“We want a Dern good governor, and we don’t mean Mabey.” The slogan was catchy. It showed a self-assurance that any Democrat running in solidly Republican Utah against a sitting GOP governor had no right to expect.
George Henry Dern — Democrat, non-Mormon and progressive — was swimming against the current when he took on GOP incumbent Gov. Charles Rendell Mabey in 1924.
Mabey had a biography that even Utah Republicans today would envy. The Utah native completed a three-year LDS mission to Germany, served with distinction in the U.S. Army in the Philippines (later awarded the Silver Star) and paid his political dues as a Republican workhorse in Bountiful city government and in the Legislature.
Reliably pro-business, Mabey was elected governor in 1920 by the largest margin ever in a Utah gubernatorial election.
Four years later he found himself up against Dern, the Nebraska born-and-bred gentile mining magnate with pacifist, progressive leanings. It should have been a cakewalk, and Republicans swept every major statewide office in 1924.
Except one. Despite the 1924 statewide GOP landslide, Democrat Dern unseated Republican Mabey by a hefty margin.
Mabey had been a good governor, investing in education and road building while shrinking the size of government. Some of that government shrinkage, however, came at the expense of patronage jobs that Republicans traditionally used to reward friends and supporters. His spending on roads and schools was recast as reneging on his 1920 promise of government austerity.
Mabey also lost because he was up against a force of nature in Dern.
Born in Nebraska in 1872, as a young man Dern stepped into his father’s mining business showing a knack for managing and innovation. He invented techniques that were picked up by mines the world over, including something curiously called the vacuum slime-filter process.
By the turn of the century, Dern was in Utah and quickly became a major figure in the state’s mining and industrial life. In 1914, he entered politics and, running as a Democrat with support from the Progressive Party, won a Utah Senate seat representing Salt Lake City.
Dern was a natural politician in the best sense of the word. In the Legislature he was engaging, empathetic and willing to compromise, all the while keeping a keen focus on Progressive Era goals.
A businessman himself, Dern recognized that business prospers when ordinary citizens do well. He helped usher through citizen-friendly laws, including Utah’s first Workers Compensation Act.
Democrats, Progressive and even Republicans crowded halls and salons to hear him speak. Engaging and funny, Dern never failed to inform and entertain. And apparently persuade, as his against-the-odds 1924 gubernatorial win showed.
Despite the state still trending Republican in 1928, his re-election was a blowout. Dern won by more than 30,000 votes from a total of 160,000 cast.
As governor, he undertook sweeping reforms that brought Utah fully into the 20th century. Taxation was rationalized and broadened to include an income and corporate tax, and education was assured reliable, long-term funding. His campaign to ensure that rivers and streams were considered a state resource means that today Utah gets its fair share from the Colorado.
In 1929, he served as chair of the National Governors Conference, where he became acquainted with then-New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. He made an impression, and President Roosevelt appointed him as secretary of war in 1933.
It used to be an American tradition for the military to shrink between wars, and the War Department in the early ’30s was relatively unimportant. Appointing a secretary with pacifist leanings didn’t sit well with the general officers, but Dern’s professionalism and no-nonsense approach to fraudulent lobbying earned him their respect.
World War II and a vital role for the War Department was still years away when Dern died in 1936 from kidney and heart failure following a bout of influenza.
Dern may be virtually unknown to Utahns today, but many would recognize his grandson, and his even more famous great- granddaughter: Oscar-nominated actor Bruce Dern and Laura Dern, who was recently in Utah campaigning against the jailing of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher.
One wonders if the genial Gov. Dern, who was both a lover of the outdoors and a major player in the extractive industry, could today find a way to accommodate environmentalism and development.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.