Like several other congressional widows from the South, Willa Lybrand Fulmer filled her late husband’s seat long enough for party officials to successfully insert a long–term successor. Mrs. Fulmer did not participate actively in the long career of her powerful husband, Hampton P. Fulmer, author of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933. But her name recognition with voters secured her a short term in the final months of the 78th Congress (1943–1945), helping to preserve a narrow Democratic majority in the House.
Willa Essie Lybrand was born in Wagener, South Carolina, on February 3, 1884. She attended public schools in Wagener and the Greenville Female Seminary. In 1901, at age 17, she married Hampton Pitts Fulmer, a successful cotton farmer, merchant, and banker. Hampton Fulmer would eventually serve in the South Carolina state house and then go on to a 23–year career in the U.S. House of Representatives that included the chairmanship of the influential Agriculture Committee. Congressman Fulmer was a tireless advocate for farmers and a major figure in New Deal efforts to alleviate their economic woes. He authored the AAA, which dealt with the problem of low farm commodities prices by controlling surplus crops and providing low–interest farm mortgage refinancing. Congressman Fulmer also authored the U.S. Cotton Grading Act, which standardized cotton–grading methods and he was well–known for helping to draft a $1.3 billion bill to build a national veterans’ hospital network.1 Willa Fulmer raised their three daughters—Margie, Ruby, and Willa—and, by the 1930s, was a fixture at many capital society events. Although she and her husband maintained a home in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Mrs. Fulmer spent much of her time in Washington, D.C., where two of her daughters settled into married life. On a roster of Representatives with family members working in their congressional offices, the name Willa Fulmer appears as an aide to Congressman Fulmer in the early 1930s; she earned $266 dollars per month, which put her in the upper salary bracket for Capitol Hill staff at the time.2
The day after Hampton Fulmer died suddenly of a heart attack on October 19, 1944, South Carolina Democratic officials phoned Willa Fulmer to ask her to run in a special election to fill her husband’s vacant seat, which encompassed six counties in the southeastern part of the state, including the city of Orangeburg.3 Congressman Fulmer’s death had reduced the Democratic advantage in the closely divided House to just two seats, sending party leaders scrambling for a sure–fire successor for the remainder of the 78th Congress. But the process was complicated because Congressman Fulmer had already been nominated, and his death occurred less than three weeks before the general election. Party leaders were forced to call a nominating convention for November 1, a week before the general election.
From the start, it was clear that Willa Fulmer would be a placeholder. While agreeing to seek the nomination, she stated she had no intention of running in the concurrent election for the following Congress. Fulmer later recalled that she acquiesced to the party’s wishes but “with a deep sense of improbability.”4 She had never been active in her husband’s political career and had little desire to pursue a public career. In the November 1, special primary, she ran unopposed for the short term in the final two months of the 78th Congress.5 For years the widely popular Hampton Fulmer had run unopposed, easily winning the Democratic nominations which, in the one–party South, were tantamount to winning the general election. While Willa Fulmer ran unopposed and enjoyed name recognition among the constituency whom her husband had served for nearly a quarter century, voter participation in the November 7 special election was extremely low; she received 7,943 votes out of the district with a population of nearly 362,000.6 Also on that November 7 ballot was the contest for the full term in the 79th Congress (1945–1947); the winning candidate, Democrat John J. Riley, received nearly 20,000 votes (97 percent) against his GOP challenger.
Days before Congresswoman Fulmer was sworn in on November 16, 1944, the Washington Post described her as “more of a southern gentlewoman than a career type,” who, nevertheless, “surprises you with her knowledge of politics and world events.”7 Whatever her aptitude for the job, however, Willa Fulmer never got a chance to demonstrate her abilities. Events were so rushed, that when House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas administered the oath of office to Representative Willa Fulmer on November 16, her election credentials had not yet arrived from South Carolina. Thus, Representative James P. Richards of South Carolina asked special permission from his colleagues to conduct the swearing–in; they consented.8 She moved into her husband’s Cannon House Office Building quarters, but during her lame duck term, Representative Fulmer made no floor speeches and received no committee assignments. Congress adjourned a month after she took her seat.
Fulmer’s two–month term ended on January 3, 1945, when John J. Riley was sworn into Congress as the district’s new Representative—the first of his eight straight terms in the House. Mrs. Fulmer returned to private life, retiring to a home in northwest Washington, D.C.9 She returned occasionally to South Carolina, engaged in agricultural pursuits, and also became an avid traveler. Willa Lybrand Fulmer died aboard a luxury liner en route to Europe on May 13, 1968.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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