Election Oddities


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The year was 1910. Few of California’s 58 counties had surfaced roads. It was easier to get your horse shod than to find a gas station. Yet the Republican candidate for governor that year carried his campaign to every hamlet aboard a bright red “Locomobile.”

Hiram Johnson’s hard-won victory made political history. His subsequent reforms—the initiative, referendum and recall, plus removal of party labels in local elections—broke Southern Pacific Railroad’s longtime grip on our state government. Johnson was California’s first politician of national importance, the governor against whom successors would be measured.

His election is remembered also for causing a lasting family rift. The new governor’s father, Grove Johnson, had long been Southern Pacific’s wheelhorse in the legislature, and he saw his son’s stance as a personal betrayal. Years later, after Hiram joined Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose revolt, old Grove remained unforgiving, saying, “Let this prodigal son eat of the fatted calf of repentance.” The two never reconciled.

From such beginnings evolved California’s tradition for election oddities. As when, back in 1962, Congressman Clem Miller was reelected although dead two weeks on Election Day.

Or in 1918, when a Johnson reform called “cross-filing” first failed us. This rule permitted candidates to seek partisan nomination on more than one ticket—an incumbent’s dream. The legislature became a repository for political eunuchs the harem found it couldn’t be rid of. (In 1940, two of every five state senators and 80 percent of the Assembly were elected as both Democrats and Republicans in the June primary!)

Cross-filing had an even nuttier side. San Francisco’s Republican mayor, James (“Sunny Jim”) Rolph, won the 1918 Democratic primary for governor while running second in his own party. Under the law, he was barred from the November ballot—and waited another dozen years to become governor.

Depression-era 1934, the first midterm election for Franklin Roosevelt, proved a glory time for New Deal Democrats—everywhere but California. Here, establishment forces ganged up on the “Sunkist utopian” nominee for governor, Upton Sinclair. Theater newsreels, a staple of pre-television times, showed fake footage of hobos riding the rails into California, proclaiming their intent to freeload off Sinclair’s promised bounty. The hoax worked, and he lost.

But 1934 also witnessed what may be the strangest triumph ever of a dark horse for any office. The locale was downtown Los Angeles, in an Assembly district long represented by cross-filing Republican Clair Woolwine. The fate visited on this legislator foreshadowed the clout that came to be wielded by lobbyist Artie Samish, “the secret boss of California.”

Something Woolwine had done offended one of Samish’s brewery clients, who insisted on fielding a candidate against him. Samish instructed one of his minions, a Bill Jasper, to find some sacrificial lamb from within a populace consisting mainly of winos or others down on their luck.

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