by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles grew rapidly as a major western American metropolis in the first years of the 20th century, it had more than its share of scandals befitting such an elevated status. In the throes of political upheaval and as Progressivism became a stronger force in the Angel City and California generally, a prominent figure in city politics was George Alexander (1839-1923). Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Alexander migrated to the United States with his parents when he was eleven years old and spent much of his adult life in Iowa, where he was a successful grain merchant. As did so many, he resettled in Los Angeles during the great Boom of the Eighties, arriving in 1887 when William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was the chief executive of the burgeoning city. Continuing his vocation, Alexander then turned to politics within several years, including eight years as a county supervisor from 1901-1909.
When Los Angeles Mayor Arthur C. Harper, a native son, was forced to resign because of scandal, Alexander threw his hat in the ring for the special election in March 1909 and won the race. Highly regarded for his honesty and integrity, the 28th chief executive of the city ran for reelection in 1911 and faced an unusual situation. Despite its status as an “open shop” city, in which labor unions were not nearly as well represented as in many other American metropolises, Los Angeles had a serious mayoral candidate in Job Harriman who was an avowed socialist democrat and who lived in San Gabriel before moving to Los Angeles to run for the office. Harriman was rising in popularity, especially among the working classes, but the bombing of the strongly pro-business and virulently anti-union Los Angeles Times in October 1910 proved to be a pivotal event in many ways, including the effect it had on the mayoral campaign the following year.
The election, as it had been for many decades, was then held in early December, in this case on the 5th. Not only was the strong showing of socialist Harriman of note, so was the watershed year of 1911 for state and local electoral politics. That year, the state experienced the seismic shift of having the initiative, recall and referendum enacted, as well as women finally securing the right to vote in elections from the state to local levels. This, of course, meant a much larger electorate for the mayoral campaign, though whether the benefit would accrue more to Harriman or to the incumbent was, of course, to be seen.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection is a campaign card for the Alexander reelection campaign, as well as others on the slate of what was known as the “Good Government Organization,” created to combat the scandal-ridden political environment of Los Angeles. So, along with the mayor, there were listed candidates for city attorney, city auditor and city assessor, the nine candidates for the city council (there were nine wards at the time,) and seven candidates for the board of education. Among the extensive press coverage of the campaign were several examples featured here, including one from the 1 December edition of the Los Angeles Express concerning a mass meeting at Blanchard Hall of the Women Wage-Earners Alexander Club supporting the mayor’s reelection effort and the Good Government slate. Speakers included Judge Albert M. Stephens and two other men, while Frances Richardson, pictured in an accompanying photo, orated on “The Growth and Triumph of the American Flag,” a subject she delivered frequently in city schools. Though the club was just two weeks old, the Express reported that it “has increased in numbers so rapidly and the interest has become so general that it has been decided to take up the matter of permanent organization immediately on the close of the campaign in which it has done so much effective work.”
As for the specter of socialism, there was plenty written about that, especially from the Times, which rapidly recovered from the horrific bombing of its offices and plant to advocate even more strongly for Alexander and the Good Government organization and to plead with greater urgency against socialism as represented by Harriman. In its issue of the 3rd, the paper printed a statement from the Los Angeles Realty Board which urged readers to “Wipe Out Forever the Smudge of Socialism.” Claiming that the election was the most important in city history (and which are not to those heavily invested in them?), the organization asked “Do you know that there is congregated in the city the greatest gang of professional criminals, crooks, and outlaws to be found in any city of the United States?” It went to inquire, “Why have we from 2500 to 3000 strikers from all parts of the West in this city at this time drawing $1 per day, charged to remain here until December 6?” as well as a purported “1500 idle members” of a miners’ union “now planted” in Los Angeles and receiving free room and board until after the election. They were, it was averred, there “for some especial purpose,” though what was not stated.
The realty board went on to proclaim that Los Angeles was in a much better state of prosperity than San Francisco, with its corrupt government and “its crippled industries,” due to unionism, and added that the Angel City was in such a superior position because “it is an open shop city and a free city—a non-union city.” After claiming that there were several thousand criminals and deplorables in its midst, the organization continued by asking “is there today a happier, more contented lot of decent, law-abiding citizens gathered together anywhere in the world than in this city?” It countered that with another query: “Can’t you tell what a blight the election of Job Harriman would put on this city and all of Southern California throughout the rest of the world?” People would stop moving to the region and property values would plummet, capital would dry up, the future of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, under two years from completion, would be uncertain and discontent would have free reign. On the other hand, “George Alexander is an honest man. He has been tried; his record should cause you to uphold his hand” and his reelection was required to avoid the travesty of having Los Angeles “be cruelly wrecked by your indifference and apathy.”
In speeches at the end of the campaign, Alexander talked of the ruin that came to San Francisco from pro-Union policies and claimed that the unions in the City By the Bay was envious of the fantastic rise of Los Angeles “and injected this class hatred in our city,” which had no such animosity even if there were political differences. Referring to his Harriman, the mayor claimed that “technically he is a resident of Los Angeles. Practically he is not. We don’t know what he would do if placed in the Mayor’s chair.” Yet, Alexander merely followed this by stating that “you know what we have done. He only tells you what he would do.” He then claimed that Harriman “only represents one class . . . that is a dangerous kind of man to put in power. I am a Mayor for all the people.” He repeated the canard that, if the socialist was elected, “you will lose your homes . . . building will stop . . . money will be withdrawn from circulation” and his final word to one group was “when you vote, remember your home.”
Oilman Samuel C. Graham, who was president of the Good Government Organization, issued a statement, published in the Times tying Harriman to the ongoing case against the brothers John and James McNamara, accused of the bombing of the paper, noting that Eugene Debs, frequent socialist candidate for president, with Harriman his running mate in 1900, claimed, as many pro-union leaders did initially, that the McNamaras were framed. Graham pointed out that Harriman was associated with Clarence Darrow as a defense attorney for the brothers and sincerely believed in the brothers’ innocence and was blindsided by the sudden shift to a guilty plea offered to the court by Darrow. This shift occurred after the primary vote on 31 October, which Harriman won with about 45% of the vote, and it proved to be extraordinarily damaging to Harriman’s campaign. As for the other socialist candidates, the Times disparaged them as not being on the tax rolls of the city, having little or no political experience or just generally being “unprepared and unsuitable men.” A couple of them were singled out for being black (George W. Whitley, a city council candidate) or a Mormon, albeit from a reformed “non-polygamous branch” (T.W. Williams, also seeking a council seat.) It added that C.W. Grow was recently released from jail for the assault of a non-union man.
A Times cartoon asked “Do We Want This Kind of Government Here?” and showed a miniature Harriman seated on the “Mayor’s Chair” with two wild-eyed union figures on either side, one with his hand on Harriman’s head controlling his movements. These menacing figures hold baseball bats, one labeled “The Right to Picket”, while the other has a bomb with a lit fuse at his feet and is holding a flag labeled “Anarchy.” While the message was clear with this and many statements made by Alexander’s supporters that Harriman represented lawlessness, chaos, and economic disaster, the shock of the McNamara brothers’ guilty pleas was a major blow to the socialist’s candidacy.
One newspaper that took a different tack from the Times and the Express was the Record, though that paper fixed its commentary on the idea “that every Harriman vote be cast if we are going to keep Los Angeles from again falling under the domination of the old S[outhern ] P[acific] machine,” the idea that the powerful railroad would seek to try to expand the exertion of undue influence on city government. To the Record, Alexander “erstwhile representative of good government” was “now ready to do anything if he can only hold onto his job.” Notably, the paper decried attempts by pro-Alexander forces to foment the idea that there was massive voter registration fraud in districts leaning towards Harriman and that this was instigated “TO TRY AND FRIGHTEN HARRIMAN VOTERS SO THEY WILL NOT GO TO THE POLLS ON TUESDAY.”
It was also alleged that “special officers” were appointed, purportedly, to see that voting was conducted under existing law, but that they were simply there at the behest of a cabal of big business, the railroad, the Good Government Organization, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief, Charles E. Sebastian (a future mayor who would also resign after becoming mired in scandal), an Alexander appointee. The paper queried, “how much of a chance do you think the man or the woman who is for Harriman has of getting a square deal at the hands of these special officers, if the slightest excuse is offered by which they can make trouble for such voters?” Finally, the Record reminded its readers that, while Harriman was criticized for his role on the McNamara defense team, Good Government school board candidate Joseph Scott was also part of that team. Given this, the paper then opined that “there is certainly no reason in Job Harriman’s connection with the McNamara case, which has not been nearly so close a connection as that of Joseph Scott, why anyone intending otherwise to vote for him should not do so.”
The Record offered its own cartoon lampooning “Big Business,” the “Old Guard,” the “Good Government” crowd and Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Times, preparing for “battle” from “Camp Harmony” atop a hill overlooking the city, while a much-smaller Alexander, riding a toy stick horse and tied to the Big Business rider on a real steed, blurts out “I’m So Ner-v-ous.” The paper also published a brief interview with noted journalist Lincoln Steffens (whose family’s Sacramento home has long been the governor’s mansion), known for his diatribes against political corruption. Interestingly, Steffens, when asked “do you believe in the principles of socialism,” responded “as far as they go. But they don’t go far enough. The socialist have one BIG IDEA. So have the single taxers.” When queried whether he’d vote for Harriman if he could (Steffens did not live in Los Angeles), he answered “I WOULD VOTE THE WHOLE SOCIALIST TICKET . . . SINCE I HAVE SEEN THE WAY THE WHOLE COUNTRY HAS TAKEN THE ADJUDICATION OF THE MCNAMARA CASE I HAVE GAINED STRONGER BELIEF IN SOCIALIST SUCCESS.”
As noted above, the McNamara plea deal shook Harriman’s campaign badly and the result was an overwhelming triumph for the incumbent and the Good Government slate, with Alexander besting the socialist by 34,000 votes and winning 62% of the vote. The mayor served his two-year term (that was the length for many years) and, after he stepped down in 1913, Harriman mounted another run for the office, but finished third in the May primary with 26% of the vote and with Republican Henry H. Rose winning the lection the following month (this was the first election to move to spring dates and they remain either atthe end of winter or in early spring today.) Harriman turned to founding a socialist colony, Llano del Rio, in the Antelope Valley and then one in Louisiana, though he returned to Los Angeles and died there in 1925. As for Alexander, he lived a retired life after completing his mayoral service and died in Los Angeles on 2 August 1923, the same day President Warren G. Harding died in San Francisco while on a national tour.
The card has a photo of Alexander on one side and asks the recipient to “Vote for the Honor and Prosperity of Your City,” while the reverse lists the Good Government candidates, but there are also some interesting inscriptions in pencil, with one stating “1st election after epic suffrage Dec 5 ’11,” another noting “all elected,” meaning the ticket, a third observing “Papa one of election board Precinct No 2” and the last, next to the mayor’s portrait, recording “Died summer 1923.” It is not known who the inscriber was, however, but the card is a representational artifact for a very consequential election in early 20th century Los Angeles, with some elements even reflected in our current political climate almost 110 years later.