Metro-East News

News-Democrat publisher won House seat, five terms as mayor

The front page of the News-Democrat on April 4, 1911: Publisher Fred J. Kern was elected major of Belleville.
The front page of the News-Democrat on April 4, 1911: Publisher Fred J. Kern was elected major of Belleville.

As rough as we think politics gets today, things were worse in the past.

Back then, candidates didn't just sling mud, and sometimes there were sticks and stones included. Or, as in one case, eggs.

The time was October 1900 and there was a hot race for a metro-east House seat between Belleville News-Democrat Publisher Fred J. Kern and incumbent Rep. William A. Rodenberg.

Naturally, the News-Democrat was in full of support for Kern. But on the other side was the Belleville Daily Advocate, a Republican-leaning newspaper that reported on an egg-throwing incident during a speech by Rodenberg in Venedy.

With much hyperbole, the newspaper reported that on Oct. 22, Rodenberg was "delivering a masterful and convincing address and was making some telling points when some 'Kernite' in the audience raised up in his seat and threw two eggs at Mr. Rodenberg, one of which barely missed him."

In response, the News-Democrat printed an article explaining that the eggs were thrown through an open window, not from the crowd, and that the thrower was the son of a local prominent Republican trying to cause trouble.

Meanwhile the East St. Louis Journal was just as vehemently opposed to Kern and published many anti-Kern spiels, including several lists of derogatory comments Kern had made in his newspaper about East St. Louis.

The paper noted that Kern had penned the following: "Hog pens under sidewalks along the principal streets are adjuncts known only to our enterprising neighbor, East St. Louis." Also, "If it wasn't for the near proximity of East St. Louis, there would be no need in Belleville for courts and offices and all the machinery of the law."

The Daily Advocate printed items such as the winner of the St. Patrick's Parish fair mock vote, which was Rodenberg. And it speculated that the political bets at the time were favoring Rodenberg. Political bets were thought to be an indicator of who was going to win.

"A conservative estimate is that over $20,000 was placed in wagers," the Daily Advocate noted.

The largest-single known bet was $5,000 wagered by Mack Forman that Rodenberg would beat Kern for Congress. "William Bender of the Western Brewery of Belleville and M.W. Borders, the lawyer, handled the Kern end of the bet," the paper noted.

In November, the day after the voting, the large Advocate headline read, "A Grand Republican Victory," which was true on the national and state levels.

"In St. Clair County, it looks as if everything has gone to the demo-pops," the paper said as the Democrats elected their entire county ticket.

It was not until several days later that the Daily Advocate got around to writing about Kern's victory and then blamed "the Republican slump in East St. Louis, where the Democrats carried the entire city."

In the next House election, two years later in 1902, Kern again had a powerful platform from which to respond, noting in the News-Democrat on Nov. 3, 1902, "A small circle of human vultures have conspired to bring about my defeat at the polls tomorrow by the use of methods which do not bear the endorsement of and are forbidden by all good men."

On Election Day, Nov. 4, the News-Democrat's large, front-page banner headline read, "Vote For Fred J. Kern For Congress."

The next day the paper offered an excuse as Kern was defeated.

"The congressional race was a victory for Rodenberg, not because he was the popular candidate, but because the counties where he secured his pluralities over Mr. Kern went strongly Republican," the paper noted.

Kern, who was involved in almost every organization and cause in Belleville, would bounce back and win five terms as mayor.

In 1904, when Rodenberg defeated Belleville's Nick Perrin for Congress, the bet of note wasn't monetary. A wager between John Jansen, a Belleville sweets shop owner, and Gus Schwarz, a hotel employee, said that the backer of the losing candidate would climb a pillar on the front of the Hartnagel-Harrison drug store, according to newspaper accounts.

Jansen was the loser and attempted to clandestinely climb the pillar shortly after midnight on election day but was spotted by a newspaper reporter and a couple of Rodenberg supporters, who made the incident public.