Charlotte T. Reid had already enjoyed a career as a nationally acclaimed singer before she began her second career relatively late in life as the widow and successor of a congressional candidate who died in mid–campaign. Opponents objected that Reid’s celebrity did not prepare her for public office. But Reid, a fiscal conservative who opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs while supporting American intervention in Vietnam, demonstrated her political aptitude by gaining a seat on the prestigious Appropriations Committee in her third term.
Charlotte Leota Thompson was born on September 27, 1913, in Kankakee, Illinois, the only child of Edward Charles Thompson and Ethel (Stith) Thompson. She attended public schools in Aurora and the Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. In 1932, she left Illinois College, without taking a degree, to pursue her musical interests. In 1936, Thompson auditioned and won a spot on a popular, Chicago–based show, Don McNeill’s “Breakfast Club.” Thompson sang under the name Annette King for nearly three years as the show’s featured vocalist and became a voice familiar to millions of Americans who listened on the National Broadcasting Company network. On January 1, 1938, she married Frank Reid, Jr., an Aurora attorney. They had four children: Patricia, Frank, Edward, and Susan. Charlotte Reid left her music career for marriage and motherhood, pursuing several civic interests in Illinois, including the March of Dimes, the Child Welfare Society, and the Girl Scouts.
In 1962, Frank Reid, Jr., won the Republican nomination for an Illinois seat in the House of Representatives but died suddenly of a heart attack in August during the campaign. Republican leaders in the traditionally conservative district just west of Chicago persuaded Charlotte Reid to run in her husband’s place. Though she had little political experience, Reid was an effective campaigner. With the support of retiring Illinois Congresswoman Marguerite Church, she won the general election against Democrat Stanley Cowan, a Dundee, Illinois, businessman, with 60 percent of the vote. Reid was sworn in to the House on January 3, 1963.1
Reid faced only one serious challenge, during the 1964 election cycle. Democratic opponent Poppy Mitchell, a mother and college graduate who had never held political office, ran on a pro–Lyndon B. Johnson, Great Society platform, charging that Reid was “unconcerned” about educational improvements and welfare programs. Mitchell managed a grass–roots door–to–door campaign, serving coffee to constituents from an old mail truck and an armored car painted white with red and blue lettering, converted into “Poppy Wagons.”2 Reid’s duties in the House kept her from campaigning actively until late in the summer, but she remained the favorite, given the district’s traditional conservatism. Moreover, her celebrity and national name recognition from her show business years made her a popular figure among GOP candidates, who heavily recruited her to canvass their districts and stump on their behalf. Among the nearly 20 invitations she received from House colleagues on the campaign trail, Reid campaigned in the districts of House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck of Indiana and GOP Whip Leslie Arends of Illinois.3 Reid ran on a platform opposed to President Johnson’s proposed expansion of federal welfare programs. On the campaign trail, Reid countered, “The federal government has grown big and powerful, and in my way of thinking, exercises far too much control over each of us.”4 She also suggested that Congress needed to provide funding for a strong military force to achieve “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Reid prevailed with 58 percent of the vote, an impressive result considering the size of Lyndon Johnson’s electoral landslide and his lengthy coattails, particularly in Illinois, where Johnson piled up a nearly 900,000–vote margin over Republican nominee Barry Goldwater. After that election, Reid never again was seriously challenged, winning in 1966, 1968, and 1970 with 72 percent, 68 percent, and 69 percent of the vote, respectively.5
In Congress, Reid favored fiscal austerity and shrinking the size and scope of the federal government. “I dislike labels as such, but if I have to have one,” she once said, “it would be as a conservative Republican.”6 She served in the 88th Congress (1963–1965) on the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. In later terms, she also served on the Public Works and the Standards of Official Conduct committees. In 1967, Reid received an assignment on the Appropriations Committee, just the third woman ever to serve on that panel. During the 88th Congress, she introduced a constitutional amendment to allow public school students to engage in noncompulsory prayer, noting that prayers preceded the daily business of Congress. The Supreme Court decision to ban prayer in public schools, Reid contended, “encourages agnosticism and atheism.”7 She opposed antipoverty measures such as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and voted against community renewal programs, increased aid to education, and support for low–income home buyers, largely on the basis of reining in the federal budget. “My guiding principles on all questions are economy, decentralization of federal power and freedom of the individual,” Reid said in a New York Post interview in July 1964. “Not many bills offered today pass that check list.”8
Reid was an unwavering supporter of the military policies of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in Vietnam. In December 1965, she became one of the first Members of Congress to visit South Vietnam after the dramatic expansion of U.S. military forces earlier that summer. Reid paid the costs of the four–day trip on her own, rode helicopters into the war zone, visited the sprawling American bases at Da Nang and Bien Hoa, and boarded the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ticonderoga in the South China Sea. “I want to reassure our fighting men that the overwhelming majority of loyal Americans stand back of them 100 percent,” Reid said. Her support did not waver, even as American forces became mired in an intractable conflict that eventually drew more than a half–million troops into Southeast Asia. In 1968, Reid voted for the Scherle Amendment to a higher education bill that banned student protesters from receiving federal loans. She also opposed the Cooper–Church Bill, which stipulated that the President could not expand the war into Cambodia without congressional approval.
Reid’s conservatism, however, did not cross over into several significant social issues. Though she did not seek out the label, Reid was a strong supporter of women’s rights. “I don’t like to think I am interested just in women’s issues,” she once said.9 Nevertheless, Reid advocated the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, which was sponsored by Democrat Martha Griffiths of Michigan. Reid, Patsy Mink of Hawaii, and Catherine May of Washington state made international headlines for their efforts to open up the House gym to women lawmakers. She regularly encouraged women to enter politics. “You have to work hard, and you don’t have time to see the latest shows or read everything on the best seller’s list, but you have the satisfaction of seeing some of your ideas enacted into law,” she once told a gathering of the League of Republican Women.10 “Men respect our opinions and ideas,” Reid said. “Small as our numbers are [in the House], we create a needed balance in the complicated business of adapting our governmental processes to the requirements of a changing society.”11
On July 2, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Reid to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to succeed fellow Illinois Republican Thomas J. Houser. Reid, with some reservations, resigned her seat and accepted the appointment. Nixon was eager to place a woman on the FCC, and Reid was only the second in its history. Reid acknowledged wanting the relative security afforded by the seven–year appointment. But perhaps the most compelling reason was electoral and derived from imminent redistricting changes after the 1970 Census. In 1971, the Illinois state legislature agreed on a reapportionment plan that split her district in two. A portion went into Republican Robert McClory’s district northeast of Chicago. But the vast majority of Reid’s old district was merged with a portion of the old district south of the city, which had for nearly three decades elected House Minority Whip Leslie Arends to Congress. Had Reid remained in the House for the 1972 elections, she would have had the unenviable task of facing Arends in the GOP primary or of challenging McClory in a district where she had almost no base of support.12 The Senate confirmed her appointment on July 22, 1971, with little debate, though the Nixon administration asked her to remain in the House until several pieces of its legislative program cleared the floor. Reid resigned from Congress on October 7, 1971.
During her FCC tenure, Reid was a strong proponent of a hands–off approach to regulation, suggesting that the market, rather than federal overseers, should determine media content. Shortly after marrying H. Ashley Barber, a manufacturer of construction equipment from Aurora, Illinois, on May 26, 1976, Reid resigned from the FCC. Later, she was a member of the President’s Task Force on International Private Enterprise from 1983 to 1985. She also served on the board of overseers of the Hoover Institution from 1984 to 1988. Reid resided in Frankfort, Michigan, and in Geneva, Illinois. On January 24, 2007, Charlotte Reid passed away in Geneva.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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