The Ogdensburg Journal-Republican, forced to eat crow after rejecting Rhoda Graves’ claims of Warren Thayer’s corruption, applied twisted logic to justify their stance and the senator’s behavior. They opened with: “Senator Thayer has retired…. It was found that he was on the payroll of a utility corporation and, we feel, working against the interests of the average resident of this district who has been forced to pay unjust rates.” The words “we feel” simply did not apply. There was no question he had been putting the financial screws to his voters while protecting a power company and lining his own pockets.
And then came the kicker, a painful contortion of words—possibly the weakest excuse they could have drummed up—to justify years of unethical, anti-constituent acts by the man they supported. “Senator Thayer was at least consistent. During his entire political life, he has been a close ally of the power groups, a fact that he has never denied. Head of a power company, he was elected to the Assembly and then the Senate, and could not have been expected to change his views.” In any day and age, no matter what your politics are, that’s a sign of having drunk the Kool-Aid.
But they weren’t finished. The newspaper, Thayer’s most vociferous advocate during the campaign against Mrs. Graves, absolved themselves of all responsibility and placed it on the voters. “The electors of the 34th district have themselves to blame for putting in office a friend of the power barons. Now that he is out, the same error should be avoided.”
When asked about the Senate declaring Thayer guilty in absentia, Rhoda said, “I feel the present disclosures of Mr. Thayer’s record fully justify my campaign.” As to the insistence during the campaign that Thayer was a valuable man and should remain in office, she said with a wink, “Yes, he was a ‘valuable’ man, all right.”
To replace Thayer, party leaders began seeking a candidate (anyone except Mrs. Graves would do nicely) for the anticipated special election, but the governor declined to order one, instead allowing the primary process to play out. This benefited Rhoda, who had lost to Thayer by a narrow margin and had a clean record. With their collective tail between their legs in humiliation, party leaders failed to—or dared not—put forward an alternative to the very popular Graves. Said the Advance-News of Ogdensburg, “Disagreeable as the pill may be to many of the old-guard Republicans, they will have to take former Assemblywoman Rhoda Fox Graves as their unopposed candidate for the state Senate…. It may be hard medicine for us, but is there anything to do but swallow it?”
In November 1934, her Democratic opponent, John O’Connor of Ogdensburg, advertised heavily in local newspapers, emphasizing in large print that “Mrs. Graves Voted for the Jefferson County Bridge” rather than for one in St. Lawrence County. Headline stories predicted that the Democrats’ sweep to power nationally would be reflected locally, but in the state Senate race, it only proved true in the city of Ogdensburg, where O’Connor topped her by almost three to one. District-wide, she collected 56 percent of the vote, making Rhoda Graves the first female state senator in New York’s history.
In her new position, she hit the ground running, proposing a bill within days of taking office, as photographs of Rhoda at her desk were featured in newspapers across New York and elsewhere. In late February, at a statewide meeting of Republican women, she and newly elected Assemblywoman Jane Todd were placed in charge of the Legislative Advisory Committee. Besides women’s issues, she supported the same causes that defined her entire career: milk pricing, farming, hydropower, and maintaining the family unit.
Up for reelection in late 1936, she faced Democratic opponent Edward Lynch of Ogdensburg, who received a headline in the Ogdensburg Journal for carrying the city by 428 votes—but overall, Rhoda defeated him by more than 7,000 votes and a nearly two-to-one margin.
In 1937, she voiced strong opposition to a recent milk agreement, which she said was a dealer bill and entirely detrimental to farmers. Late in the year, she visited Watertown on the thirteenth day of a 19-county strike by the Dairy Farmers Union in protest against the law. Graves, who had opposed the legislation, said, “What chance for a square deal is there when big-milk interests have and can build up a powerful block in the legislature to do their bidding?… I warned that price fixing would be slipped from the hands of the state to hands of the dealers by this law, and it was.” She was greeted warmly and cheered loudly by the farmers, who numbered more than 3,000. When milk-distributor representatives attempted to rebut her claims, they were booed and shouted down.
While other legislators opposed that bill in private, Rhoda expressed her disapproval loudly and publicly at every opportunity. In mid-March 1938, she characterized the state GOP chairman, William S. Murray, as anti-dairy, and urged him to resign for refusing her numerous requests to help the farmers. “What we need is a fearless state chairman who is responsible to the heartbeats of the people. Therefore, I hereby request your resignation to make way for the right type of leader.”
For many party bigwigs beholden to corporate interests in one way or another, it was the last straw (farm pun intended). The time had arrived to cleanse themselves of the far-too-independent Mrs. Graves, which was music to the ears of her detractors up north.
She had been grudgingly accepted by St. Lawrence County party leaders (forced down their throats was more like it) after winning four years earlier—and “grudgingly” was a fitting term, for there remained a grudge to be settled. Bitterness against Graves boiled over when she sought a third term in fall 1938. Her own party rebelled by seeking a candidate to take her down in the primary, and in the process banish her once and for all to the political hinterlands.
The Ogdensburg media, which remained critical of her ongoing performance in the Senate, was more than happy to join the fray in support of the Snell machine (as it was known, for he remained the top lawmaker among northern Republicans). The Republican-Journal began weighing in heavily in late April with brutal comments about what, from their perspective, was an abysmal performance by Rhoda during four years in the Senate. “Every single person in these Northern counties who ever has to go to Albany on state, county, or local business knows that Mrs. Graves is, and always has been, a complete zero in the State Senate. She has no shred of influence, she is distinctly unpopular with her fellow legislators, and is completely ignored…. It is regrettable that these two counties must go on year after year without—to all effects—any representation in the Senate.”
Canton’s Commercial Advertiser, while remaining uncommitted to any candidate, chimed in with a bit of editorial humor about years of blatant media assaults that continued, despite proving to be mostly inconsequential. “Senator Rhoda Fox Graves will be a candidate for reelection. Put that in your pipe and smoke. You may not like it, but you can always lump it in that case. The Senator doesn’t care. She has been pretty successful in going it alone when it comes to a good, hot political fight.”
The Republican-Journal continued attacking everything that might help Graves win reelection. In July they criticized her biggest supporter, “the Watertown Times, for years unsuccessfully seeking overthrow of the Snell-Ingram Republican leadership.” (Harry Ingram was longtime chair of the St. Lawrence County Committee—and much to his dismay, Rhoda was for many years the vice-chairman.)
In July, Franklin County GOP leaders took action against Rhoda, seeking a return to the gentlemen’s agreement of years earlier. Party officials asked St. Lawrence County to support Assemblyman John Black of Tupper Lake, who was opposing her for the nomination. In return, Franklin County pledged their full support behind Allen Newell, St. Lawrence County’s candidate for the Assembly.
The Watertown Times, unabashed supporters of Rhoda, editorialized on the effort of “political manipulators to purge Mrs. Graves … whose independence and open defiance of the machine has incurred for her the bitter enmity of the professional politicians…. They have set out to get rid of Mrs. Graves if they can…. The only ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ these gentlemen care anything about is one that will relegate Senator Graves to private life.”
Denying none of it, the Ogdensburg Advance-News opined, “Republican ranks are cleaved in this battle. The St. Lawrence County organization, zealous to bring about the political death of Mrs. Graves, has openly endorsed candidate Black…. The Potsdam directorate will be content if it is successful in breaking the Graves stranglehold on the Senate seat.”
In the face of it all, Rhoda did what Rhoda usually did: defied convention and won by a huge margin, capturing nearly 73 percent of the vote, the highest yet of her 11 political campaigns. The county chair, Ingram, unable to defeat Graves, announced his resignation in favor of a replacement from Rhoda’s ranks. Her resounding victory was described in stark terms by the Ogdensburg Advance-News.
“It seems that even political chickens come home to roost…. Mr. Ingram’s decision to toss in the sponge is seen by studious observers of the Republican situation as definite ‘abdication’ of the so-called Potsdam directorate. Having again failed to unseat Senator Rhoda Fox Graves, the committee is viewed as admitting defeat and taking to the political graveyard. From Tuesday’s primary battle, Mrs. Graves emerged without even the hint of a scar, and is now regarded as the most powerful individual in county Republican circles. She made the Potsdam crowd say ‘quits,’ and has attracted to her banner any number of ‘on the fence’ Republicans.”
Flush with victory thanks to a mutual loyalty between Rhoda and her followers, she returned to business as usual in Albany, albeit with more influence and respect after bringing such powerful opponents to their knees. After toiling on behalf of farmers, deaf persons, milk producers, and cheesemakers, she won reelection again in November 1940, topping the Democratic challenger by a two-to-one count. A month later, she was featured in The Woman Republican magazine as one of three “Victorious Republican Women,” as the article was titled.
Attacks on her character and political abilities continued to surface from vanquished Republicans back in her home district, especially when she didn’t adhere to official party policy—which was the case whenever she felt doing so would harm her constituents. As the sniping continued and challengers to her position were sought, she just kept winning, doing so in 1942, 1944, and 1946.
She was reportedly preparing early in 1948 for the fall election, but failing health in recent years convinced her it was time to retire at the age of 71. She had held an Assembly position for eight years and a Senate seat for fourteen, including ten as chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee, a very impressive record.
But after all the hard-fought battles that dismantled one of the most powerful political machines in the state, she wasn’t about to just give it all up. When longtime party opponents gleefully trotted out Potsdam businessman Harry Bullard as the next future senator from the district, Rhoda, always full of surprises when it came to politics, revealed another one while officially announcing her retirement: Paul Graves, her son, would seek the nomination to succeed his mother. And wouldn’t you know it … he won, and served until 1953, when he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court for a 14-year term.
Less than two years after retiring from politics, Rhoda was vacationing in Florida when she became seriously ill with a heart condition. She died several days later at the age of 72, with her husband and two sons at her bedside.
Honors and plaudits poured in from countless admirers and colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and from many women’s groups. Resolutions noting her death were prepared in both houses of the legislature, and the Senate adjourned early in her memory. Large contingents from both houses, led by the lieutenant governor, traveled north for the funeral in Gouverneur, where flags were flown at half staff for several days. Much more was done and said, but suffice it to say that, as a legend in state politics, she was treated as such.
The Watertown Daily Times provided an apt description of her efforts to serve the people without party interference. “She rebelled against the restrictions the organization tried to impose on her. She resented the deep-seated reaction of the political bosses. She early made her decision that she would go her own way and she would rest her case with the people. And the people never let her down.”
Rhoda Fox Graves was a political pioneer who, in the face of extreme difficulties, fought on, becoming a trailblazer in the truest sense. Women who have since attained New York State elective office owe her a debt of gratitude for being the first in many ways—one who bravely blazed a path for others to follow.
Photos: Rhoda Fox Graves (Gouverneur Museum website); headlines, Ogdensburg Advance-News (1934); headlines, Ogdensburg Journal (1934); headlines, Saratogian (1934); headline, Ogdensburg Advance-News (1937); headline, Buffalo Evening News (1948); headline, Tribune-Press, Gouverneur (1950)