Remembering When North's Joe Martin Ruled the House
January 21, 2010
by Mike Kirby
The Sun Chronicle
It's been more than half a century since the Attleboro area had a player on the national political scene.
It does now.
Scott Brown's stunning upset in Tuesday's special election catapults him onto the national stage.
Just a few years ago, Brown was sitting in on dog complaints as a member of the Wrentham Board of Selectmen. Now, he's going to Washington, the hottest name in American politics, the man who could halt Barack Obama's liberal agenda.
All eyes will be on the 50-year-old lawyer from Wrentham as he casts his vote on such divisive issues as health care, taxes and war. There really has only been one heavyweight politician from the Attleboro area: North Attleboro's Joe Martin.
Like Brown, Martin was a Republican. There, the similarities end.
Martin was a lifelong bachelor; Brown has a gorgeous wife and two beautiful daughters. Unlike the dashing Brown, Martin often joked about his rather ordinary looks.
Martin's rise as one of the leading Republican congressmen of the 20th century began on Orne Street in North Attleboro, where he was born on Nov. 3, 1884, the son of Irish immigrants. His first job was as a newspaper carrier, and he later became a reporter for The Evening Chronicle, North Attleboro's daily newspaper (and one of two predecessor papers to The Sun Chronicle). While still in his 20s, he rose to become part-owner and publisher of the paper.
Politics, however, was his first love, and in 1912 he was elected his hometown's state representative. He was later elected a state senator, and by the mid-1920s, while Republicans were riding high in Washington, Martin won a hotly contested race to represent Southeastern Massachusetts in the United States House.
When the Great Depression struck and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to the White House, Martin became a leader of the opposition to the New Deal. He was, however, more of a moderate than a conservative, backing FDR on some initiatives, such as the nation's first minimum wage.
In 1939, he was elected House minority leader. A year later he was appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee.
He was his era's most important and respected Republican.
In the 1946 election, Republicans gained a majority in the House for the first time in 16 years, elevating Martin to speaker.
With FDR's death two years earlier, Harry Truman had risen to the presidency, and the United States had no provision to fill the vacancy at vice president. As a result, the small-town newspaper publisher from North Attleboro was the nation's second-ranked official - "a heartbeat away from the presidency," as Martin said. Martin, however, backed a Constitutional amendment allowing the president to appoint a vice president, one of many signs that he was willing to work with the opposition party.
Democrats regained control of the House in the 1948 election, shifting Martin back to House minority leader.
By 1952, Republicans were again in charge, and Martin was restored to speaker.
He was, in fact, the only Republican to serve as speaker of the House from 1931 until Newt Gingrich took office in 1995.
In 1958, however, Republicans fared poorly in the midterm elections, and the 74-year-old Martin was given much of the blame. He was ousted from his minority leadership position by Charles Halleck of Indiana, given an honorary title, but little power.
In 1966, nearing his 82nd birthday, Martin was defeated by 36-year-old Margaret Heckler of Wellesley in the Republican primary for the House seat he had held since 1925.
On March 6, 1968, he died at his home in Hollywood, Fla.
Today the Martin Institute for Law and Society at Stonehill College in Easton and the Martin Elementary School in North Attleboro are named for him.
It will be interesting to see what Scott Brown's legacy will be.
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