George Watkins (politician)

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George Robert Watkins
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 9th district
In office
January 3, 1967 – August 7, 1970
Preceded by Paul Dague
Succeeded by John Ware
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 7th district
In office
January 3, 1965 – January 3, 1967
Preceded by William Milliken
Succeeded by Lawrence Williams
Member of the Pennsylvania Senate
from the 9th district
In office
January 4, 1949 – November 30, 1960
Preceded by Weldon Heyburn
Succeeded by Clarence Bell
Personal details
Born May 21, 1902
Hampton, Virginia
Died August 7, 1970(1970-08-07) (aged 68)
West Chester, Pennsylvania
Political party Republican

George Robert Watkins (May 21, 1902 – August 7, 1970), also known as G. Robert Watkins,[1] was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the 7th district of Pennsylvania.[1] He operated a farm in Delaware County and was a breeder of thoroughbred horses.[2]

Early life[edit]

George Watkins was born on May 21, 1902 in Hampton, Virginia.[1] He attended public schools there and learned the trade of shipfitter, before moving to Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1920.[1][2] There he organized the Chester Stevedoring Company, which he sold in 1931.[2] With a partner, he then organized the Blue Line Transfer Company, operating a truck fleet in the eastern states.[2] Watkins was elected Sheriff of Delaware County, Pennsylvania in 1945 and served one term, through 1948,[1] before his election to the Pennsylvania State Senate, where he served from 1949 to 1960.[1][2] He then also served one term as county commissioner for Delaware County, from 1960 to 1964.[2] A longtime member of the Delaware County Board of Republican Supervisors (War Board), he was refused a second county commissioner term in 1963, but was endorsed the following year to represent Pennsylvania's 7th congressional district in Congress, where he served three terms.[1][2]

Political career[edit]

1964 election[edit]

With incumbent William H. Milliken bowing out after not being endorsed by the War Board, Watkins faced three other candidates in the 1964 primary: Carl Mau, John W. Wellman and John T. Kenna. When the election was over on April 28, Watkins won by about 55% of the total vote. His closest opponent, Wellman, had only 30% of the vote, but had surprisingly carried Springfield by a few votes. Thirty-nine-year-old Democrat Dr. Leonard Bachman won his primary by a similar margin and was ready to wage a tough campaign for the fall election. As in the presidential elections of 1944 and 1960, the Democrats had a very strong top of the ticket this time. Also, they were helped by a narrowing of the Republican registration lead in the county, a trend that began in the previous decade. Since 1960, the Democrats had gained about 7,700 voters, while the GOP lost about 1,200. By the November election, the new totals were: 227,825 Republicans to 67,247 Democrats.

In early July, rumors that the War Board was maintaining a neutral stance regarding the Republican presidential contest between moderate Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton and conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, were denied. Mae Kernaghan, the executive secretary of the county party, said that on February 24, the War Board had endorsed the governor, notifying him by letter of their decision. JRP Surveys of Drexel Hill interviewed 200 voters in Upper Darby on June 30, asking their preferences in the presidential primaries and general election, with the worst showing for the GOP being: Goldwater, 21%; Johnson, 66%; Neither/No Opin, 13%.

The widespread view that Senator Goldwater was an extremist was not shared by Watkins. On July 23, Watkins told the News of Delaware County: "He doesn't have extremist views. That's just part of the newspaper campaign waged against him ever since he began his bid for nomination." Even though Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Watkins added: "Goldwater is a real friend of the Negro." Watkins, the "gentleman farmer" from Birmingham Township, derided his opponent as one who "reads the newspapers and talks a lot - I don't pay any attention to him. I understand he's a good doctor. He should talk into his own stethoscope."

Bachman had strong criticism for the Republicans, stating that Goldwater's support of extremism as a virtue "gives aid and comfort to extremists on both sides." Regarding the looming civil rights issue, he declared: "I came out against the civil rights demonstrations in Chester this spring because I don't think the answer to the Negroes' problem lies in the streets. Goldwater, in his nominating speech, seemed to condone such demonstrations. County residents are, I believe, upset by the increasing rate of civil rights activity, but not enough to lose their common sense for one issue." Denying the possibility of a national backlash from whites, county Democratic chairman Ernani C. Falcone said: "The issue is being promoted by Goldwater forces to manufacture controversy." In August, Bachman announced he had taken a three-month leave of absence from his duties as a medical doctor at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia to go "directly to the people".

As the heated campaign drew to a close, both candidates issued statements attempting to persuade the voters in their direction. At a meeting of the Haverford Township Lions Club, Bachman leveled an attack on the War Board-backed candidacy of Watkins:

Successive lackluster Congressmen spawned by the Republican machine bosses have been notable for one major characteristic—their utter lack of concern for job, business and industry in our county. The political phantom who is the Republican Congressional candidate not only has failed to speak out on the vital issues of this campaign, but he had failed to show up before the public. The Republicans have given the nomination to a man who took part in four years' County administration marked by bickering and physical combat among its top elected officials.

Watkins returned fire in a release from the Republican headquarters in Media:

...I don't believe that the people of Delaware County can afford to wait for a man with a longing to go to Congress to gain 12 years of legislative experience. I am interested, too, in the retired man or woman, who are living on pensions, a fixed income or Social Security. I promise to fight for legislation to bring the dollar back to being worth a dollar. The dollar today is worth just 44 cents because of the deficit spending of the Democrats. If something isn't done we will have to use a wheelbarrow to take enough paper money to the store to buy a loaf of bread.

In Pennsylvania, President Johnson received 3.130 million votes to 1.672 million for Goldwater. In Chester, Pennsylvania, it was a complete collapse of the top of the ticket, with Goldwater taking only 31% of the vote and a Democrat being elected as state representative, even though it was widely known he was a "McClure Democrat". Watkins narrowly escaped being a political casualty, with his 129,572 to 123,750 win over Bachman, a close margin of only 5,822. While Goldwater only carried 14 towns, Watkins carried 25, including all of the largest, except the City of Chester and Ridley Township. This was the last election in which all of Delaware County would be contained in the same congressional district. There also was enough ticket-splitting to give state Senator Clarence Bell a comfortable lead for his second term, 137,495 to 115,747. In the Second legislative district, which consisted of the northern and eastern tiers of the county, all four Republican incumbents were re-elected handily by about an average of 11,000 votes, while in the Third District, consisting of the Chester Pike and riverfront towns, the results were closer, but all four GOP candidates came through by about 6,000 votes. This would also be the last election where multiple members would be elected from the same district.

When Watkins was sworn into office in January, 1965, he sat with only 139 other Republicans, while 295 Democrats sat as the majority. In the Senate, Hugh Scott had only 31 other colleagues of his party, while the Democrats had 68. Not since the New Deal in 1937, did so many Democrats occupy seats in Congress. But, their peak of power and popularity would be relatively short-lived, as the Vietnam War entered a major escalation phase only months after Johnson's inauguration, in spite of his campaign promises to the contrary.

On March 28, John J. McClure, 78, died twelve days after being admitted to University Hospital in Philadelphia for multiple fractures of the hip and pelvis. Flags at all Chester city municipal buildings were flown at half-staff the rest of the week. Frank Snear, chairman of the county commissioners, succeeded McClure as chairman of the War Board.

Congressional work[edit]

Watkins served on the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce during the 89th and 90th Congresses. He was appointed Member on Oct. 19, 1966, upon the resignation of vice Willard S. Curtin. At his death, he was succeeded on the committee on Sept. 23, 1970 by Republican John G. Schmitz of California.[3]

Redistricting controversy[edit]

On February 17, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a long-awaited decision on congressional redistricting. By a six to three vote, the Court, in Wesberry v. Sanders that "as nearly as practicable, one man's vote in a congressional election it to be worth as much as another's." The effect of this ruling meant that the redistricting in Pennsylvania and many other states based on the 1960 census was nullified and would need to be redone.

In regards to his opposition to reapportionment and possible shift his hometown of Birmingham and the rest of western Delaware County with Chester County Watkins commented, "It just doesn't seem right to me that a portion of Delaware County should be tacked onto some other county just to reach someone's idea of a magical figure." In January 1966, he testified to that effect before the state Senate reapportionment Committee and said that by 1970, Delaware County would have enough population to support two congressmen. In February, Watkins again attacked the pending redistricting plans:

If it is done now, large portions of Delaware County will be cut off from the balance of the county, attached to either Chester or Montgomery Counties and our people will be virtually without representation in Washington for at least the next four years. It will mean that Montgomery and Chester Counties will control those districts. It will mean that congressmen from those districts will not be working solely for Delaware County municipalities.

Meanwhile, it seemed that politicians of both parties were trying to avoid repeating the donnybrook of 1961. Philadelphia party leaders agreed to leave the alignment of the five city districts the same. The state's congressional delegation had reached a consensus on the remaining 22 districts. The plan would move Haverford, Marple and Radnor townships into Montgomery County's 13th district, while shifting Abington, Cheltenham, Lower Moreland and Upper Dublin townships into the Eighth District with Bucks County. However, later that month, the agreement seemed to unravel, as Scranton objected to leaving Philadelphia's districts unchanged. He cited that due to the city's districts not being contiguous and compact, the reapportionment plan will be subject to court challenges. "I agree," said William Meehan, GOP leader in the city. "Republicans upstate worked it out in 1962 and made the deal with Green and shoved it down my throat."

Events took a sudden turn, when Paul Dague, the 9th District incumbent, who Watkins would be forced to run against under the pending proposal, announced his retirement. Dague then endorsed Watkins and offered to campaign for him in the primary. County Democrats charged that the Philadelphia Democratic leadership cut a deal with the War Board, to allow the city to keep its five congressmen in exchange for dividing Delaware County between the 7th and 9th districts. The plan would also include Lower Merion and Narberth in the 7th District, which would comprise the eastern tier of the county. John J. Logue, of Swarthmore, the Democratic candidate for Congress, charged Snear with "gerrymandering". "It seems inevitable that one congressional district will cross county lines, but there is no reason for both of them to do so," the candidate said.

In March, the state Senate passed an amended bill, which removed the Montgomery County communities and restored Radnor to the 7th District. With the extended filing deadline for candidates looming, the House quickly passed the redistricting bill and candidates scrambled to file nominating petitions. County Democrats still voiced their dissatisfaction and believed that the splitting of Delaware County was designed to prevent the Democrats from winning in either district. The reapportionment plan signed by the Governor placed 22 southern and western Delaware County communities into the Ninth District, with all of Chester County, which was separated from Lancaster County. The remaining 27 towns in the populous eastern half of Delaware County became the Seventh District. The Eighth District became all of Bucks, with several municipalities from Lehigh and Montgomery Counties, while the Thirteenth District retained the remainder of Montgomery County. While correcting some of the population imbalance, the new alignment still had problems. The Eighth District had a population of only 356,821, compared to the Thirteenth District, which contained almost 125,000 more. The legislature and political establishment finally had allowed the crossing of county lines in the suburban counties of Philadelphia for the first time. However, it would take another Supreme Court ruling to further correct the disproportionate representation in Congress and the state legislature.

With the shift of Watkins' hometown of Birmingham to the new Ninth District, the Seventh District became an open seat, which would be filled that year by Springfield GOP leader Lawrence G. Williams. In the meantime, Watkins now represented a district where 56% of the residents resided in Chester County. In spite of the desire of some leaders that the district be represented by a Chester County resident, an accommodation was reached between the War Board and the leadership of the former, allowing Watkins to continue. He was easily re-elected in November, 1966, beating Democrat Louis F. Waldman, 81,516 to 48,656.

Although the War Board was officially neutral in the heated contest for the Republican presidential nomination between Nixon and Rockefeller in 1968, Watkins said he "was all the way" for Nixon. "With his training as vice president and his understanding of foreign and domestic affairs, there is no one with a name that can equal him," the congressman declared. In the general election, Watkins easily beat his Democratic challenger, Philip L. Harding, 100,399 to 56,532. In his last election in 1970, he beat a nominal challenger in the Republican primary, Anthony Z. Giampietro, 31,058 to 13,419.

Death[edit]

Watkins died August 7, 1970 in West Chester, Pennsylvania from a heart attack while attending a meeting of the Penn Oakes Club (in Chester County).[1] On August 27, 34 delegates from Delaware County met with 56 delegates from Chester County at the Penn Oakes Club to determine the candidate to replace Watkins on the GOP ballot. The chairman of the Delaware County Republican executive committee, Ed Hineman, read a tribute to the late congressman, stating: "All of us knew him as Bob Watkins, and found him to be a very congenial friend and a very clear thinking legislator....He was forceful in action and wise in counsel, and he had great wit...The citizens of Pennsylvania's Ninth Congressional District have lost a superb Representative, and I have lost a very close friend.". Watkins was replaced in the next election by state senator John Ware, of Oxford. He is buried at Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery in Birmingham Township, Pennsylvania, near West Chester.[1]

References[edit]


United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William Milliken
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 7th congressional district

1965-1967
Succeeded by
Lawrence Williams
Preceded by
Paul Dague
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Pennsylvania's 9th congressional district

1967-1970
Succeeded by
John Ware
Pennsylvania State Senate
Preceded by
Weldon Heyburn
Member of the Pennsylvania Senate for the 9th District
1949–1960
Succeeded by
Clarence Bell