Byron G. Carney

“Byron J. Carney headed for U.S. census birth,” Oregonian, Sept. 13, 1939, p. 6.

Byron G. Carney


Byron Gordon Carney was an important figure in the push to abate water pollution in Oregon. As a state senator in 1937, he authored legislation (Senate Bill 414) to centralize water quality oversight in a single state body; this bill passed both the House and the Senate, but Democratic Governor Charles H. Martin vetoed it on March 12, 1937, asserting that it placed an undue burden upon municipal tax payers who would be compelled to pay for expensive sewage treatment infrastructure.[1] Later that year, Carney led a committee of the Oregon Stream Purification League that wrote a citizen’s initiative for the November 1938 election that proposed to create the Oregon State Sanitary Authority. This initiative was stronger than the bill that Governor Martin had vetoed, and voters overwhelmingly approved it on November 8, 1938.[2]

Democrat Byron Carney of Milwaukie served three two-year terms as an Oregon state senator from 1935 to 1939. Conservative Republican C. C. Chapman, editor of the Oregon Voter, said of Carney that he “was not a major factor in the senate” in spite of the respect he earned for his “booming voice, vigorous delivery,” and the “fine scholarship” of his speeches. Carney was born in Illinois in 1875 and worked in various fields before he moved to the Portland area in 1918 to work in the shipyards. Among other things, during his life he taught school, served as a Wyoming circuit court clerk, and was appointed as a First Lieutenant in the 9th Illinois Volunteers during the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899 (the unit did not see active service). Additionally, he was a Methodist missionary in Illinois and Wyoming for seventeen years. While he served as a state senator in Oregon he was listed as a semi-retired carpenter.[3]

Chapman noted that Carney was a “left-wing” senator and characterized him as “the crusader to be expected as an ex-evangelist and early political follower of William Jennings Bryan.” As such, Carney supported the grange and labor movements and critiqued some aspects of the American capitalist system in his advocacy for public ownership and a production-for-use (instead of profit) economy. Carney also supported the fundamentals of Dr. Francis Townsend’s proposal for a nationalized system of support for senior citizens—“Townsendism”—a movement that served as the catalyst for the 1935 Social Security Act.[4]

During his tenure as senator, Carney proposed legislation to reform the state’s mental institutions, chaired the Senate Committee of Fish and Fisheries, and sponsored the senate bill repealing Oregon’s criminal syndicalism law that restricted constitutional rights to assembly. These achievements led Oregon Commonwealth Federation (OCF) Executive Secretary Monroe Sweetland to characterize Carney as “a leader of the liberal forces in outstanding support of every measure of social justice,” and another OCF member to laud him as a “proven New Dealer.”[5]

The OCF brought together an array of individuals and groups on the progressive side of the political spectrum. In addition to advocating for old age pensions, civil rights, and public power, the OCF was also strongly motivated in opposition to Governor Martin who, though registered as a Democrat, was staunchly anti-New Deal. The OCF held their inaugural meeting in April 1937—just weeks after Governor Martin’s veto of Carney’s S.B. 414—and elected Carney First Vice President. In early 1939, the OCF promoted Carney for a position as Commissioner on the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. He did not get this position, but in September 1939 President Roosevelt did appoint Carney Director of the 1940 U.S. Census in Oregon, a position that some OCF members interpreted as patronage due for Carney’s liberal views and his commitment to New Deal policies. The Oregonian characterized this selection as “one of the ripest patronage plums of 1940.”[6]

Carney supported public power initiatives and in 1938 completed a survey on the use of power from Bonneville Dam at the request of Bonneville Power Administration head J. D. Ross. Carney also served as Chair of the Portland chapter of the American League for Peace and Democracy in the late 1930s. After his tenure as state senator, in early 1939 Carney spoke in favor of civil rights laws that the Oregon Legislature was then considering.[7]

Carney won the 1942 Democratic Primary campaign for Senator from the 12th District (Clackamas), but lost the November 1942 election to Republican Howard C. Belton.[8]

Members of Oregon’s Democratic Party elected seventy-three-year-old Carney as chair of the party’s State Central Committee in 1947. Carney ran unsuccessfully for Oregon Secretary of State in 1948.[9]

Byron Carney and his wife Aldyth retired to El Cajon, California, in 1950. His wife died in El Cajon on February 6, 1959, and he died there on August 3, 1971, at ninety-six years of age. Carney is buried in Portland’s Lincoln Memorial Park.[10]

Written April 14, 2012

[1] Governor Charles H. Martin to Honorable Earl Snell, Oregon Secretary of State, March 12, 1937, folder Senate Bills #410-419, box 29, Secretary of State 1937 Legislature 39th Session Records, OR State Archives. See also “State’s Executive Denies Signature to Legislative Acts,” Oregonian</>, March 13, 1937, sec. 1, p. 3.

[2] James V. Hillegas, “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962,” MA thesis, Portland State University, 2009, pp. 53-62.

[3] C. C. Chapman, “Who’s Who in the 1937 Legislature: Byron G. Carney,” Oregon Voter 88:1 (Jan. 2, 1937), 22.

[4] C. C. Chapman, “Who’s Who in the 1937 Legislature: Byron G. Carney,” Oregon Voter 88:1 (Jan. 2, 1937), 22. For more on Townsendism, see Rick Mayes, Universal Coverage: The Elusive Quest for National Health Insurance (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2004), 24-25.

[5] State of Oregon, Official Voter’s Pamphlet for the Regular General Election, November 2, 1948, p. 72; A. E. Harding to Charles H. Leavy, May 17, 1939, Box 7, Oregon Commonwealth Federation Records, University of Oregon Archives, Eugene; Monroe Sweetland to Harry Hopkins, May 3, 1939, Box 7, Oregon Commonwealth Federation Records, University of Oregon Archives, Eugene.

[6] Jill Hopkins Herzig, “The Oregon Commonwealth Federation: The Rise and Decline of a Reform Organization” (MA thesis, University of Oregon, 1963), 12-13, 80; “Byron J. Carney Headed for U.S. Census Birth,” Oregonian, Sept. 13, 1939, p. 6; State of Oregon, Official Voter’s Pamphlet for the Regular General Election, November 2, 1948, p. 72

[7] “City News in Brief—Peace Meeting Today,” Oregonian, July 13, 1938, p. 11; “Debates Staged on Civil Rights,” Oregonian, Feb. 28, 1939, p. 4.

[8] “Senate List Top Given,” Oregonian, May 17, 1942, sec. 1, p. 19; “G.O.P. Backed by Clackamas,” Oregonian, Nov. 5, 1942, sec. 1, p. 16.

[9] Robert E. Burton, Democrats of Oregon: The Pattern of Minority Politics, 1900-1956 (Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1970), 107; State of Oregon, Official Voter’s Pamphlet for the Regular General Election, November 2, 1948, p. 72.

[10] “Obituary: Mrs. Aldyth Carney,” Oregonian, Feb. 9, 1959, sec. 1, p. 15; “Obituaries: Rev. B.C. [sic] Carney,” Oregonian, Aug. 5, 1971, sec. 2, p. 20.

  1. The 1940 U.S. Census & Willamette River pollution: What’s the connection? « Speaking for the River
  2. A Sketch of Water Quality-Related Events in the Eugene Area « Speaking for the River

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