Horner had been a probate judge in Cook County for 18 years
when, with the backing of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, he ran for governor in
1932. His victory made him Illinois’ first Jewish governor and the first
governor to be born in Cook County.
At his inauguration speech, Horner asked the legislature to
end the partisan squabbling that had delayed legislation to solve the social and
economic problems of the Depression.
He then snubbed Cermak by appointing men he thought would
be best for the job rather than loyal Democrats. Cermak was assassinated in
Florida two months after Horner became governor, but Horner didn’t get along
any better with the next mayor, Edward J. Kelly.
After ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution, which ended Prohibition, Horner fought to have the state regulate
all liquor sales to keep politics out of the saloons. Kelly deadlocked the
legislature, insisting on local control of liquor licenses.
In 1933, Horner began to receive complaints from Washington
that Illinois was contributing less to relief than other states with high
In fact, 99 percent of the $68 million spent on relief in
Illinois came from the federal government.
Horner raised $30 million in a bond issue, but the money
was gone in a year. He needed a more steady income for the state.
Out of necessity, Horner fathered the Illinois sales tax.
his first attempt, Horner rammed a 3 percent tax though the legislature. The
Supreme Court declared the tax unconstitutional because it excluded farm
products and motor fuel. He reduced the tax rate to 2 percent, took out the
exemptions and tried again. After two cliffhanger roll calls, it passed. This
time the Supreme Court concurred.
Horner’s name had become known statewide before his
governorship - he was the keynote speaker at the Democratic state convention in
Springfield in April 1928.
Yet when he lived in the Executive Mansion, he was often
lonely, being a bachelor with no close family in Springfield.
According to “Horner of Illinois,” a biography of the
governor written by Tom Littlewood and published in 1969, Horner forged a
friendship with James A. Griffin, the Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield at
On “many a lonely night,” the book states, they would
meet at the mansion, and “in the company of a bottle of Old Belmont bourbon,
which they jointly admired, the Jewish governor and the Catholic bishop talked
politics, theology, and life into the small hours.”
“Horner never failed to send poinsettias at Christmas,
lilies at Easter, and gifts on the bishop’s birthday.”
Horner also liked to play poker with political cronies at
the mansion until early morning hours. He ate well, despite high blood pressure.
He loved to lose himself in movies. And he loved children.
“He never missed an opportunity to remind friends that
their children represented the only genuine treasures of life and that they
should never lose sight of this,” Littlewood wrote.
“Circuses and children go together,” the book added,
“and Henry Horner loved both. Whenever the big top came to town, the governor
passed the word through the appropriate channels that any child who did not have
the price of a ticket should meet him at a certain gate. He always bought
tickets and refreshments for the gang.”
Horner’s support for New Deal reforms pushed by fellow
Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House helped make his time in office
a time of great change.
“Many downstate Democrats wanted Horner to play down the
social reforms of the New Deal,” the book states. “In spite of his
troubles with Washington, the governor believed fervently in what the New Deal
was trying to do and never faltered in his devotion to Roosevelt’s
objectives. He corresponded regularly with the president’s wife (Eleanor
Roosevelt), whom he admired.”
Horner literally worked himself to death during his second
term in office. He suffered coronary thrombosis and thereafter conducted all
of his official business from his bedroom.
Though his health was failing, he refused to resign. He
didn’t want his lieutenant governor, John H. Stelle, to get the top job. So
when Horner had to withdraw from a run for re-election due to his failing health,
he backed another Democrat, state Democratic Chairman Harry Hershey of Taylorville,
for the party’s nomination.
Hershey beat Stelle by more than 330,000 votes in the
primary. But after Horner died on Oct. 6, 1940, Stelle took over the governor’s
job for 99 days until the Republican who defeated Hershey, that November, Dwight
Green, took over.
“Henry Horner was the Real Goods,” famed poet Carl
Sandburg told Littlewood in 1961. “He collaborated with men who were purchasable
without becoming purchasable himself. He got to high places without selling