The likelihood of a Democrat being elected to the U.S. Senate in 19th-century North Dakota was infinitesimal because the senators were elected by the state legislators - who were overwhelmingly Republican.
Yet, it happened in 1893 when William N. Roach, a Larimore farmer and land dealer, was elected on the 61st ballot.
William Nathaniel Roach was born Sept. 25, 1840, in Washington, D.C., to Edward N. and Catherine Roach.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Roach became a clerk with the quartermaster's department. At the conclusion of the war, he was employed in the mercantile business and was later hired as a cashier by the Citizens Bank of Washington. Reportedly, he made an illegal transaction and, after making restitution, left the city with his wife to Dakota Territory.
Roach arrived in Grand Forks in 1879, where he received a contract with the federal government to transport mail between there and Fort Totten. He also began farming in western Grand Forks County on land he obtained under the homestead and timber acts.
In 1881, Oscar Towner established the Elk Valley Farm, the largest farm in the county, and Towner asked Roach to become his bookkeeper.
He was later promoted to land agent, with the duties of plotting the site of the new town of Larimore and selling town lots.
In March 1883, the town of Larimore was incorporated and, on June 5, Roach was elected as the first mayor. Roach was elected to the Legislature, the only Democrat of the 72 members during the 1885 session. After serving two more terms as mayor of Larimore, Roach ran as the first candidate of the Democratic Party for governor of North Dakota in 1889.
Although trounced by Republican John Miller by 14,000 votes, he ran again in 1891 against Republican Andrew Burke and, this time, lost by only 600 votes.
The Republican Party, led by Alexander McKenzie and his lieutenants, dominated North Dakota politics during the election of 1889.
Roach, as head of the Democratic Party, formed a coalition with the Independent Party for endorsing statewide office holders. As a result, their candidates won every state office except lieutenant governor and the railroad commissioners. The Legislature was controlled by the Republicans, who held 53 of 93 seats. Since the Legislature elected the U.S. senators from North Dakota at the time, McKenzie assumed his man, Lyman Casey, would be re-elected.
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Roach announced he would challenge Casey for his Senate seat and was joined in the race by fellow Democrat John D. Benton from Fargo and Independent Walter Muir from Hunter. The 1893 North Dakota Legislature convened on Jan. 3.
McKenzie wanted Casey re-elected, but a number of Republicans from the eastern part of the state refused to support him. The Cass County Republicans voted for Benton, and a number of Grand Forks Republicans voted for Roach. With no candidate getting more than 50 percent when ballot after ballot was cast, Casey saw that he could not get elected and withdrew.
To break the deadlock, Republican leader Judson LaMoure went to the Cass and Stutsman caucuses on Feb. 20 and told the leaders if they did not cast their ballots for Roach, he would, and many other Republicans would follow suit. On the 61st ballot, Roach was elected.
Roach no more than got settled into his seat in the Senate on March 4, when it appeared all of the efforts made in getting him there were to become undone. Someone had leaked information about his trouble with the Citizens Bank of Washington, which happened 14 years earlier.
On March 29, 1893, the Washington Post reported that Roach was "guilty of embezzlement" while employed by the bank. Immediately, Senate Republicans pounced on this, and charges against his character were introduced as they tried to get him expelled from the Senate.
Leading the effort to get Roach removed from office was the powerful George F. Hoar, veteran senator from Massachusetts. For more than three hours, on April 11, Hoar and other Republicans lambasted Roach, who sat at his desk writing letters.
When the other senators rationalized that the incident had happened over a dozen years earlier, all charges were dismissed.
Roach became a keen student of the Senate during his first months in office. As he gained confidence, there were three issues that he seemed most active in supporting: lowering tariffs on most goods imported into the country, free silver and anti-imperialism.
In 1898, Roach ran for re-election, but McKenzie, still smarting over the loss of his candidate to Roach in 1893, was not going to let that happen a second time. His hand-picked candidate was Wahpeton attorney Porter J. McCumber.
The Legislature also was greatly stacked against Roach because 77 of the 93 members were Republicans. After his defeat in 1899, Roach sold his business interests in Larimore and moved to Washington, D.C. He died Sept. 7, 1902.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Reach the Eriksmoens by e-mail at email@example.com.)