Sen. Bronson M. Cutting was among the most interesting men to have ever sat in the United States Senate.
New York born into a wealthy family and, like Franklin Roosevelt, educated at Groton and Harvard, Cutting settled in New Mexico believing the climate would be good for his health. He served in World War I, became a champion of veterans benefits, published the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, entered politics and was eventually appointed to a Senate vacancy and then elected in his own right.
In 1932, Cutting, a progressive Republican in the tradition of Idaho’s William Borah, was one of a handful of elected Senate Republicans who abandoned the party’s nominee, Herbert Hoover, in order to endorse Franklin Roosevelt. Imagine the impact of such a move today, and it was no less important in 1932. Cutting’s endorsement of FDR prompted speculation that the New Mexico Senator might be appointed to the president’s cabinet – Secretary of the Interior perhaps. But when Roosevelt turned to another progressive Republican, Harold Ickes, for that job, Cutting focused his legislative attention on veterans issues and advocacy of aggressive action to speed economic recovery during some of the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Before long, Cutting, like many in the Senate’s progressive caucus, grew disillusioned with both the pace of the economic recovery and the Roosevelt Administration’s failure, as they saw it, to provide relief for the millions unemployed and hurting. Cutting, as his excellent biographer Richard Lowitt notes, “was if not the lone then certainly the most prominent Anglo seeking to bring Hispanic voters into the mainstream as independent citizens without ties to either a patron or a political boss.”
Cutting favored aggressive banking reform and was also a champion of free speech and free expression and he fought against rules and regulations that banned certain publications and works of art from entering the country. During this period, Cutting carried on a fascinating correspondence with the poet Ezra Pound and their letters have been collected into a book.
When Cutting sought re-election in 1934 it was without the support of the White House, a political calculation that infuriated many of Cutting’s progressive colleagues. Cutting’s friends accused Roosevelt of disloyalty to the New Mexican who, after all, had risked repudiation by his own party for backing the president in his election. The 1934 New Mexico senate race was an epic battle pitting Cutting against a prominent attorney, Democrat and Hispanic Dennis Chavez.
The election was extremely close, but when all the votes were tallied Cutting came out on top. But Chavez, with backing from the Roosevelt Administration, alleged fraud and challenged the election. The subsequent investigation took months to play out and required enormous amounts of Cutting’s time and energy. During a return trip to Washington, D.C. after a trip to New Mexico to attend to the election challenge, Cutting died in a airplane crash in Missouri. Several other passengers survived the tragic crash, but Cutting – apparently not wearing his seat belt – died instantly. His death shocked the Senate.
Many of Cutting’s Senate friends – he was extremely well liked and respected as an honest and earnest lawmaker – were convinced the contested election had cost Cutting his life. Progressive Republican Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, tears in his eyes, told a friend, “(Cutting’s) blood is on the head of the politicians who traduced him and forced this contest on him.” Ickes confided to his diary that President Roosevelt “felt a little conscience-stricken about the whole thing.”
With Cutting dead, New Mexico’s Democratic governor appointed Chavez to fill the vacant seat and he went on to serve until 1961. Still the hurt over Cutting’s death remained. Senate progressives remained angry that the White House had supported the election challenge and they were determined to clear Cutting’s good name even as Chavez, now safely in the Senate, abandoned the election challenge. A Senate investigation eventually concluded there was no evidence of election fraud and “nothing in the record that reflects, either directly or indirectly, upon the honor or integrity of the late Senator Bronson M. Cutting.” The report was unanimous and the disputed election officially ended.
On the day Dennis Chavez was sworn in to replace Cutting, five senators quietly walked out of the Senate chamber rather than witness the ceremony and Borah was conspicuous by his absence.
When Cutting’s estate was settled some months later, he left vast amounts of money – his estate was valued at over $3 million dollars in 1935 – to many friends, office staff and, as Lowitt writes, “humble individuals” in New Mexico, many of them with Hispanic surnames. He also left a significant bequest to a school attended overwhelmingly by Hispanic students in poverty stricken northern New Mexico. The handling of Cutting’s estate only cemented his reputation as a committed liberal who devoted much of his life to bettering the conditions of the people of his state.
Lowitt’s biography also treats with care the speculation both during and after his life that Cutting was homosexual. He never married and his correspondence contains warm and loving letters to at least two adult males with whom Cutting was long acquainted. Lowitt leans toward the view that Cutting wasn’t gay and, perhaps more importantly, concludes that in the broad sweep of Cutting’s life his sexuality is not “worthy of undue attention.”
Bronson M. Cutting of New Mexico is one United States Senator worth remembering.