Chance plays a much greater part in most men’s lives than they are willing to admit. It was certainly chance that made me a monopolist, chance that put a copy of one of Henry George’s books into my hands and opened my eyes to the great gulf that it fixed between the beneficiaries of Privilege and its victims, chance that sent me to Congress, chance that brought me into contact with Mayor Pingree and his three-cent-fare crusade, chance that sent old Mr. Wilson to my room at the Waldorf that winter night and caused me to give up the game of business for the game of life, and again it was chance that made me a candidate for mayor of Cleveland.
As soon as I had completed the sale of the Lorain steel plant and of the Nassau and Detroit street railways, my brother and his family and I, with my family, went to Europe to spend the summer. I came home to attend as a delegate the national Democratic Convention at Kansas City, where Mr. Bryan was nominated for the second time.
Knowing that I never accepted the “sixteen to one” doctrine some people were disposed to question the constituency and propriety of my support of Mr. Bryan in 1896, and to excuse it in 1900 on the ground that the money question was a dead issue.* I worked with those who accepted Mr. Bryan’s doctrine because I believed that the free silver fight was the first great protest of the American people against monopoly – the first great struggle of the masses in our country against the privileged classes. It was not free silver that frightened the plutocratic leaders. What they feared then, what they fear now, is free men. The money question was not a dead issue in 1900 and so long as Wall street interests dictate our financial policies the money question cannot die.
On January 8, 1901, I spoke at a Jackson Day banquet in the Kennard House, Cleveland, and announced that I was now practically free from business and intended to devote my life to politics. I said that I would not be a candidate for any office, but would fight in the ranks for the principles of democracy. A little more than a month later I was nominated for mayor. On February 1, a delegation of fifty Democrats called on me at my home and presented me with a petition signed by 15,862 names asking me to become a candidate. It would have been cowardly for me to refuse to run simply because I had publicly announced that I had no intention of doing so.
Harris R. Cooley was one of that delegation and made a speech. Mr. Cooley was the pastor of the Cedar avenue Disciple church of which I was a member, and together we had been through a church fight, in which the issue was the admission to membership of persons who had been baptized other than by immersion. It isn’t necessary to state which side we were on. We carried our point.
When I became mayor it seemed the most natural thing in the world that I should appoint as director of charities this minister who I had known so long and whom I knew to be so well qualified. Yet to this day and in the face of the international fame which Mr. Cooley won in his nine years’ administration of Cleveland’s correctional and charitable institutions I am sometimes asked how I happened to appoint a “preacher” to so important an office.
The newspapers so persistently called me “Tom L. Johnson of New York” then that it was seldom that even the smallest item of news in connection with my activities got into the papers without it being made to appear that I was simply pretending that Cleveland was my residence (although I had never missed voting there since my first race for Congress), and my interest in politics for other than personal reasons was scouted on all sides. First the newspapers insisted that I wanted to go to Congress again and when this finally had to be dropped because I refused to consider a nomination, then they were sure it was the United States Senate on which my ambitious eyes were fixed. How they did ring the changes on that! All the newspapers in Cleveland joined in circulating these reports.
I was by no means an acceptable candidate to all the Democrats, most of those holding office being especially opposed to me, and I supposed I would have to contest the nomination, but there were no other candidates and I was nominated at the Democratic primaries, February 19, 1901.
Some support doubtless came to me from partisan politicians who hoped that I would put a lot of money into the campaign. I had spent money very freely in my congressional campaigns, but now the Garfield Corrupt Practices Act was on the statute books. This law provided that no candidate should spend more than one-tenth of the yearly salary attached to the office for which he was running and further stipulated that he must make a public statemen of his campaign expenses. I determined to observe this law in spirit as well as in letter and so made no indirect expenditures either. I never bought a lottery ticket, a ticket to any church or social gathering, I refused to subscribe to benefit funds, I didn’t even give to beggars while I was running for office. Entering into this practice because I wanted to observe the limitations imposed by law, I found it worked so well that I made it a cast iron rule and adhered to it in all my subsequent campaigns, even after the Garfield law had been repealed.
This was high moral ground, adopted as I have shown, partly because it was necessary, partly because it was expedient. It was a bitter disappointment to those who had hoped that I would “open a barrel,” as it was vulgarly styled by the newspapers. It was not until later, after my public work had developed in me a stronger sense of appreciation of political morality that I myself realized the importance of such standards in politics.
I am frequently asked by my friends, “Why did so and so change towards you?” mentioning someone who was with me in the early days of my political career and who later withdrew his support. To such I frequently reply that I think the change has been not so much in these others as in me. I did not feel so keenly about the spoils system at first, for example, though in the very beginning when a party of City Hall employes called upon me and asked me to promise, in exchange for their support, that I would continue them in their jobs if I were elected I declined to do so. When they asked me to pledge myself to dismiss all Republicans holding jobs, I answered that that was one thing I would make a promise about; I’d promise to agree do to nothing of the kind.
My platform declared against granting extensions of franchises to the street railroads at any fare higher than three cents, for public improvements and for equal taxation. Of course, what I wanted to convey to the people in my platform was what I have been trying to make them understand every since, that the city with its privileges and its responsibilities is their city, that it is as much their home in the collective sense as the houses in which they live are their individual homes. As I had done when running for congress, I proclaimed that it was my belief in Henry George’s philosophy that had drawn me into politics.
Most of my time in the campaign was spent in the discussion of the street car question and the unjust appraisal of real property made in the summer of the year before and which, under the state law, was to stand for ten years. I promised the people that in the event of my election I would do everything in my power to right this great wrong.
Between grafting contractors and an unequal appraisal of property the evils of the unjust appraisal are much the greater. The graft of the contractor is practically insignificant. It includes a few conniving officials outside of the law; but an unequal appraisal of property for the purposes of taxation takes dollars out of the pocket of one citizen and puts them into the pocket of another and is larceny of the State for private graft.
There was some discussion also over the controversy the city was having with the steam railroads over the possession of certain land on the lake front. As a citizen I had brought suit to prevent the then mayor, John Farley, from signing an ordinance passed by a crooked council settling the controversy and conveying the land in question to the railroads without compensation.
The founders of the city, wise in their day and generation, had set apart land on the lake front to be used as a public wharf and landing place for the commerce of the great lakes. In the ‘forties the city had sold to the Pennsylvania and other steam railroads a strip of this ground then one hundred and fifty feet wide. The litigation which had been going on for years was over several hundred free of “made land,” the accretions to the strip the railroads had purchased, and on which the union depot and yards are located. The land was estimated to be worth from fifteen to twenty million dollars at the time I brought my suit to enjoin the city from settling and it has increased enormously in value since.
The people were deeply interested in this controversy and the fact that the Chamber of Commerce supported the settlement proposed by the Farley administration added to the existing feeling of outrage. The chamber of Commerce, made up of fifteen hundred business men, has its policy determined by Big Business which controls this and similar institutions. In contests between the people and Privilege the Chamber of Commerce was with Privilege and against the people on every question which came up while I was mayor.
After I was nominated the Plain Dealer, an independent newspaper, supported me, dropping the cartoons which had so persistently pictured me as leaving the duties of the mayor’s office to someone else, and ceased calling me Tom Johnson of New York. The Press, also independent, gave fair news reports of my meetings and a lukewarm editorial support, while the Leader, the regular Republican organ, opposed me bitterly.
I pursued the same methods I had employed in my congressional campaigns, holding meetings in tents and halls and always inviting questions from my auditors. I challenged my Republican opponent, W. J. Akers, to debate with me or appoint someone to represent him in debate, but no attention was ever paid to this. Congressman Theodore Burton, true to his promise to devote some time to the Republican committee, in case I should be the Democratic nominee for mayor, came home from Washington to make speeches against me.
Cleveland was nominally a Republican city, but in municipal elections, party lines were usually shattered in the interests of Privilege. There were Hanna Democrats as well as Hanna Republicans – not that Hanna was the enthroned boss in the same sense that Cox is the boss of Cincinnati or Murphy of New York. Cleveland wasn’t bossed by any one man. The city government belonged to the business interests generally, but as the public utility companies had more use for it than the others kinds of business enterprise had, they paid the most attention to it. They nominated and elected the councilmen and of course the councilmen represented them instead of the community. The campaign funds came largely from business men who believed in a “business man’s government,” and who couldn’t or wouldn’t see that there was anything radically wrong with the system. They were quite contented to let a few agents of special privilege attend to the details of the city government. Nothing very shocking happened and the community was quiescent. And in that fact lay the danger. Nothing is so deadly as inertia. The greatest obstacle to overcome in any fight in which fundamental moral issues are involved is not opposition, but indifference. To be sure there were a few agitators who had raised the voice of protest upon occasion – there was Peter Witt, and before Peter, Dr. Tuckerman, who was responsible for Peter. When Cleveland shall ultimately have become a free city she will trace the beginnings of her struggle against Privilege back to the days when that kindly country doctor began to wage war on the established order.
The campaign grew more interesting and exciting daily, but Privilege wasn’t especially aroused and made no particular fight. Indeed Big Business was rather friendly than otherwise. Some of its beneficiaries who had been associated with me in business were reported as giving their reason for favoring my candidacy ” That here was a chance to get good government and a one hundred thousand dollar man for mayor at six thousand dollars a year.” They looked upon it as a good bargain. Senator Hanna did not share this view. I have previously stated that I understood his language. He likewise understood mine, and though he sometimes applied to me such terms as “socialist, nihilist and anarchist,” he was never one of those who professed to believe that I did not mean to do what I said I would do. From the beginning, he regarded my election as dangerous and warned his friends against me. He was making a pretty fair guess at what good government in this instance would cost special privilege in general and his street railroad in particular, and he wasn’t taking any chances.
In the last days of the campaign his street railway company attempted to rush a twenty-five year franchise through council. The city was up in arms against this and, though the Little Consolidated had the votes and the mayor was ready to sign, council didn’t dare to pass the ordinance. So corrupt was the council and so great the storm occasioned by the proposal that even the Chamber of Commerce was forced to oppose it.
One night when I was so hoarse from continued speaking that I could not use my voice it occurred to me that here was my opportunity to attend a Republican meeting and hear for myself just what the opposition was saying. I arrived at the first meeting while Mr. Burton was speaking and the doorkeeper, recognizing me, refused to admit me, saying that he was acting under official orders, so I went to the second, where it happened there was no doorkeeper. I was accompanied by five friends and we walked in and took seats without being observed. Presently the chairman of the meeting saw me, stopped the speaker in the midst of his speech and requested me to leave the hall. I replied that I had supposed this was a public meeting, but if he wished me to go I would do so, having no desire to intrude. He answered that is was a Republican meeting and that he did wish me to leave. The instinct of the crowd is always for fair play under such circumstances and of course a great hubbub ensued. As I made my way to the door fully two-thirds of the audience, cheering and shouting, followed me into the street.
I was elected mayor of Cleveland April 1, 1901, receiving upwards of six thousand more votes than the Republican nominee. It should be remembered that Mr. Akers also stood on a three-cent-fare platform and that Cleveland has had no candidate for mayor on any ticket from that day to this who has not advocated three-cent-fare or approximately that. A few Democratic ward councilmen were returned, but I was the only Democrat elected on the general ticket.
For some reason none of my enemies – not even the bitterest -every charged that I would be inefficient. It seemed to be universally conceded that ” I could if I would,” but that “I wouldn’t,” was so insistently preached that it was curious that it didn’t make more impression. Just as soon as I was elected all suggestion that I would go off to New York or anywhere else and leave the duties of my office to others was absolutely dropped by the Cleveland newspapers.
The law provided that the mayor-elect could take office as soon as he had qualified and it was customary to do so within two or three weeks after election. My injunction which prevented the city from executing the ordinance in the lake front case was to expire at eleven a.m., April 4, and I didn’t propose to let precedent stand in the way of the best method of dealing with that matter. I therefore requested the members of the board of elections to work day and night in order that the vote might be canvassed before the expiration of the injunction. As soon as the official count of the votes was announced, therefore, at 10:23 a.m., April 4, just thirty-seven minutes before the injunction expired, I took the official oath in the office of the city clerk on the third floor of the City Hall, filed my bond at 10:30 and went directly to the mayor’s office on the floor below. Mr. Farley looked up as I came in and mumbled ungraciously:
“Well, Tom, when are you going to take hold?” I replied that I hoped he would take his time about moving his belongings, but that I had been mayor for several minutes.
One of the very early acts of my administration was to cause the introduction of an ordinance in the council repealing the ordinance of the Farley administration in the lake front matter. That case has been in the courts practically ever since, but has recently been decided in the city’s favor by the court of common pleas and by the circuit court. The supreme court of the State can hardly fail to uphold the decision of the lower courts that the city had no right to dispose of this land. Eventually the lake front will be used for the purposes to which it was dedicated by the founders of the city, and this without Privilege being able to exact tribute for its use.
When I was elected mayor Cleveland was operating under what was known as the “federal plan” of city government. For fifty years or more the cities of Ohio had what amounted to special charters. Thought applicable in terms to all the cities of the State (to comply with a requirement of the State constitution), each charter was, nevertheless, so drawn as to affect only the city for which it was intended. To illustrate, cities of not less than 25,000 inhabitants, nor more that 25,250 might be put in a specified class, and provisions then be made for the government of all cities of that class. Only one city, of course, would come within the class. It was a transparent evasion of the constitutional prohibition of special legislation, but for fifty years the courts had winked at or approved it.
Under this practice a charter for Cleveland was granted some ten years before which did away with all the antiquated and corrupting systems of board rule, and established the federal plan. The essential feature of this plan was its concentration of responsibility. Legislative functions were left to the city council, but the mayor was invested with all the executive functions, coupled with a legislative veto.
The mayor and the city councilmen were elected. The heads of the following named departments were appointed by the mayor: Law, public works, fire, police, accounts, charities, and they were known as directors of their respective departments. These directors, with the mayor, formed the board of control, commonly known as the mayor’s cabinet. The system was an admirable one since it made the mayor responsible for the administrative government of the city. The power of appointment and removal of the directors was in his hands. It was a better system than any other city in the United States had at that time. If it had embodied the initiative and referendum and the recall it would have been superior to any system of city government now in operation in this country, in my opinion. The city council consisted of twenty-two members, elected by districts and sitting in one body and responsible, as has been said, for the legislative part of the government.
On that first morning in the mayor’s office I requested the directors of the various departments to continue in office until further notice. The director of public works said, “I ordered the May Company to tear down a storm door on Ontario street and gave them until ten o’clock this morning to do it. They have ignored the order. What shall I do?”
“Take some policemen and tear it down yourself,” I answered. That was my first informal order. I like to remember that my first formal official act was to sign a pardon for a man serving a workhouse sentence.