FARGO — The first state attorney general to be removed from office through a recall election in America was North Dakota's William Lemke.

He was the attorney general for North Dakota who was removed in 1921, and may still be the only one removed by this process.

That is not to say that attempts have not been made to remove other state attorneys general. Earlier this month, the effort to remove Bob Ferguson, the attorney general in the state of Washington, was unsuccessful when a judge ruled on Jan. 10 that “the reasons for recall were too vague.”

Lemke “was considered by many to be the brains of the Nonpartisan League (NPL),” a progressive agricultural organization that wielded considerable political clout in North Dakota from 1916 to 1923. Much of that success was attributed to Lemke because of his intelligence, persuasive abilities, creativity, instinctive sense in selecting outstanding political candidates and tenacious work ethic.

Lemke fully embraced the political goals of the NPL and became totally committed to implement them. According to historian Elwyn Robinson, “the League became a religion to Lemke.” However, he did make mistakes, and a big one was the cause of his recall in 1921.

In 1905, Lemke began his law practice in Fargo, and when he got married in 1910, the newlyweds decided to spend their honeymoon in western Mexico, where he had purchased some land. What he discovered totally impressed him — the land was beautiful, the climate was warm and the price to purchase the land was cheap. Lemke saw an opportunity to make a fortune, so he invested all of his money, borrowed much more and convinced many of his friends back in North Dakota to invest heavily in the Black Earth Finance Company (BEFC), which he founded.

One thing Lemke did not take into account was the fact that a revolution was starting in Mexico because of the corrupt government of President Porfirio Diaz. Rebel gangs roamed the land, looting the property owned by BEFC, and as a result, Lemke’s business collapsed. He spent the rest of his life trying to pay back the money he owed to his investors, and one of the people who had invested heavily with Lemke was William Langer.

Broke and seriously in debt, Lemke returned to North Dakota in 1911 and was hired to be the attorney for the Equity Cooperative Exchange (ECE), a cooperative agency established, owned and operated by farmers to sell grain directly to consumers. The Exchange was organized in 1907, and incorporated in North Dakota in 1911, with the local office in Fargo. The president of the ECE was John M. Anderson, who had been Lemke’s good friend when they were students at the University of North Dakota.

One of the ECE board members was Fred Wood, a man who, along with Arthur C. Townley and A. E. Bowen, founded the NPL in North Dakota in 1915. Wood knew that Lemke had a brilliant legal mind and a driving ambition to improve the economic condition of North Dakota farmers. Wood convinced Townley that Lemke would be a valuable asset to the NPL when the organization looked to gain political power in the state.

In the summer of 1915, Wood and Townley visited Lemke in Fargo, where he was recovering from typhus, and they convinced him to work full time for the newly founded League. Lemke was a Republican and was well-acquainted with a number of the political leaders in the state.

Earlier, Townley had convinced many of the state legislators, as well as Gov. Louis B. Hanna, that North Dakota needed a state-owned terminal elevator. It appeared that this would be approved in the 1915 legislative session, but Hanna ended up opposing it, and the legislature did not pass a bill to create or lease a state-owned elevator. Because of this, Wood, Townley and Bowen organized the NPL.

The NPL was an outgrowth of the Socialist Party in North Dakota that “questioned the preference given to out-of-state corporations, called for fair taxation, and demanded better services from state government.” Besides the Socialist reforms, the NPL called for full suffrage for women and state ownership of banks, mills and elevators, and insurance.

The NPL operated within the Republican Party and became a very powerful division of it when Lemke became chairman of the Republican State Committee in 1916. Lemke believed that a high priority of the NPL was to identify high-caliber candidates to run for elective office in 1916. Among his progressive friends and acquaintances selected were Lynn Frazier for governor, Langer for attorney general, Thomas Hall for secretary of state and Carl Kositzky for state auditor.

When the 1916 Republican primary was held, almost all of the NPL-nominated candidates were selected, and at the general election, all except one of the NPL-endorsed state candidates were elected, as well as 81 of the 113 candidates for the North Dakota House and 18 of the 23 candidates running for North Dakota Senate seats.

In the Senate, 24 of the members were not up for reelection. With the League in control of the house, Lemke ended up writing many of the bills for the House members. In 1917, during the first legislative session in which the NPL had a big influence, “new laws set up a grain-grinding system, guaranteed state bank deposits, established a nine-hour day for women, forbade discrimination by railroads, authorized warehouse receipts, established a state highway commission, and tripled state aid for rural education.”

Later in 1917, the NPL “went into merchandising, banking, and newspaper publishing.” It organized the Consumers’ United Stores Company, a series of stores to sell goods obtained directly from manufacturers; gained control of a number of banks in the state, including the Scandinavian-American Bank in Fargo; and also began publishing their own weekly newspaper, The Leader, along with gaining control of 45 rural weeklies.

It looked like there would be smooth sailing for the NPL going into the 1918 election, but headwinds began blowing. Many of the Democrats stopped supporting the NPL, and those Republicans who opposed the NPL formed the Independent Voters Association (IVA). Nevertheless, in the general election, all of the NPL-endorsed candidates, except for the superintendent of public instruction, were victorious, and the NPL also won solid majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Because of its power, the NPL was able to establish the Bank of North Dakota, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, a Home Building Association and an Industrial Commission. The ideas for all of these new institutions were sound, but unfortunately, due to a lack of planning, implementation, management and oversight, they all struggled. By the time the 1920 campaign was getting into full swing, “the old enthusiasm for the League was dying,” and opponents of the League attacked it for “corrupt leadership.”

In the November election, Frazier was reelected as governor, and Lemke was elected as attorney general, but the NPL lost many of the other state offices. In the legislature, the League kept a one-vote majority in the Senate, but lost the House by a four-vote majority.

In 1920, the NPL sponsored a constitutional amendment where petitions could bring about an election to recall a state official. In 1921, it was learned that the Bank of North Dakota had made a large unauthorized loan to the Scandinavian-American Bank in Fargo, a bank also controlled by the NPL. The Home Building Association (HBA) began building houses without the required 20% down payment and began to report monetary losses.

The biggest loss for the HBA involved the elegant house that was built for Lemke in Fargo. Building the house was supposed to cost $12,000, but when it was completed, the house cost $22,000. The authorized watchdog for all of these institutional failures was supposed to be the Industrial Commission, comprised of Frazier, Lemke and Agriculture and Labor Commissioner John Hagan.

The IVA saw this as an opportunity to turn these NPL leaders out of office, so they began gathering names on recall petitions and, by September 1921, had collected 73,000 signatures. The recall election was held on Oct. 21, and Frazier, Lemke and Hagan were all replaced.

Lemke may have lost his state political office, but he would later return as an important political participant on the state and national level.

A campaign poster for William Lemke. Public Domain / Special to The Forum
A campaign poster for William Lemke. Public Domain / Special to The Forum

We will conclude the story of William Lemke next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.