In 1952 the El Paso election season was full of many heated and interesting races, such as the county judge race in which the incumbent, Victor Gilbert, was fighting off a challenge from Hugh McGovern. The media and political observers did not pay a lot of attention to the open seat for a place in the Texas House of Representatives.
Maybe everybody thought that the winner would be the well-respected Police Chief Willard Cline Woolverton or County Commissioner Scott Skidmore. However, neither the decorated police chief nor the county commissioner won. Instead a thirty-six -year old blind national freelance safety lecturer named Anita Lee Blair won.
Though underfunded and politically inexperienced, Anita Blair shook the male dominated political establishment and paved the way for future El Paso women politicians. The story of the Sun City’s first woman state legislator is the story of how one determined woman stood up against powerful influences by exercising her independence and standing up for her principles even if that meant standing alone.
Who was Anita Blair and why did she get involved in politics?
Anita Lee Blair was born in Oklahoma City on September 8, 1916. Blair came to El Paso as a child in 1924. She graduated from Austin High School in 1933. Politics ran in the family: Her grandfather served in the Oklahoma State Senate and her mother was a cousin of Vice President Thomas Hendricks.
Blair lost her sight at age twenty in a car accident and was later assisted by a German shepherd named Fawn who was her guide dog. The first in El Paso, the duo became well known in the city. Blair was asked to talk to various clubs and organizations. With Fawn’s help Blair earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master’s degrees from the College of Mines and Metallurgy, now the University of Texas El Paso.
Blair and Fawn became well known nationally because of her career as a national freelance lecturer traveling all over the country speaking about accident prevention to schools, factories, clubs and organizations. The duo made national headlines again with their escape from the LaSalle Hotel fire in Chicago in 1946 and in 1950 when Blair successfully protested being denied entry in the U.S. Senate gallery because Fawn was not allowed in.
Blair became more than just a lecturer, advocating for the passage of safety legislation in Congress and was working to kill a bill that would have given unlimited fundraising power to the National Safety Council. Blair saw it as a money-making gimmick. She claimed that in retaliation people representing the National Safety Council came to El Paso when she was serving in the Legislature and told people she was a communist.
Blair came back to El Paso in 1950 to make an unsuccessful run for the state Legislature, losing badly but not giving up. Instead she prepared for a second run in 1952 with the intention to eventually run for Congress. She announced her candidacy to the El Paso Times, saying, “I do not feel that I am going to set the world on fire, but I feel that there is a place for some practical work to be done.”
Her candidacy received national attention. It was probably the first time a completely blind woman was going to run for a seat in a state legislature.
Anita ran as a populist, refusing any help or support from any organization or defeated politicians. She did not have the big money or large organization that could have been available if she had requested and received the support of the establishment. She wanted to run on the issues and be elected on her own merit.
Blair ran on what she called a visual approach, running newspaper advertisements with photos of her and Fawn. She went on the radio when she could not go to one of the many campaign rallies that were held throughout the county.
Blair was the only the woman on the 1952 ballot. The last woman at that point to be elected countywide was Anna Marie Tobin. Tobin was the first woman to hold a non-education related elected office. She was elected in 1924 and resigned in 1941 because of illness. Blair was just the sixth woman from El Paso to run for the Legislature. The first women to run were a pioneer El Paso woman physician named Alice Merchant, and Ressie Cloonan, who both ran on the Republican ticket for the state House of Representatives in 1922.
Blair’s platform included preserving free enterprise, individual and state rights, improving the schools without having to increase taxes and opposing sales and income taxes. Blair told Carol Taylor from the New York-Telegraph & Sun that she wanted to work for safety saying Texas did not have much of a driver’s training program. Blair also thought Texas was backward when it came to education for the blind.
Blair tried to appeal to the working man and went in front of labor unions. She went to the workers directly, not just relying on the unions. One of her newspaper advertisements said, “She has the understanding of working man’s problems through earning her own living despite handicap of blindness.”
Blair was also studying for her doctorate at the College of the Mines and thought she could get support from her fellow students.
“I want to make sure that the college is not overlooked in funds for expansion programs,” she told the El Paso Herald Post.
In one of her newspaper advertisements Blair talked about her experience and education that qualified her for the job: “After earning two college degrees, Miss Blair has conducted and managed her own business throughout the United States for seven years without the assistance of any other person and in spite of her blindness. As a professional educator and student of government she can apply her knowledge of lecturing, radio, and public relations to carry out her platform.”
Blair claimed she was first in qualifications and was first on the ballot. She took on her six male opponents declaring “My opponents have not committed themselves to any specific platform – my position has (been) entirely clear.”
Blair had a strong showing in the first primary. Blair led her opponents by 3,200 votes but was not able to avoid a runoff because she got under the fifty percent requirement. So, the field was narrowed between her and Police Chief Willard Woolverton.
Blair had a big lead over Woolverton, whose campaign seemed to be weak and was low key. He did not provide a strong platform, and the race had no issues. Blair started campaigning for the runoff on primary election night after the results came in.
In the runoff election, Blair found herself in a bitter race. Someone was spreading rumors that she was against the unions and that she would beat Fawn. Both rumors were false. Blair told the El Paso Times that while the accusation was absurd, it angered her because her father was a union carpenter. She also said she grew up with no hard feelings against organized labor and that there was nothing in her platform that could be considered to be against the interests of working people. “Whoever is misinterpreting my remarks must be more interested in my opponent than in organized labor,” she told the El Paso Times.
Blair accused Woolverton of only running on his record as police chief and not having a platform: “My opponent has never been quoted on a platform; his campaign is solely based on the fact he has been in public office for forty years,” she told the Times.
In one of her campaign fliers, Anita went after Woolverton: “He makes it clear that he considers the Texas Legislature a place where old policemen go to rust!”
Neither major El Paso newspaper endorsed a candidate. However, Post columnist B.U.L. Conner urged people to vote for Blair writing that she was “no dope” and that people should give her a chance, citing her Master’s degree and her lecturing experience. He believed she had good ideas and would work at the job – “When we think of some of the people who have been sent to the Legislature, we are sure we will work for Anita Blair in this muddy election.”
After a hard-fought campaign Blair won by a wide margin over Woolverton. After her win, Blair reflected back on the campaign. “The men just didn’t realize that I’d be a threat when I went out and campaigned on my merits.” Her victory made national headlines; even Time magazine did an article about her victory. Blair won unopposed in the November election after local Republicans refused to run a candidate against her.
After her victory Blair left for Austin to take her seat in the Texas State House of Representatives and to take her place in history. Her election was proof that big money or meddling political bosses could not stop a young woman who wanted to serve and prove her worth to her male colleagues. Blair would not be silenced and was not going to be a pushover. She planned to show the male dominated political and business establishment what a strong, independent woman politician looked like.
After winning a bitter election Anita Lee Blair, the newly elected state representative from El Paso, went to Austin to be sworn in. On January 3, 1953, Blair officially took her seat on the first day of the 53rd Legislative session.
Her guide dog Fawn escorted her down the aisle of the House chamber and Blair took her seat at her desk. When Blair went to Austin, she had a map of the capital made in braille and carried a 30-pound dictating machine. Blair also had her own reader and secretary for the first time.
In a 1984 El Paso Times interview Blair told reporter Gary Scharrer, “When I got down to that Legislature, I wasn’t so damn sure that I knew what I was doing, but I took to it like a duck to water.” Blair held her own with her male colleagues at a time when politics was a man’s world, and the state legislature was very much a men’s club. Blair joined three other women in the House of Representatives. She was also the only new woman member in the beginning of the 53rd legislative session.
Blair served on the school districts, public lands and education committees and was a co-author of a bill that was supposed to make jail time mandatory for drunk drivers. Blair also presented her own bill targeting drunk drivers and co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill to allow women to serve on juries. She also helped defeat a bill that would have established toll roads.
Blair clashed with Texas Western College (now UTEP) officials and some students because of her opposition to compulsory student activities fees but worked with other members of the delegation to get more funding for the university. Blair was also an advocate for the disabled. While on the special school and hospitals committees she brought to her colleagues’ attention the bad conditions at the state school for the deaf and helped raised money to remodel the building.
Blair joined in a filibuster along with some of her colleagues to defeat several bills authored by Marshall Bell. The group succeeded in defeating or breaking down two of his bills. One was supposed to ban politically offensive books, and the other bill was supposed to make school officials identify books written by communists or others considered to be subversives.
“We cannot rob our institutions of learning of their ability to get facts.” Blair also argued, “The truth is our greatest weapon against communism.”
She helped kill a bill that would have created an All-American activities committee. Blair opposed the bills because she believed they would not prevent innocent people from being persecuted. She opposed having anti-communist crusader, and U.S. Senator, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin coming to speak to the state Legislature. Blair called McCarthy a propagandist and disagreed with his tactics.
Blair proposed an investigation into a gambling payroll ring among elected El Paso officials, authoring a resolution that was approved by the State House of Representatives. The house speaker appointed a committee to investigate the claims.
The charges were made by an alleged “call girl” named Pearl Rose Johnson, who was serving a prison sentence in Huntsville, Texas for murdering her newborn baby. She claimed she was framed, and the baby was stillborn.
Johnson also claimed she would deliver money and letters to Reno, Nevada and took 12 trips to Reno. She also claimed she carried amounts ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 to Reno. The money allegedly came from a gambling setup in Anapra, New Mexico. She would bring back amounts to El Paso from $10,000 to $20,000 and it would be split between Johnson, the elected officers and a police chief.
Eventually Johnson recanted most of the charges. On June 2, 1955, a report was presented to the state house by the investigative committee, officially clearing everyone accused.
Blair did not agree with the investigation’s findings, accusing Gov. Allan Shivers of whitewashing the investigation. She also thought there were efforts by the media and certain individuals to derail the investigation.
The governor’s involvement was another reason that she voted against the anticommunist bills. Blair’s resolution calling for that investigation was defeated. Then, in a rare action, the resolution was then expunged from the House journal.
Business and political leaders did not like the negative publicity that investigation brought.
Blair was publicly censured by Mayor Fred Hervey and also criticized by the El Paso Times. Glenn Woodard, a lawyer who eventually became county judge, set up a fund to defeat her. El Paso Times Editor William Hooten wrote in an editorial, “In the opinion of the Times, the sooner El Paso County can be rid of the service of Rep. Blair the better off it will be.” He then claimed El Paso was one of the cleanest cities in the state and accused Blair of giving El Paso a black eye in Austin. Her opponents attacked her for her part in the investigation and involvement in the anti-communist filibuster. Blair declared that there were elected officials in El Paso who did not want their records to be scrutinized. She continued her quest for the truth about the investigation.
Blair offered no apology and was not going to be scared away by her opponents. “I resent that some people do not want to listen to the truth. I will run on my record . . . I have never waited to see how a vote was going to go and then vote in the house with the crowd.” Blair defended her part in the anti-communist filibuster and in the corruption investigation. She stressed she was opposed to communism.
She continued to attack Shivers for his part in the corruption investigation and tried to paint him as not friend of El Paso. She also attacked Shivers for trying to cut the college fund for children of military personnel. “No one from El Paso has done anything to hurt Governor Shivers yet he tried to take away what we were entitled to,” she told the crowd at the old Tigua volunteer fire department building. She also told the crowd, “I was an amateur in Austin two years ago, but I have held my own with the pros.” The 1954 Election season was bitter.
Blair fought back, hoping and believing the voters would support her, but the media, politicians and business establishments railed against her. Instead, they supported her opponent, Malcom McGregor, a lawyer.
During the campaign he said that he would be a salesman and would cooperate with those in Austin. He was accused of meeting with the “kingmakers,” a group of the cities’ influential, who people claimed ran local government and dominated local politics. Blair was also still hurting over the loss of Fawn, who died on Aug. 18, 1953. She knew she was not going to win. However, she did not give up after her defeat to McGregor.
She ran in a special election in December 1954 for a return to the House of Representatives. Blair opened her campaign at Paso Del Norte Hotel. There, she defended her support of the investigation: “I think the investigation was warranted and the public still doesn’t know the whole truth.”
Blair also said she was being treated unfairly and was a victim of smears just because she pushed for the investigation. Blair lost again, but she refused to give up. She ran again for the House of Representatives three more times but was not successful.
Blair felt forgotten by El Pasoans for years, but continued to fight for good government and against corruption until her death on Aug. 23, 2010 at age 93. She made her last run for elected office in 2002, when she ran for county judge at age 86.
Blair was a local pioneer who broke new ground for women and people with disabilities in Texas. She was a fighter who did not back down and was willing to stand for causes she felt were important. Blair was ahead of her time. The Sun City’s first woman legislator will not be forgotten. Blair’s story is a tribute to the underdog.
– by Joseph Longo