The election, in 1998, of Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota was the first time since 1916 that a "third party" candidate had won a governorship. Subsequently, there has been a flurry of historical interest in that 1916 winner, Prohibition Party candidate for the governor of Florida, Sidney Catts.

The following article on Catts appeared in Prohibition History Notes in 1982. It was written by the then-president of the Society, Gene Armistead. In it, Armistead explains that Catts, who really was a maverick Democrat and not a Prohibitionist, narrowly won the 1916 Florida Democratic primary, then had the victory stolen from him on a 'recount'. Infuriated, Catts went to the Florida Prohibition Party leadership and requested their endorsement, which was given. Catts proceeded to trounce the regular Democratic candidate at the general election. Ed.

Sidney J. Catts - Prohi (?) Governor of Florida

by Gene Armistead

In the late 1800's a few Prohibitionists were elected to the office of governor on 'fusion' tickets. During the first half of the 1900's many Democratic and Republican candidates were elected while carrying the co-endorsement and nomination of state Prohibition Parties. But Sidney Johnson Catts, Governor of Florida from 1917 to 1921, was the only governor elected under the sponsorship of the Prohibition Party alone.


Sidney J. Catts was born near Pleasant Hill, Alabama in 1863. He studied law at Auburn and Howard Colleges (both in Alabama) and in 1882 received a law degree from Cumberland University, in Tennessee. After only four years' practice of law, he quit to enter the Baptist ministry. After pastoring churches in Lowndesboro, Ft. Deposit and Tuskegee, Alabama he was called to a church in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Three years later, in 1915, he resigned this pastorate and began a career selling insurance. This new occupation took him about Florida meeting people - and furnished him an opportunity to build up a political following.


In 1916, Catts entered the Democratic primary as a candidate for Governor. The Democratic organization was not at all pleased with this challenge from a novice and 'outsider' and the primary campaign was hotly contested. Catts was initially declared the winner of the party's nomination, but the Democratic leadership got the State Supreme Court to authorize a recountand Catts was 'counted out.'

Receiving the aid of a noted Florida Prohibition leader of the day, Catts, in a special caucus, received the nomination of the Independent Prohibition Party. A colorful candidate, often flamboyant on the stump, Catt's demands for reforms won him the support of many as did his attacks on the 'Roman Catholic' menace. After a bitter four-way campaign, Catts was the winner with 39,546 votes to 30,343 for the Democratic candidate, 18,333 for the Republican and 2,470 for the trailing Socialist candidate. With this vote plurality of 43.4% Sidney J. Catts became the first (and to date, the only) Governor elected on a Prohibition Party ticket alone.

As Governor of Florida, Catts found many of his progressive reform proposals blocked by the state legislature; however, reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill and of convicts were made. Road improvements, tax reforms and labor reforms were begun. He appointed a woman to his staff and endorsed suffrage for women. Anda statewide Prohibition Act was passed at his prodding. On the other hand, he shocked many of his followers by supporting local option gambling and found his administration attacked with charges of peonage and counterfeiting.

Never truly a Prohibition Party man, Catts reverted to the Democratic Party almost immediately after his election as Governor and did much to revitalize it by opening it to participation by many younger people. Ineligible to succeed himself in office, he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1920 against incumbent Senator Duncan V. Fletcher and was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin. In 1924 and 1928 he was narrowly defeated in efforts to regain the Governor's office. He led opposition in Florida to the 1928 Democratic nomination of Al Smith for the Presidency. Though never again elected to public office, and a failure in citrus growing and salesmanship, Catts remained a powerful voice in Florida politics until his death on 9 March 1936, in DeFuniak Springs.

It is unfortunate that he ill-rewarded the Prohibition Party that gave him his second chance when his Democratic nomination was lost. Even so, the election of Sidney J. Catts as Governor of Florida in 1916 illustrates that an 'unpopular' party label can be overcome by a vigorous candidate with the right timing and circumstances

A biography of Sidney Catts, "Cracker Messiah," was written by Wayne Flint and published by Louisiana State University Press in 1977.


Oil on canvas, Emma F. White, 1920

Sidney Johnston Catts

Sidney Catts was born near Pleasant Hill, Ala., on July 31, 1863. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1886 and served pulpits in Alabama until 1904, when he moved to Florida.
In 1916, Catts was elected governor as the nominee of the Prohibition Party. His administration was a turbulent one since many of the state's political leaders opposed him.

-- Randy McNutt

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