrected total was now 1,988 for Johnson and 770 for Stevenson.

Johnson picked up 202 votes in Jim Wells County — enough to beat Stevenson in the runoff election by 87 votes.

Stevenson protested, claiming Jim Wells County officials added the 202 votes for Johnson after the polls closed. Stevenson’s lawyers got a temporary restraining order halting Johnson’s certification as the Democratic candidate.

Then President Truman endorsed Johnson. Two days later, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black lifted the restraining order, clearing the way for Johnson’s name to be placed on the November ballot. Since Democrats always won the general election in Texas, Johnson was in.

A bitter Coke Stevenson retired to his ranch near Telegraph in Kimble County. Lyndon Johnson went on to become Senator, Majority Leader, Vice-President and President of the United States.

They say Box 13 is in a closet somewhere down in Jim Wells County.

Wonder what it would sell for on eBay?

Michael Barr is a retired teacher and principal, living in Fredericksburg. Contact him at mikbarr@aol.com.