by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A lot has been made of the presidential primary campaign of Bernie Sanders and the significant level of support he received for ideas that he has identified as being rooted in “democratic socialism.”
There was a time when “socialism,” however that is defined, had a powerful role in Los Angeles politics. The high-water mark was, unquestionably, the 1911 mayoral campaign of Job Harriman (1861-1925).
It was a fascinating period. The excesses of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, massive immigration of eastern and southern Europeans to America, the ramping up of the country’s capitalist industrial economy, and reform movements, such as Progressivism, were all part of the mix of forces that were at work during the era.
In Los Angeles, the political scene had been dominated by capitalists and conservatives who largely kept an “open shop,” meaning free of unions, and the Los Angeles Times, owned by Harrison Gray Otis who was assisted by son-in-law, Harry Chandler, reflected the dominant political ideology.
Yet, the reformers gained significant ground in those first years of the 20th century, including the Socialists and Harriman, a minister and attorney who ran as the vice-presidential candidate for the party with perennial presidential contender Eugene Debs in 1900.
On 1 October 1910, the headquarters of the Times was bombed, killing twenty-one persons and creating a furor when two brothers, John and Ortie McNamara, were arrested, charged and tried for the terrorist attack on the conservative stronghold. One of the McNamaras’ attorneys was Harriman, who was thoroughly convinced of their innocence, subscribing to the views of many that they were being “railroaded.” The lead lawyer for the defendants was the famed Clarence Darrow, later of Scopes Monkey Trial fame.
Harriman out-polled Democratic candidate George Alexander in the mayoral primary election, held on Halloween night, scoring 44% to Alexander’s 37% (an independent took 18%, denying a majority for either of the others.)
Then, just before the general election, held on 5 December, Darrow convinced the McNamaras to plead guilty in the Times bombing case, shocking Harriman and raising a ruckus for the campaign. Alexander rode the wave of sentiment that followed, trouncing Harriman in the general election 62% to 37%.
The Harriman campaign published a campaign newspaper, The Coming Victory, of which a copy is in the Homestead’s collection. The accompanying photos show parts of the 25 November edition, which was issued ten days before the general election.
Not surprisingly, articles in The Coming Victory addressed what the Socialists considered some of the most egregious examples of excess by Los Angeles capitalists. The main target was the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the massive water project that was less than two years from completion, and which was controversial for many reasons, including the acquisition of Owens Valley land, much less water.
The Aqueduct also spurred capitalists like Harry Chandler, Henry E.Huntington, and others to cheaply buy a huge portion of the San Fernando Valley and then reap the profits when the Aqueduct project was realized, because the coming water sent land values skyrocketing.
The paper also lambasted the capitalist control of the expanding Los Angeles Harbor, which became the region’s main port of entry in the “Free Harbor Fight” of the 1890s. Another article claimed that socialists were being targeted for murder by the rhetoric espoused in a 2 November article in the Times (some might see some parallels with comments made a certain candidate this year!)
None of this could, of course, foresee the stunning news of the McNamara plea and the disastrous effect on the Harriman campaign. Undaunted, the socialist politician ran again two years later, but the 1913 endeavor, with the primary held in early May, netted only a 26% vote for Harriman and his third-place finish shut him out of the general election held a little less than a month later.
Harriman went on to form the Llano del Rio utopian colony, another interesting phenomenon of the era, a 2000-acre project in the Antelope Valley. Launched in 1914, there were, at the peak, nearly a thousand residents at the communal community, but the endeavor failed by the end of the decade. Harriman tried a similar scheme in Louisiana, which managed to survive through most of the 1930s, a decade or so after his death.
So, as debate continues about the “democratic socialism” of Bernie Sanders and how it and its supporters will affect this year’s presidential election and, potentially, the American political landscape generally, this look back at the brief surge of socialism in conservative Los Angeles a century ago allows us to compare and contrast the two in historical context.