by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On 3 May 1927, voters in Los Angeles went to the polls to vote for candidates for the Board of Education, Municipal Court judgeships, and City Council. For the entire decade, most of the fifteen-member council and the office of mayor, held by George E. Cryer, were considered by many to be part of a political machine run by Kent K. Parrot.
Parrot (1880-1956) is a long-forgotten figure, but he did wield immense power for almost the entirety of the Roaring Twenties. Born in Kennebunkport, Maine, best known as the locale of the summer vacation home of the Bush family political dynasty, Parrot came to Los Angeles in 1907 and graduated from the law school at the University of Southern California.
Though he was admitted to the bar, Parrot worked his way up in politics by aligning with Cryer, an assistant district attorney known for his anti-corruption work. In 1921, the latter, with the former as his campaign manager, defeated incumbent Meredith P. Snyder for the mayor’s office amid promises of cleaning up dirty city politics.
While Cryer was ubiquitous at public events and was an unabashed booster of the city, it was widely believed that Parrot was mayor in all but name. He was said to make decisions without the consultation of and approval by Cryer, who was referred to by critics as “Parrot’s Puppet.” There were also many members of the council who were affiliated by Parrot, who never held office, though he was nominated by the mayor and rejected by the council for a seat on the Public Service Commission.
Another key figure in the “machine” was Charles Crawford, who operated dance halls and bars in Klondike Gold Rush-era Seattle (where theater impresario Alexander Pantages also got his start), before fleeing legal scrutiny for the Angel City. He operated the Maple Bar, which also had a casino and bordello among its illicit elements and which became widely patronized by business, civic and political figures, including Parrot, and cultivated partnerships with organized crime figures like Albert Marco, an old associate from Seattle. Crawford was shot to death in a sensational incident in 1931.
Cryer was initially supported by the powerful Los Angeles Times, but, by the 1925 election, as the outcry against the Parrot machine, also called the “City Hall Gang,” grew stronger, the influential paper changed its tune. While the mayor won reelection easily, matters intensified as “anti-administration” forces gained steam for the next campaign two years later, though Cryer again ran for reelection.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is the 22 April 1927 edition of the Municipal League of Los Angeles Bulletin, the monthly organ of an association of long-standing (it was formed in the early years of the century) in the Angel City and which had a ten-point “Municipal Program” that it urged candidates to support. The League’s recommendations for the City Council, though its executive committee and sub-committee on Legislative and Political Action, were based on a questionnaire given to candidates and “their reaction to a municipal program which the League has approved.”
The candidates who responded were judged by
records, personal history and references,” while it was asserted that “the League’s reputation for disinterested public service for a period over a quarter of a century should warrant the assumption on the part of the readers of our Bulletin that in recommending one candidate as against the whole field, the fitness of the candidate to serve well his city has been the controlling consideration. We do no and never have claimed omniscience or infallibility.
These points in the Municipal Program included: support for an ambitious municipal water and power program “including the Colorado River plans,” known widely as the “Boulder [Hoover] Dam” project; further development of the Port of Los Angeles, including “land leases to be in the public interest;” wise public spending, especially after recent increases in the City tax, funding for a major traffic plan, and money for police and fire department pensions; a public works department with defined responsiblities and authorities; a 50% increase in the budget for the city’s Civil Service Department; better expert advice for utilities such as gas, street railways and telephones; and “frequent conferences by councilmen with civic and improvement organizations . . . carrying news of the City’s business direct to their constituents and helping build up a live public sentiment,” especially information on initiatives submitted to voters.
Of the fifteen council seats, the League advocated that eleven incumbents be returned to office. It stated that 2nd District incumbent Robert M. Allan, who had been on the council for the six years of the Parrot/Cryer era, “thinks [the] League’s questionnaire cannot be answered intelligently.” In the 5th District, incumbent Robert S. Sparks was considered to have “100 per cent fidelity” to the water and power project, but this “does not close our eyes to his undesirability in other respects,” though these were not stated. Two other districts did not have incumbents, including the 14th, where William G. Bonelli, a 31-year old instructor in municipal government at Occidental College, was promoted as “exceptionally well qualified” and who the League “can recommend with enthusiasm.”
The 4th district was represented by [Andrew] Boyle Workman (1868-1942), grand-nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and who was seeking his fourth term, having won elections in 1919, 1921 and 1923. Workman, who was assistant to his father, William Henry, who was mayor in 1887 and 1888 and city treasurer from 1901 to 1907, was also the president of the council during his tenure.
The Bulletin recommended Workman be returned to office by noting:
his record is 100 per cent for the City’s Water & Power Program and he is for the League’s general program. His opponent [William M. Hughes] has but slight conception of the City’s problems or of a councilman’s functions. He has failed to answer the League’s questionnaire or to go on record on our general municipal program, including water and power.
Meanwhile, the publication included recommendations for municipal court judges, though fifteen of the twenty-four positions were not contested. The 5th office incumbent, George S. Richardson, “seriously detracts from the respect and dignity that should attach to the bench,” the League claimed, so it supported his opponent, Dudley S. Valentine, who was just 28 and a former locomotive fireman who became a lawyer and worked in the city prosecutor’s office.
In Department 6, the League endorsed incumbent Georgia P. Bullock, a talented singer who was discouraged from pursuing a concert career and turned to the law. She was admitted to the bar before earning her law degree from the University of Southern California in 1914. A volunteer probation officer in the woman’s section of the police court, Bullock, became an assistant district attorney specializing in prostitution cases.
After some years in private practice, the county Board of Supervisors, in 1924, named her to preside over the Women’s Court, making her the first woman judge in the state. Two years later, with courts being reorganized, she assumed a seat as a Municipal Court judge by appointment, so 1927 was her first contested election. The League didn’t say anything in its endorsement other that she was “recommended as against William R. Barnes.” Though she lost a campaign for a Superior Court position the next year, Bullock was appointed to a vacant seat in 1931 and won reelection four times to six-year terms, retiring after a quarter century and just a year before her death in 1957.
For the seven-member Board of Education, there were four positions to fill. Interestingly, there were political affiliations provided, though not the standard Republican or Democratic ones. Instead, candidates were denoted as Independent, Citizen’s Ticket, or Socialist. Not suprisingly, the Socialists were rejected out of hand, whereas two of the three Citizen’s Ticket office-seekers were definitely recommended, these being James L. Van Norman, an insurance man whose brother Harvey was the “trusted chief aide of Wm. Mulholland,” the chief engineer of the city’s Bureau of Power and Light, whose career was ruined by the St. Francis Dam Disaster the next year, and Carrie Parsons Bryant, a former member of the California Board of Education, vice-president of the state Board of Corrections, and a prominent clubwoman and ex-president of the Los Angeles Civic Association. The League suggested voters choose the other two members from the third Citizen’s Ticket candidate, Letitia J. Lytle, a former teacher, organizer of city schools study circles and the current executive secretary of the state Parent-Teacher Association, and independents Greely Kolts and Donald B. Crites.
Other contents of the publication included the final of three articles by George H. Dunlop, who from 1911 to 1925 served on five city commissions, titled “The Political Officers of Los Angeles City” and dealing with the offices of city attorney and city controller. For the former, Dunlop observed that the position was administrative, not legislative, which explained why the term was four, instead of two, years. The elective nature of the job, which provided legal advice to city departments as well as responsibility for litigation without council approval, meant that the position was not subject to “being under any pressure to misinterpret the law to please the Mayor or Council or heads of City Departments.” Moreover, the attorney appointed his assistants and deputies to further the independence of the office.
As for the controller, once called the auditor, this also involved a four-year term and the position oversaw financial record-keeping and auditing, while any payment made by the city had to be approved by the controller before being handled by the treasurer. Moreover, the controller was to make sure no department spent more than was budgeted and that funds were used for the purpose authorized. If any demands were questionable, it could be refused and then referred to the council for review and action, this being considered a mitigation of fraud. The article ended with the observation that the controller’s office “is a rock of defense for honesty and accuracy in the City’s accounts.”
Finally, there was an editorial “For What Is Reagan to Be Paid? questioning why James W. Reagan, who headed the county’s Flood Control program, was continuing to be paid “notwithstanding the unanimous verdict of the Special Committee of leading engineers which completely discredited his engineering ability.” Reagan oversaw the earliest investigations and reports on flood control more than a decade before, but, as the editorial noted, his leadership and approaches were called into question.
This led the League to wonder “is somebody afraid that unless he is thus taken care of he may spill something beside Flood waters?” especially as Reagan refused to resign on request “unless he were put on this so called consulting board,” for which he was paid $7,500 per year. Consequently, the organization called for no further voter-approved flood control bonds as long as Reagan had any role in the county’s program. It added that an outside consultant suggested “the centralizing of responsibility on one man of the Wm. Mulholland type” because “the job needed a man big enough to be a dictator.” When the St. Francis Dam disaster took place in March 1928, however, that ultimate authority wielded by Mulholland was called into question!
After adding that the supervisors appointed Reagan to a job despite the fact that he “never either designed or built a dam” and then created the consulting board with him, a man who Reagan hired as a consultant, and an engineer who previously declined to serve on a board with Reagan, the League asked (in all-caps) “IS THIS THE KIND OF A MERIT SYSTEM THAT SUPERVISOR [SIDNEY T.] GRAVES MEANT WHEN HE PROMISED THE LEAGUE HE WOULD INTRODUCE CIVIL SERVICE INTO THE FLOOD CONTROL IF HE WERE ELECTED SUPERVISOR?”
As to the primary election of 3 May, there was very low voter turnout, estimated to be about 30% of those registered, but the result was a shock to the Parrot “machine,” as the Los Angeles Times of the 5th stated,
the Parrot forces, who hitherto have controlled the city administration and the Council, suffered mortal reverses . . . in seven of the fifteen Councilmanic districts the Parrot candidates were eliminated altogether . . . in four others the boss’s candidates ran second to independents and have less than ever chances to win at the final election, June 7. In one of the four remaining districts Parrot had no candidate.
Among those incumbents who were defeated and the most surprising of them was Workman, who was not identified as being part of the Parrot machine, and it appears that his loss to Hughes, who won just over 53% of the vote, was likely more of a broad anti-incumbent feeling. The Los Angeles Record of the 4th, for example, observed that Workman was endorsed by the conservative Times and by progressives (his moderate politics were like those of his late father), and “the issue in that district was not clean-cut” in terms of why Hughes emerged victorious, though he served just one term through 1929. Workman entered the primary campaign for mayor that year, when Cryer decided not to run for a fifth term, but did not succeed and John C. Porter defeated Bonelli in the June election, not long before the Grear Depression burst forth.
In the judicial races, Valentine defeated Richardson, while Bullock won handily over Barnes. For the Board of Education, incumbent Robert L. Burns was returned to office with the highest vote total, while Van Norman, Bryant and Lytle captured the other three seats. The former served two terms through 1931, while Bryant served three terms through 1933. Lytle put in eight years in four term through 1935 and then served for fifteen years (1937-1952) on the Planning Commission, of which she was vice-president for two years.
This issue of the Bulletin, one of only a pair in the museum’s collection, is a remarkable document concerning the 1927 primary election and the roiling political situation in the Angel City as the Roaring Twenties neared its end. We’ll look to feature the other issue, from March 1924, in a future post.