Victor Houston, a former U.S. Navy officer descended from a prominent Hawaiian family, represented the Territory of Hawaii for six years. His career as Territorial Delegate overlapped with the onset of the Great Depression, an economic crisis that motivated him to steer federal money to Hawaii and weigh in on immigration issues important to the islands’ agricultural industry. In a year in which many Republican candidates went down to defeat for overseeing a battered economy, Houston’s congressional career ended abruptly, though not primarily for reasons related to the Depression. Rather,
to great effect, his Democratic opponent bludgeoned Houston’s political position on a sensational murder case that had racial undercurrents.
Victor Stewart (Kaleoaloha) Houston was born on July 22, 1876, in San Francisco, California, to Edwin Samuel Houston, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and a Pennsylvania native, and Caroline Poor Kahikiola Brickwood, a native of Honolulu. His mother was from one of Honolulu’s old and established families; her father, A. P. Brickwood, was the longtime postmaster of Honolulu.1 Victor had one sister named Edna.2 He attended grade school abroad in Dresden, Germany; Lausanne, Switzerland; the Force School in Washington, DC; and Werntz Preparatory School in Annapolis, Maryland.
In 1897 Houston graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. A year later, he served aboard the USS Iowa, as it investigated the sinking of the USS Maine, which helped to precipitate the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.3 The Navy first assigned Houston to Honolulu, Hawaii, in late 1909 to serve as a lighthouse inspector for the district of Hawaii.4 It was during his one-year stint in that position that Houston married his cousin, the former Pinao G. Brickwood, in 1910. The couple raised an adopted daughter, Gwendolyn. Pinao died in 1936.5
Houston served 32 years in the Navy and eventually commanded the cruiser USS St. Louis. He retired as a commander in 1926, was recalled to active duty during World War II, and advanced to the grade of captain on the retired list in 1943.
Though Houston had declared Hawaii as his residence for nearly two decades, his naval career kept him away at overseas posts nearly all that time. He had very little practical experience in island politics. Therefore, when he decided to make his first run for elective office by entering the GOP primary in early September 1926, he hoped to secure the party nomination for Hawaii’s lone Territorial Delegate seat in the U.S. Congress on the strength of connections in Washington that he had built up during his naval service. He argued that he could make the best case for commercial development on the islands that would match, if not outpace, federal appropriations for military installations. “I believe that the greater service we are destined to render is as a commercial base rather than as a military outpost,” he declared in a campaign advertisement. To that end, he advocated securing federal money to dredge and enlarge the harbors at Hilo, Kahului, Kauai, and Honolulu.6 “Unknown in Hawaiian politics until a bare month ago,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser observed the morning after the primary, Houston easily topped his nearest opponent, A. L. Louisson.7
In the general election, Houston challenged the popular two-term incumbent, Democrat William P. Jarrett, a former law enforcement officer and warden of the Oahu Prison. Democrats attacked Houston as being little more than a carpetbagger, a claim that he and other surrogates actively refuted during the campaign. “I have been a registered voter here and during the last four and a half years have voted in this Territory,” Houston said. “Before that I voted for [Jonah] Kuhio. I have claimed my residence in Hawaii for the last 18 years, as the books of the Navy Department in Washington prove.”8
The principal policy issue, however, revolved around commercial development and the tariff. Houston opposed efforts to undermine tariff barriers that protected industries and, ultimately, he argued, wage earners. Of particular concern, he claimed, were Democratic efforts to effect tariff changes that would have lowered or removed supports for Hawaii’s sugar industry.9 On Election Day, November 2, 1926, Houston captured majorities on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kauai; only Oahu broke for Jarrett. Territory-wide, Houston prevailed with 18,160 votes to Jarrett’s 16,372, roughly 52.5 to 47.5 percent.10 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser described Houston’s campaign as “clean-cut, clear-cut, straightforward … free from invective, vituperation and mud-slinging.” The editors congratulated voters “for their foresight in sending him to Congress. They will not regret it.”11
After Delegate Houston was sworn into the House on opening day of the 70th Congress (1927–1929), he was placed on eight standing committees. While eight committees was atypical for most Members at the time, House leaders often assigned Delegates to a range of panels to give them jurisdictional oversight of important issues in their territories.12 Houston served on three of these committees for the entirety of his House career: Agriculture; Post Office and Post Roads; and Territories. Additionally, he served on the following panels: Military Affairs (70th–71st Congresses, 1927–1931); Naval Affairs (70th Congress); Immigration and Naturalization (72nd Congress, 1931–1933); Merchant Marine and Fisheries (72nd Congress); and Public Lands (71st and 72nd Congresses, 1929–1933).13
While Houston delivered relatively few floor speeches during his career—usually less than a dozen in any given session—he spent the bulk of his time testifying before House and Senate committees on a range of bills that affected Hawaiian interests. His legislative wheelhouse was what one would expect, mainly relating to the large military presence on the island, particularly the Navy. He spoke on issues related to pay for officers and retirees, the transfer of military lands to the territory, military construction, military housing at Wheeler Army Airfield, funding for the Hawaiian National Guard, and federal acquisition of private fishery rights in Pearl Harbor. Houston also weighed in on the
need for federal money for infrastructure improvements and public works projects, including dredging Honolulu Harbor and building roadways.14 Another primary area of focus for Houston was agriculture, including monitoring both tariff rate schedules for produce and the immigration status of Filipinos to meet the labor needs of the islands’ sugar and pineapple industries.
During Houston’s freshman term in the 70th Congress, he tended to local concerns. Testifying before the Ways and Means Committee as it considered a tariff rate adjustment for domestic sugar, he argued that Hawaii should be considered a “domestic” producer and that the rate should be hiked from 2.2 cents per pound to 3 cents. He also argued that coffee growers in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, who tended to be small-scale growers, should be protected by a higher tariff on their product as well (5 cents per pound). Houston noted that Hawaii produced 7 million pounds of coffee per year and Puerto Rico produced more than 25 million. Both territories, he estimated, were capable of producing 200 million pounds per year.15 In early 1928, Houston testified before the Committee on World War Veterans’ Legislation in support of his bill H.R. 9584, which sought to extend the total and permanent disability rating to servicemen who had contracted leprosy in Hawaii.16
During his second term in the 71st Congress (1929– 1931), Houston’s focus turned to the islands’ economy as the country slid into the Great Depression. Often economic questions intertwined with immigration issues in Hawaii’s multiracial economy. In the second session of the 71st Congress, he testified before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, which was considering legislation to restrict Filipino immigration to the United States. Richard Welch of California, chairman of the Labor Committee, introduced a bill to curb the flow of immigrants, which he described as an “invasion” of the Pacific Coast and a problem that exacerbated the already difficult employment situation in the midst of the economic crisis.17 Critics disparaged the suggestion as patently unfair to people already living under the U.S. flag. Delegate Houston agreed with that sentiment, but objected primarily on the grounds that cutting off the Filipino immigrants to Hawaii would devastate the agriculture industry on the islands because those immigrants provided the bulk of the unskilled labor. Houston argued that Hawaii ought to receive an exemption to any such ban.
Under examination by committee members who probed into the history of Hawaii’s diverse population, Houston noted, “We in Hawaii have heretofore rather prided ourselves that because of lack of racial prejudice in the islands, and a good bit of that lack of racial prejudice has come about by reason of the attitude of the Native Hawaiians themselves, we have always felt that there is a real melting-pot there and it is working and may possibly serve as an example to the rest of the world.”18 Indeed, Hawaii managed to win an exemption for Filipino laborers not on the merits of Houston’s defense of Hawaii’s multiracial society, but through the agriculture lobby marshaled by the islands’ wealthy planters.19 Houston also believed the National Origins Act of 1924 ought to be amended to allow U.S. citizens to bring Asian wives into the U.S. and put them on the path to citizenship. Conversely, he recommended amending a loophole in the Cable Act of 1922 that denied women of U.S. citizenship
their citizenship rights if they married a non-U.S. citizen of Asian descent.20
Additionally, Houston secured a payment of federal highway funds to Hawaii of nearly $1 million, money that the Bureau of Public Roads had withheld from the islands from 1917 to 1925 because it had made the administrative decision that the World War I–era law covering such appropriations did not apply to the territory. Houston convinced his colleagues that it had, in fact, been the intent of Congress that Hawaii should be covered.21
Houston weighed in on American governance of its other Pacific territories. He testified in the fall of 1930 before the American Samoan Commission, a group created by the President to recommend legislation to Congress on how to organize the ceded territory. Houston believed that the territory could not be placed on the road to statehood, yet should be given autonomy. He suggested that through an organic act Samoa should create a government with the designation of something like dominion status. “In other words, [Samoans] will govern themselves with an American advisor who will not be a governor but simply an advisor to the governing authority.” He also believed that, since Samoans were “under the American flag and cannot owe their allegiance to any other country, it would be only fair to give them an American citizenship status.”22
During the 72nd Congress, Houston introduced a bill (H.R. 5130) “to enable the people of Hawaii to form a constitutional government to be admitted into the Union on equal footing with the states.” But it died quietly, being referred to the Committee on Territories, where no action was taken. Nor, apparently, did Houston speak on behalf of the bill on the House Floor.23 Of even greater consequence was the fact that the influential Hawaiian planter class was unsupportive, given that the act of empowering elected representatives might dilute their lobbying influence in Washington, DC.24
In early 1932, Houston testified before the Committee on Insular Affairs in a hearing about independence for the Philippine Islands, noting in his prepared statement “that I am wholeheartedly in favor of independence for the Philippines because many of the questions that are bound up in [Hawaiian] interest will be solved automatically by such definite action.”25 The primary question he was concerned with, however, was an economic one. He favored inserting a provision in the legislation to exempt the Territory of Hawaii from any federal immigration restrictions imposed on an independent Philippines. The free flow of Filipino laborers into Hawaii was critical to the sprawling sugar and pineapple industries on the islands.
Houston had won easy re-election in 1928 against Democrat Bertram Rivenburgh, capturing 72 percent of the vote. Two years later, after the onset of the Great Depression, he claimed a narrower victory over Democratic stalwart Lincoln McCandless with 53 to 47 percent of the vote.26
A longtime rancher and farmer and a former member of the Hawaii territorial house and senate, McCandless, one of the islands’ wealthiest landowners, was again Houston’s Democratic opponent in the general election of 1932. Republicans nationally were on the defensive as the Great Depression deepened and Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt swept down-ticket Democrats into Washington. But Houston’s biggest hurdle was a contentious local campaign stirred by a sensationalized, racially charged murder case in which he had intervened.
McCandless attacked Houston for tinkering in what became known as the Massie case, in which five nonwhite men were charged with raping Thalia Massie, the wife of a naval officer, in the fall of 1931.27 The alleged perpetrators stood trial, but the jury was deadlocked. Afterwards, the alleged victim’s husband, Thomas Massie, her mother, and several other white U.S. Navy personnel kidnapped and shot one of the alleged rapists.
Houston spent time testifying before congressional committees to defend the Hawaiian judicial system in the wake of the hung jury.28 When another Hawaiian jury found Thomas Massie and his codefendants guilty in April 1932, Houston urged Governor Lawrence Judd to pardon them, which he did, commuting their sentences to an hour shortly after the judge handed down a sentence of 10 years. Houston had advised Judd, “Since justice seems to have been served by the recent findings, may I as an individual urge you to exercise your pardoning powers at the appropriate time? I also recommend that you allow the present defendants to remain in the custody of the Navy until the matter is finally disposed of. I am convinced the Hawaiian interests will be best served by the suggested action.”
Houston believed that pardoning the defendants was the surest way to preserve home rule and prevent Congress from imposing harsh restrictions already percolating their way in committee on the territorial government.29 McCandless, according to the New York Times, called that position “an act of treachery to the Hawaiian race.”30 Shortly before the election, on the campaign stump, McCandless pilloried Houston. “How did the delegate show his love for Hawaii?” he asked an audience. “He telegraphed from the other side to let the navy men go. And back they went to the man of war.… I want you people to remember that. Send him back to the man of war where he comes from.”31
McCandless also capitalized on the economic crisis to score political points against Houston. He criticized Houston’s advocacy on behalf of Filipinos seeking to immigrate to Hawaii to serve as agricultural laborers, insisting that the work they performed on sugar and pineapple plantations ought better be left to citizens of the island. He further suggested that Houston served an “invisible government” dominated by Hawaiian planters.32
Houston countered the charge by noting that Hawaii was unable to supply the necessary native labor force and that, once it had a sufficient homegrown pool of labor, he would favor immigration restrictions. He also suggested that Democrats in Congress were leading efforts to rein in home rule on the islands and that McCandless’s claims to the contrary were spurious.33 Houston, the Star-Bulletin editors reminded readers, “has always stood while Hawaii was under fire. He was out in front defending Hawaii’s name.” His experience and knowledge of DC would prove crucial, the editors insisted, in the campaign to retain self-government on the islands. By contrast, McCandless was “completely inexperienced in the work of government … absolutely untried in Washington and would be without experience and friends when Hawaii’s affairs came up for consideration in the legislative halls and executive departments.”34
But the headwinds against Republicans nationally, combined with the charges that the incumbent had betrayed Native Hawaiian interests in the Massie case, created an electoral wave that McCandless rode to victory. McCandless racked up more than a 4,000-vote lead in Oahu and narrowly won Kauai. When the votes were tallied from across the islands, McCandless prevailed with 29,431 to Houston’s 27,017 (52 to 48 percent).35
Aside from his World War II naval service, Houston largely retired from public life after leaving Congress. From 1935 through 1941, Houston served in an appointed position on the Hawaiian Equal Rights Commission. From 1945 to 1951, he was a member of the Hawaiian Homes Commission. He also served on the islands’ Territorial Loyalty Board in the early 1950s.36 He died in Honolulu on July 31, 1959, less than a month before Hawaii formally became the 50th U.S. state.
On the House Floor, Delegate John A. Burns of Hawaii memorialized Houston by recalling his reaction just months earlier to Hawaii’s admittance into the union. “It’s not a time for whooping it up,” Houston said. “It’s time for sober happiness, for really enjoying the situation. We have the same rights as the citizens on the mainland.”37 It was that fidelity to Hawaiian culture and his workmanlike attitude, Burns observed, that made Houston such an asset to the island’s constituents. “Victor Houston was sincerely dedicated to the advancement of Hawaiians of Polynesian ancestry. Every available opportunity to stimulate their pride in themselves and their traditions and to encourage the Hawaiians to hold and work for the highest possible aspirations was made by him,” Burns said. “His contributions to the institutions of Hawaii were substantial and material. Hawaii is a better place for his having lived and worked.”38
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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