The California Gubernatorial Election of 1934 and Progressives
By Stephen Green
From the Capitol Morning Report
Even with 10 million Americans out of work in the depths of the Great Depression, many people scraped together enough change to go to the movies. In the fall of 1934, they were watching Jackie Cooper and Wallace Berry in "Treasure Island," Ann Harding in "The Fountain" and Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in "Chained." Along with the movie, they also saw a newsreel and a cartoon.
In California, there was an added feature called "California Election News" distributed by MGM, although the studio's logo was nowhere to be seen. The short took aim at a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who was scaring the bejuses out of California's establishment. He was America's most prominent Socialist and muckraking author, Upton Sinclair.
One of the most-viewed shorts showed gangs of hobos riding the rails into California to begin freeloading off a new economic system Sinclair espoused. Opponents equated it with Communism. Although many moviegoers probably didn't realize it, they were watching the beginning of media politics.
California business and Republican leaders came together as never before and spent the stunning sum of $10 million to defeat Sinclair. In the process, they changed forever the conduct of American campaigns. Until then, campaigns were run by political parties, relying heavily on getting out the vote precinct by precinct. But with the help of Hollywood moguls, public relations and campaign management moved into a new sphere in 1934.
As historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. observed, "... advertising men now believed they could sell or destroy political candidates as they sold one brand of soap and defamed its competitor." In future years, he added, techniques developed in 1934 would be refined "and begin to dominate the politics of the nation."
In his book on the election, "The Campaign of the Century," Greg Mitchell added that candidates were shown "the way from the smoke-filled room to Madison Avenue. Media experts -- making unprecedented use of film, radio, direct mail, opinion polls, and national fund-raising -- devised the most astonishing (and visually clever) smear campaign ever directed against a major candidate."
Most famous of Sinclair's many books was "The Jungle," his 1906 expose of unsanitary and deplorable working conditions in the meat-packing industry. It was credited with bringing about passage of the federal Pure Food & Drug Act.
The Baltimore native moved to California in 1916, eventually settling in Pasadena where he churned out writings with a social conscience. Fiction, non-fiction, children's books, plays, pamphlets -- Uppie, as his friends called him -- wrote it all.
As Sinclair stumped the state, he preached that "Capitalism has served its time and is passing...it's a dying system." He laid out a 12-point plan to "End Poverty in California" or "EPIC" in a 64-page booklet that was flying off shelves and newstands at 25 cents each. He titled it: "I, Governor of California, and How I ended Poverty."
EPIC would have the state rent idle and under-utilized factories, calling back workers and turning out products. Farmers would bring crops to state warehouses and receive vouchers to pay their taxes. Factory workers would exchange their products for food. The state would rent idle property around cities for "land colonies" where the unemployed could grow food with government-provided machinery.
Sinclair declared, the people "will produce so much, they will make such comfort and plenty for themselves, that they will never again be content to support the parasites of Wall Street. ... We are going to have to tax the great corporations of our state to make up the present deficit. If we make these taxes payable in services and goods, we shall have lumber, cement and other building materials out of which our people can make homes. We shall have heat, light, and gas for our offices and stores, and power for our factories."
Many voters liked what they heard. In the August primary, Sinclair received 436,220 votes -- 90,000 more than his GOP opponent -- and more than his six primary opponents combined. Nearly 10,000 Republicans voters wrote-in Sinclair's name.
Sinclair's win came at a time when the nation was in turmoil, and no where was that more evident than in California. Along with high unemployment, farmers couldn't sell crops. Factories and shops were closed. A recent general strike shut down San Francisco. In the Monterey and Central Valley, Pinkerton cops and labor organizers were clubbing each other. Vigilantes calling themselves "The Red Squad" hunted Communists in Los Angeles. And President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" was beginning to look still born.
Those unnerved by Sinclair's victory reacted shrilly -- especially the Los Angeles Times. As David Halberstam wrote, the Times was then "not an organ of the Republican Party in Southern California. It was the Republican Party."
Said the Times: "What is eating at the heart of America is a maggot-like horde of Reds who have scuttled to (Sinclair's) support. They are termites secretly and darkly eating into the foundations and the roof beams of everything that the American heart has held dear and sacred....To this end they rally uncleanly to every sore spot. They drop poison in every bruise."
Time magazine called Sinclair the most "divisive figure in America." H. L. Mencken wrote that California taxpayers would be the losers if Sinclair wins: "Upton Sinclair has been swallowing quack cures for all the sorrows of mankind since the turn of the century. (He) is at it again in California." (And Mencken was a friend!) Hollywood studio heads threatened to leave California if Sinclair won. Several made highly-publicized trips to Florida to look at property.
California hadn't elected a Democratic governor in 40 years. When Republican "Sunny Jim" Rolph won the top job in 1930, his party had a 4-1 registration edge over Democrats. But in1932, Democrat Roosevelt surprised pundits by winning the west's largest GOP state. Since then, Sinclair had brought California's Democratic registration almost even with the GOP.
Sheridan Downey became the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. There would be "Uppie and Downey" jokes throughout the campaign. Sinclair, who'd run for governor as a Socialist before, re-registered as a Democrat in 1933. Rolph had died in June 1934, elevating the lackluster Lt. Gov. Frank Merriam (known as Old Baldy or Marblehead) to the top job.
It was clear to party and business leaders that Merriam couldn't win the governorship. They had to demolish Sinclair. With just eight weeks remaining to campaign, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter were hired to do the job in Northern California. Whitaker was a former Sacramento Union reporter and founder of the Capitol News Bureau, eventually serving some 80 newspaper clients. In time, he drifted into lobbying and then is credited with becoming the nation's first campaign manager. Baxter was manager of the Redding Chamber of Commerce when he recruited her to join his Campaigns, Inc. They eventually married.
Whitaker brought a new concept to campaigns -- total management. His firm, based in Sacramento's Forum Building on 9th Street, did everything for the campaign: planning, scheduling, speeches, ad production and placement, paying bills and anything else needed.
Innovations included 30-second radio spots and planting news stories and editorials in newspapers and broadcasts. Editors and news directors were usually willing to use canned material when Whitaker also bought ads and paid in advance. He put on carefully scripted rallies and organized front groups with names such as "California League Against Sinclairism" (CLAS) to mount attacks. One CLAS initiative was the widely distributed red SINCLIAR DOLLAR from the Uppy and Downy Bank "good only in California and Russia."
His strategies became basic tenants of future campaigns: never wage a campaign defensively; the only successful defense is a spectacular, hard-hitting, crushing offensive; attempt to create actual news instead of merely sending out publicity; more Americans like corn than caviar; the average American doesn't want to be educated, he doesn't want to improve his mind, he doesn't even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen; most every American likes to be entertained... put on a good show.
Truth wasn't a concern. As author Mitchell noted, Whitaker and Baxter would take phrases from three different sentences in a Sinclair novel, "Love's Pilgrimage," and splice them into the single quote: "The sanctity of marriage...I have had such a belief...I have it no longer." Then they'd use it in an attack.
Such tactics were hardly necessary as Sinclair's prolific writings had something to offend practically everyone: the American Legion, doctors, trade groups, Mormons, Baptists and UC graduates. He'd called marital bliss "marriage plus prositituion." All religion was "a mighty fortress of graft." Boy Scouts were acting "more and more warlike every hour."
But then, six weeks before the election Sinclair poured gasoline on the fire. While talking to reporters, he was asked if deadbeats would flock to California if EPIC went forward. Sinclair sarcastically said: "If I'm elected governor, I expect one half the unemployed in the United States will hop aboard the first freights for California."
The reporters knew it was a joke and he went on to provide context about EPIC and Merriam's alleged failures. But that's not what the Los Angeles Times reported.
"HEAVY RUSH OF IDLE SEEN BY SINCLAIR" screamed the page-one headline. The story began with the quote. Within days, a similar quote attributed to Sinclair was on billboards statewide along with pictures of hobos trapsing into California with bedrolls.
Southern California's anti-Sinclair campaign had a number of creative leaders, but none was more potent than "Mr. Citrus," C.C. Teague.
He owned the world's largest lemon ranch in Santa Paula in addition to operating Salinas Valley vegetable fields. But his power-base was as head of the nation's largest cooperative, the California Fruit Growers Exchange which marketed the Sunkist brand.
Teague understood marketing and was a hard-charging innovator. He tapped California's large corporations to finance anti-Sinclair ads. He also got help from MGM's Louis B. Mayer who docked each of his employees one-day's pay for the campaign.
Like Whitaker, Teague was surprised to learn Sinclair's writings insulted just about everybody. Sinclair's statements would appear in the first targeted mailings used in a political campaign.
Teague's United for California front group solicited mailing lists statewide. Before long, leaflets were arriving in mail boxes with titles such as "Upton Sinclair on the Catholic Church," "Upton Sinclair on Doctors and Dentists," and "Upton Sinclair Calls U.S.C. the Intellectual Sweat-Shop."
Dirty tricks abounded as well. The New York Times reported Sinclair's opponents had "a whole arsenal of 'below the belt' strategies calculated to substitute embittering extraneous issues for the real ones." Derelicts (more likely Hollywood extras) were hired to walk the streets carrying placards for Sinclair. Bogus literature claiming to be from the Communist Party endorsed Sinclair.
Even the supposedly non-partisan California Newspaper Publishers' Association joined the fray, distributing anti-Sinclair editorials. Of more than 700 California newspapers, only the Huntington Park Signal denounced the tactic.
Faced with what historian Schlesinger called "the first all-out public relations Blitzkrieg in American politics", Sinclair saw his lead slip away. On election day, Merriam took 48.9% of the vote while Sinclair had 37.7% and third-party candidate Raymond Haight took nearly 12%.
Undaunted, Sinclair wrote a book on the campaign: "I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked." Sinclair kept a heavy writing and speaking schedule for years to come. In 1943, his book on the Nazi takeover of Germany, "Dragon's Teeth," won the Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to the birth of modern campaigns, Sinclair's candidacy influenced California politics in other ways. A number of his EPIC fellow travelers won state and local offices where they pushed liberal agendas. A Democrat was elected governor four years later. EPIC supporter Stanley Mosk, who later became state attorney general and a supreme court justice, said in an interview 30 years later that EPIC was "the acorn from which evolved the tree of whatever liberalism we have in California."
Stephen Green spent 30 years as a newspaper editor and reporter, and also served on the communications staff of U.S. Senator Alan Cranston in Washington, D.C. During the 1990s, he was editor of three editions of the California Political Almanac, a 500-page source book on state government and politics. In 1999, Gov. Gray Davis appointed Green to the post of assistant secretary at the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. Most recently, he served as press secretary for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.
This article is republished with the permission of the Capitol Morning Report. where it first appeared.