Early in October 1934, the California Real Estate Association was holding its annual convention at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara. “California Straight Ahead” was the theme of the three-day event, whose honorary guests included Harry H. Culver, founder of Culver City, Nevada governor Morley Griswold, and California governor Frank Merriam.
The 1934 convention was markedly different from past gatherings. Though such real estate-related topics as industrial zoning, brokerage commissions, and bankruptcy procedures were discussed, a more pressing concern was on the minds of the men who attended—particularly Robert A. Swink, the association’s president. On the second day of the convention, Swink gave an address to his fellow attendees. “I am sure I voice the wish of every realtor in California,” he said, “when I express the hope that our beloved state and country may never see the time when communism shall get a foothold. I feel confident every realtor in California will be found standing on the side of true Americanism, under the Stars and Stripes, ready to die, if need be, in defense of country and home.”
The “communist” threat Swink warned of was none other than his Pasadena neighbor Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle and other novels, who was running for California governor as a Democrat. His campaign was called EPIC, or “End Poverty in California,” and it had thrown state business leaders and conservatives into a fit.
The previous month, Mary M. Everett, president of the Women’s Republican Club of Pasadena, had excoriated Sinclair in a speech to the Friday Morning Club of Los Angeles, while endorsing his Republican opponent, Frank Merriam. “Whoever casts a vote for a candidate other than Merriam,” she warned, “may be responsible for the election of Sinclair, and is as much of a traitor to true Americanism as the man who willfully fires a blank cartridge, instead of a bullet, in defense of the flag.”
It was the midst of the Depression, and 900,000 Californians were out of work. Basic necessities like food were no longer affordable, and farmers were destroying livestock and crops in an effort to raise prices by increasing demand. Labor disputes between striking workers and their employers had turned violent.
The same month the realtors met in Santa Barbara, Sinclair wrote in The Literary Digest: “A man’s attitude toward this situation depends upon one factor. If he believes that private industry is ‘coming back,’ he is willing to wait and endure and patch things up. But finally it must occur to him to wonder whether the thing called ‘prosperity’ will ever come back again.”
Sinclair’s plan instead called for the state of California to take over abandoned farms and factories and put them to use for production instead of profit. The unemployed, if they chose, could work and live on these self-supporting “land colonies,” while private industry would continue as it always had. To support his plan, Sinclair proposed heavier income taxes on the wealthy, additional taxes on corporations and utilities, and a tax on stock transfers of four cents per share. Those “who by medical examination [...] proved to be physically unable to earn a living” would be supported through a state pension system.
Sinclair saw his plan as a moral imperative. “There is no excuse for poverty in a state as rich as California,” he said. “We can produce so much food that we have to dump it into our bays.”
To conservatives like Swink, and J.C.W. Hinshaw, president of the Pasadena Realty Board and a prominent Republican, it was a do-gooder scheme that smacked of communism. When Swink returned to Pasadena, he had posters printed claiming that Sinclair would “seize homes” if elected and that the unemployed from other parts of the country would flood the state.
At one point, Sinclair would hardly have seemed a threat worthy of this kind of rhetoric. He was famous for his outspoken socialism, but hardly a revolutionary. He owned a row of houses on Sunset Avenue, played tennis at the exclusive Valley Hunt Club, and hiked the San Gabriels with automaker Henry Ford.
Though Sinclair had run for California governor twice before, his campaigns had been wildly unsuccessful. During his first gubernatorial bid in 1926, he ran as a socialist and gave only one speech—at Brookside Park, where he advocated elimination of the “water monopoly” and claimed, “all great slave empires were based on irrigation.” Only a handful of people showed up that day—October 24, 1926—and though the message resonated with some of them, Sinclair won only 4% of the popular vote in that election.
A second campaign in 1930 was even less effective, and by 1933, Sinclair realized that his socialism was limiting his chances of entering mainstream politics. That year, he was persuaded to run for governor by a group of California Democrats concerned about the toll the Depression had taken on the state.
Sinclair re-registered as a Democrat on September 1, 1933, prompting the California Socialist Party to symbolically “fire” him and denounce the Democratic Party as a “powerful and dangerous enemy of the working class.”
With an imaginative pamphlet titled I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty—A True Story of the Future, Sinclair rallied support for his campaign. Aiding him were many young and energetic progressives, including future science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, who headed the West Hollywood Democratic Club; future state supreme court justice Stanley Mosk, and future Los Angeles superior court judge Robert Clifton.
Early on, many candidates jockeyed for support, but after the primaries in August 1934, it came down to Sinclair, Frank Merriam, and a third-party candidate, Raymond L. Haight, who was running on the Progressive ticket. Sinclair chose Sheridan Downey, a former district attorney from Wyoming, as his running mate, and the two were soon known as “Uppy and Downey.”
Sinclair had a mixed group of supporters that, according to historian Greg Mitchell’s book The Campaign of the Century, included “Utopians, technocrats, Townsendites, progressive Republicans, New Deal Democrats, ex-Socialists and secret Communists, all united by a belief in a perfectible society.” He was endorsed by fellow authors Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Parker; actors Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow and James Cagney; and United States Postmaster General James A. Farley, who said: “By electing Upton Sinclair … California will have a combination of leaders in Washington and in Sacramento who can cooperate in the best interest of the people of the state and of the nation.”
The campaign relied heavily on volunteers. In a 1972 interview with the University of California, Robert Clifton recalled: “The campaign was strictly ‘from hunger’ and I got no money or aid from the headquarters downtown. No one had ever heard of the idea of a paid campaign worker in the Sinclair organization [...] If we wanted a sign, we made it ourselves.”
Carey McWilliams, a reporter who covered the campaign for The Baltimore Sun, had a similar memory. “It was strictly grassroots,” he told an interviewer from UCLA’s Oral History department in 1982. “Money was raised in nickels, pennies and dimes. There were no professionals in the campaign.”
Sinclair won more votes in the primaries than all the other candidates combined. EPIC helped register 300,000 new Democrats, making the Democratic Party a serious political force for the first time in the state’s history. By August 1934, California had 1,000 EPIC clubs. In Pasadena, a Young EPIC Democratic Club was established, and for weeks, EPIC campaigners spoke at Eliot Middle School, Muir High School, Garfield Elementary School, and Hamilton and Webster elementary schools.
Sinclair’s political speeches drew thousands. During an appearance at the Oakland Auditorium on October 25, 1934, an estimated 10,000 people showed up. At the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on November 2, 1934, 16,000 people arrived and more than half had to be turned away. Elsewhere, Sinclair drew audiences “as big as 40,000 for his speeches,” recalled Merrell Farnham Small. “Across town, Merriam, or somebody speaking for Merriam, at a meeting, would have two or three hundred. And all this began to frighten people.”
Sinclair sensed this fright and knew his plan would not be popular with everyone. “The whole power of vested privilege will rise against it,” he predicted. “They are afraid the plan will put into the minds of the unemployed the idea of getting access to land and machinery by the use of their ballots.”
At the time, the unemployed had every right to be frustrated. Even those who had jobs were earning less than a living wage. A farm worker in 1934 could expect to earn between 20 and 25 cents an hour—roughly $1.50 in today’s money. Throughout 1933 and 1934, agricultural workers, dockworkers, dairy workers, and others had gone on strike for better pay, better working conditions, and the right to unionize—leading to bloody clashes with their employers, policemen, and even the National Guard.
In October 1933, cotton pickers in the small town of Pixley, California went on strike to protest poor pay and mistreatment. In an ensuing clash with armed ranchers, two strikers and a representative of the Mexican consulate were shot and killed. Eight ranchers were brought to trial in the killings, but they were acquitted and a barbecue was thrown in their honor.
When lettuce and artichoke pickers went on strike in the Salinas Valley in August-September 1934, they were shot at by ranchers, beaten by the California Highway Patrol, and had their labor camp burned to the ground.
Labor conflicts in the state threatened to boil over into all-out war. In July 1934, the entire city of San Francisco shut down following a longshoremen’s strike that claimed the lives of two men. More than 100,000 union workers walked off their jobs in protest, and the California National Guard was called in to keep order. For days, soldiers in tanks and trucks with mounted machine guns patrolled the streets, giving the eery feeling of a city under siege.
The man responsible for deploying the National Guard was Frank Merriam, who put the blame for unrest “squarely on the shoulders of Communist agitators,” as the L.A. Times reported. “It is not a bugaboo held up to frighten women and children,” he told a Kiwanis convention in Coronado, California on October 20, 1934. “Communists have attempted to destroy food supplies to whole cities, and have worked their way into schools and colleges.” Of the longshoremen’s strike, Merriam said, “I’m not sorry it happened. It gave us practical demonstration of what the Communists would do if they ever ascended to power.”
Sinclair empathized with the frustrations of California’s workers. He himself had been arrested while protesting at a dockworkers’ strike in San Pedro in May 1923. His conscience would not allow him to be silent when, in January 1934, an ACLU lawyer representing lettuce pickers in the Imperial Valley was kidnapped and beaten by members of the local American Legion. The incident prompted Sinclair and other ACLU representatives to send a personal telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Outbreak of armed violence and uncontrolled mob action,” the telegram warned. “State of terror exists.”
If “class warfare” had erupted in the state, on the political scene, another war—one of words and propaganda—was gearing up. Sinclair’s prediction about vested privilege was about to come true, as a massive anti-Sinclair media campaign funded by California’s wealthiest businessmen gained momentum.
Check this section for Part 2 soon…