Evansville politics have always been interesting, but in two city elections — 1951 and 1955 — the course of history forever changed. Never before, or since, have so many voters been called to the polls to participate in the process and never were elections as contentious.
In 1951, the local Democratic Party’s “machine” was in serious trouble. The very popular three-time victor Democrat Mayor William Dress died in office in 1949 and his city controller, longtime political operative Ed Diekmann took over. He was not a very popular mayor within his own party, and long standing intraparty feuds spilled over into the election cycle. On the Republican side, the GOP standard bearer was Henry (Hank) Roberts, the personnel manager for Servel, the then-largest employer in the city. Roberts had defeated an auto dealer, Ed Mooney, in the primary, and with a united party, slammed into victory over Diekmann with a vote of 24,208 to 17,063, which at the time was the biggest landslide in history. And, a record number of more than 41,000 citizens voted in a sleet storm.
Roberts was an active mayor initiating many building programs, including a new multipurpose arena, which later became Roberts Municipal Stadium. However, Roberts held fast to the old Republican machine that was led by corrupt political operatives and a Republican chairman who was very unpopular with the younger political set. In 1952 and 1954, the younger GOP organization, known as “Good Government Republicans,” swept over the old machine candidates for Congress and county offices, and in 1955, took on the incumbent Republican mayor in the primary. Democrats were coalescing around a local attorney named R. Vance Hartke. He took on the job of party chairman after the 1951 defeat.
In May 1955, Mayor Roberts was defeated by a 38-year-old real estate agent named Curt Huber 10,302 votes to 7,359 in a campaign that saw charges of voter fraud and intimidation of city employees. The party chairman J. Ervin Taylor and party operative Ben Bartlett, who had been the Good Government’s “bogeymen,” a focus of fear throughout the spring, and the incumbent mayor were left out of the fall campaign.
On Nov. 8, 1955, Hartke won a decisive victory 25,862 votes to Huber’s 21,699 and switched an eight-seat GOP majority on city council to a 7-2 Democrat majority. The votes of more than 47,000 residents (compared to 21,000 in 2011) were the largest recorded at the time. The Republicans didn’t elect another city mayor until 1971 when Russell Lloyd Sr. was elected with a 9,000 vote landslide and four years later re-elected by a 7,500 vote majority, becoming the only Republican to serve two terms in city history.