by Paul R. Spitzzeri
California has its primary election coming up in a little more than a month and this may be an opportune time for the highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post: a spring 1923 campaign pamphlet for Bert L. Farmer, who was running for mayor of Los Angeles in a primary election held on 1 May. A former member of the state Assembly, and a two-term Los Angeles City Council member from 1917 to 1921, including his first two years as president of that body, Farmer ran against incumbent George E. Cryer.
Farmer was born in 1875 in Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County and his farming family also resided in Merced County during his childhood. He was still in his teens when he came to Los Angeles in 1893 and drove a delivery wagon until he got into the insurance business, initially as an adjuster. He, however, got a foothold in Angel City politics after the turn of the 20th century and served as a deputy city clerk and city schools census marshal, the latter likely helping him get appointed as marshal for the 1910 federal census for Los Angeles.
For several years, Farmer was a supply clerk for the city and served a year in the Assembly when he ran for council and secured election, as well as being named president of the body by his compatriots. While he ended his four years of service on the council two years before, his ambitions to be mayor led him to challenge Cryer and it was generally thought that the two would poll closely enough, with 50% of more of the votes needed to win outright, that they would face off in a June election.
An early reference to the campaign (these being shorter and less intensive and expensive than modern ones, including this year’s contest between such contenders as Representative Karen Bass, billionaire developer Rick Caruso, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and council members Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León) came in the 2 April edition of the Los Angeles Express in which it was stated that Farmer “is strong for a new city charter,” though it was fully recognized that developing one would take longer than a single two-year mayoral term. This was because, in addition to the time needed to write one, voters would have to approve it, followed by ratification by the state legislature.
The paper noted that “the mayor will have to do the best he can under present rules,” adding that Farmer “says he would like to show that his best is not so worse.” The Express concluded its short piece by stating, “he wants to prove, he says in effect, that it is possible to have harmony and good will—and good government—even with the old charter.”
One of Farmer’s major supporting groups was the Eastside Independent League and ads and other material in the Black-owned California Eagle indicate that the organization was comprised of African Americans. As early as 7 April, when an ad was taken out in that paper, the League declared its support once it reviewed the five major candidates and examined “their public expressions and judging them from what we know, personally, of their public acts.”
A week later, the League took out another advertisement in the Eagle and declared:
In all previous campaigns . . . we have based our argument on the high ground of fairness and general advancement of the whole people . . . We are standing for the Hon. Bert L. Farmer for Mayor of Los Angeles. Bert L. Farmer, a big, capable man with many years of experience in public affairs will go into the Mayor’s office with his hands untied . . . Mayor Farmer sees his way clear and open to advance the city of Los Angeles along proposed civic lines and at the same time conduct his high office in a sense of fairness and consideration toward all classes of our citizens.
Disavowing any idea that the organization sought “special laws” for Black residents of the Angel City, the ad avowed that the League looked for “the chief executive of his great city [to] enforce the laws under which the city is operated in such a way as to preserve the peace and safety of all.”
In the 29 April edition of the Eagle, League chair Wood Wilson and secretary Ella L. Cassels issued a statement in which they noted that “the more we know of Bert L. Farmer and the more we hear his public statements of what he considers the duty of the chief executive of a city, the more we are convinced that Bert L. Farmer is the only candidate in the Mayoralty race big enough to sit as Mayor of the great City of Los Angeles.”
Again, Farmer was paraphrased as saying he intended to “be the Mayor of ALL the people” and that, in serving as chief executive, he would be “favoring no section, no class, no individuals, but enforcing the law” while it was added that he was “a big, clean, capable man [who] will give Los Angeles an administration in keeping with the city’s development.”
Moreover, the League continued, “Mr. Farmer has been introduced to our religious and civic organizations. They have listened to him. They have judged him to be a man, cool, level-headed, capable . . .” Furthermore, “there is no question about the unanimous support he will receive from our electors” and the League confidently proclaimed, “our strength added to that of the other thousands who are supporting Mr. Farmer assures his election.” The group coined the slogan: “FARMER-FOR-MAYOR and a bigger and better Los Angeles, made safe for all its citizens.”
Another supporting organization for the Farmer campaign was the Citizens’ Committee of 10,000, which the Hollywood Citizen declared was really an offshoot of the Better America Foundation, established in 1920 as an aftergrowth of a World War I group that promoted patriotism while supporting the suppression of “radical” influences from the left wing and touted its own form of Americanization for immigrants. It is notable that transportation and real estate developer Eli P. Clark, brother-in-law of Moses H. Sherman, was a crucial figure in both organizations.
The Los Angeles Record‘s “Politicus” wrote on 28 April that “Los Angeles county’s reactionary assemblymen and state senators are sending out thousands of letters to their constituents urging support for Bert L. Farmer.” In an ad in that paper, however, the Committee espoused three “principles and purposes” including finding men and women “whose views on public service are known to be safe and sound” and in line with the Constitution and its principles of government; promoting the candidacy of such persons; and working with those elected so that the City “may have a responsible, honest and fearless government thoroughly backed by the bet people in the city.” Other than Clark as chairperson, members of the executive committee included business and real estate figures Lucien N. Brunswig; Bernal H. Dyas; W.I Hollingsworth; and Frank Meline.
As for Farmer’s campaigning, a couple of examples show his avowed views on what his role as chief executive of the Angel City would entail. In a mid-April speech to the Vermont Avenue Improvement Association at Manual Arts High School, he stated that he was for an “adequate transportation system for Los Angeles” including universal transfers for all kinds of public transit. He again repeated his unqualified support for a new charter, while reminding of the length of time for it to be developed. He then told the audience,
If elected, I’ll be a real Mayor of Los Angeles, in spite of the charter. Ho[l]d-ups and violence must cease if I have to appoint every able-bodied citizen a volunteer police officer. I’m for a new city jail and the unification of all our city departments in a new city hall. I favor the control of the police department by the Mayor of the city, and I want the people to hold the Mayor responsible for conditions as they exist.
On the 26th, Farmer addressed supporters in San Pedro and claimed that and and Cryer “will run very close” in the primary so that “there is no hope for an election at the primary.” He again addressed the matter of a charter and said “I can do something for the city before a new charter can be framed.”
Reiterating the idea of working harmoniously with all city departments to get better results, the candidate added, “I shall not play a one-string fiddle if I am elected,” noting “there are ways and means of bringing other city officials around to your way of thinking when you are right and it is easy to agree with them when they are right.” He ended by addressing district representation, observing he saw that first-hand with the harbor city when “our own candidates for the council didn’t know that San Pedro is a part of Los Angeles.”
While the Municipal League, formed in 1901 for the purposes of improving city administration, simply stated in its ads that “we are not satisfied with the record of Bert L. Farmer,” especially his view of municipal utility operations, while promoting the reelection of Cryer as “an official of high purposes, who was endeavored to serve his city well,” the Citizen took a more nuanced and pragmatic position.
On 9 April, the paper editorialized that “Mayor Cryer is a well-meaning man of little executive ability trying his best to fill a big executive position” and criticized him for not heeding the advice of his own Hollywood appointee to the Board of Public Utilities concerning improving transportation, such as with streetcars, in the community. While it said the appointment generated warm feelings for the mayor, the Citizen recognized that the choice for mayor came down to Cryer or Farmer and concluded, “between the two we will tolerate much from Mayor Cryer before we would choose Bert Farmer in preference.”
A few days before the primary election, the paper stated that Farmer “is supported by the so-called Better America Foundation, masquerading under the name of the ‘Committee of 10,000.'” It averred that “the reasons for their support need not be looked into” but, when it came to finding a reason to consider supporting him, it claimed there was not “a single reason advanced to the public for supporting Bert Farmer.” It went on,
We know of nothing that Bert Farmer has done that makes him fit timber for the mayoralty. We have been told nothing by his friends and supporters. They ask us to vote for him but point to no record that reveals him as a type desirable for an efficient public servant.
On the other hand, it is not difficult to find men personally acquainted with the candidate who believe it would be a most serious mistake to place him in the mayor’s chair.
Cryer may have made mistakes and the Citizen added that, if it could choose the chief executive, it would bypass the incumbent, but “the fight is between Farmer and Cryer” and “as between the two we see absolutely no choice for the voter seeking only good city government.” The paper also reported that the Cryer campaign was confident the mayor would win 55% of the vote and secure reelection.
On the day of the election, the Los Angeles Times, having endorsed the incumbent, observed that “the great majority of the influential civic leaders and organizations” backed Cryer, while it also recommended that voters return Boyle Workman, son of former mayor and city treasurer William H. Workman and great-nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, to the council, in which he succeeded Farmer as president and would remain so through 1927. Remarkably, another candidate for the City Council was Booker T. Washington, Jr. (1887-1945,) son of the late great Black leader and a realtor who lived on 12th Street between Central Avenue and San Pedro Street in the old African-American section of downtown.
As the returns were counted, it was not only clear that Cryer would win election, but would do so decisively, with Farmer a distant second. While it was hoped for a turnout of at least 100,000 voters, the total was about 90,000 and Cryer garnered more than two-thirds of the tally, while Farmer only captured just below 20%. The mayor went on to win reelection campaigns in 1925 and 1927, so that he was chief executive for the Angel City for nearly the entirety of the Roaring Twenties, even if his affable personality and ubiquitous public appearances masked tremendous corruption in city government during his eight years in office.
With respect to Farmer, he returned to the insurance world as a broker and retired at a relatively young age of 59 and suffered from poor health for most of his remaining five years of life, dying in 1939. The pocket-sized pamphlet featured here lists officials, board and commissions in the rapidly expanding city government, listing whether the former were appointed and elected and what their salaries were, while the latter were briefly described as to appointment and compensation, if any.
Three of the panels promoted Farmer’s candidacy and promoted his “Experience! Ability! Character!” while outlining his background and describing his basic platform and community involvement:
He stands for economy, co-operation between departments, adequate fire and police protection and improvements and betterments of the harbor district. He favors a new city charter adapted to the needs of this community. He is a member of many of the prominent clubs and fraternal organizations.