Rabalais’ Political History: Wade O. Martin & the creation of the modern SOS office

In 1956, an epic power struggle between two political giants forever changed the scope of statewide elected offices in Louisiana. The tug-of-war pitted then-Gov. Earl K. Long, who always liked a good fight, against Wade O. Martin, the bookish, bespectacled, bow tie-wearing secretary of state.

According to Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl and Louisiana Politics, their feud stemmed from an earlier election, when Long fielded candidates to challenge the re-election bid of Martin’s father, a longtime PSC member.

Martin took the double cross of his Daddy personal, as they had both been loyal allies for the Long machine. Furious and betrayed, Martin began to hint at a gubernatorial bid.

When word got back to Long, he decided to have the Legislature strip the secretary of state’s office of any significant duties. Floor leaders obeyed and filed bills creating two new statewide offices, elections commissioner and insurance commissioner.

The new officials were to manage the most important and lucrative parts of Martin’s job, overseeing elections and regulating the state’s insurance industry. That meant Martin would be relegated to administering the archives, swearing-in public officials and certifying acts and orders.

When the bills were first heard, as chronicled in The Saga of Uncle Earl,“ Martin and Long shouted insults at each other, nearly came to blows when they wrestled over a microphone, and both had to be restrained.”

When it became clear to Martin that he was going to lose the final vote, he headed for the back of the chamber. Instead of leaving the drama behind him, though, Martin encountered the source of his demotion. Sitting near the exit was Long, grinning ear to ear.

Uncle Earl had won this round, but Martin was in it for a long haul. While his nemesis died four years later, Martin stayed in office until 1976, serving under a total of five governors. He died in 1990.

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