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Chapter XXIV. The Burton-Johnson Campaign

At about this time I appealed to the people of the community to support the low-fare movement by subscribing to its stock. The banks of the city were far from friendly towards the enterprise and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get any help from them. It was evident that if this people’s project was to succeed it must be financed by men and women of moderate mean s who believed in the movement and wanted it to win. The moneyed people were against it, particularly of course those who owned stock in the old company. Our fight was the more difficult because it was directed against a company owned by resident stockholders. It would probably have lacked some of the bitter personal features if the Cleveland Electric had been owned by outside stockholders. The Concon added two local bankers to its board of directors at this juncture. Public subscriptions were opened for low-fare stock making it more attractive than a savings-bank deposit, the purchaser having the privilege of surrendering his stock at will and getting back his money plus six per cent. for the time it was invested. This bothered the banks a great deal for men and women were purchasing the stock and paying for it with their savings bank deposits. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for bankers to try to dissuade their depositors from such a “foolish investment,” but in spite of this money came in rapidly- sometimes as high as one hundred thousand dollars in a single day. This novel plan of raising money had many advantages, but the savings banks were the losers, and they fought desperately to discredit it.

Characteristic group receiving election returns in City Hall
Characteristic group receiving election returns in City Hall

With the beginning of operations on the three-cent line it was suggested that a bank and trust company be established in the interests of the low-fare people and the necessity for this was apparent. In order to give them a trust company in sympathy with our movement the Depositors Savings and Trust Company was organized. The presidency was offered to a good many young bankers all of whom declined it because they feared that connection with it would cut off their careers with larger institutions. Many of them had their pay raised lest the offer of the presidency should tempt them to leave their present jobs. I was then importuned to take the presidency. I accepted it most reluctantly, for I thought it a mistake at the time and I still think my taking it was an unfortunate blunder. It put me in a position which gave my enemies a new point of attack. From first to last this enterprise gave me only care and anxiety. When, largely on account of business transactions outside the city and connected chiefly with my brother’s estate, I became financially embarrassed, I called the directors together and advised the giving up of the bank. A great many of the local banks were unfriendly to the Depositors Savings & Trust company, but a few of them acted very nicely indeed. The bank’s affairs were wound up with some loss to all the stockholders, the heaviest loss being mine, because I was the largest stockholder. The depositors never lost a penny nor were they delayed a second in getting their money.

On the first of May (1907) the Concon commenced to tear up its tracks on Central avenue and continued, with more or less interruption, until that work was completed. The Low Fare Company which now had a grant on this street was enjoined from proceeding with the laying of its tracks. And so it went on day after day. Injunction followed injunction. Property owners’ consents continued to complicate matters. The courts held that it was not bribery to buy consents, and some property owners signed for and against as many as five times. This decision really amounted to putting up legislation to the highest bidder, for the party who could pay the most to property owners for consents was the only one to whom council could make a valid grant. New lawsuits raising new points of law followed one another so quickly that for a while I spent more time in the Court House than I did in the City Hall. At least in one case a judge who had been nominated by our particular friends was won away by the influence of the Union Club.

During this summer the exposure of the Concon’s “yellow dog” fund was made. From the company’s own books and vouchers it was shown that hundreds of thousands of dollars which had been spent in fighting three-cent fare had been charged to operating expenses – that is, to the cost of carrying passengers. Real estate purchases made to control consents, exorbitant legal fees, useless newspaper advertisements, and other expenditures which would, perhaps, have borne scrutiny even less well were charged to operation.

When public service corporations spend money to defeat the people‘s interests the cost must eventually come out of the people themselves in added cost of service.

Just as the people’s money in savings banks is so frequently used in the perpetuation of Privilege, so too is it used by the public service monopolies. It is the people who use the commodities the public service corporations have to sell who furnish the money for “jack pots,” for “yellow dog” funds, for the funds under whatever name, that are used to preserve and safeguard the power of Privilege.

It was a summer of continual and bitter strife. I did not go out of town at all except for an occasional few days at a time. I announced early that I was a candidate for reelection – in fact that I should continue to be a candidate for mayor at each recurring election until I was defeated. The most determined opposition that I had so far encountered began to crystallize into a great movement to defeat me. The fight was now so intense that many people who had never been active before began to take sides. The banks, the Chamber of Commerce, the leading business men, all the privileged crowd were a unit against me and were exerting themselves to find a Republican candidate who could defeat me.

They selected Theodore Burton, now United States Senator, then member of congress from the Cleveland district. Mr. Burton was serving his seventh term in congress and had been twice returned without opposition. His political position was considered as strong as his personal reputation was high. Mr. Burton didn’t want to be a candidate. He had no ambition for municipal politics. He didn’t like the affiliation between his party and the traction ring. But the pressure was great and the newspapers said that President Roosevelt and cabinet secretaries Taft and Garfield jointed with the local Republican leaders in an effort to persuade him that he was called upon to sacrifice his seat in Congress in order to save the fair name of his city. He yielded and in announcing his willingness to accept the nomination, said in a public statement:

“I will accept the nomination for mayor of the city of Cleveland provided assurance is given:

1. That the platform of the party and those who are to be its candidates will clearly show the absence of any alliance or affiliation with any public service corporation, street railway or other, and that the problem of the relations of the municipality to these companies can, under my leadership, be settled by the officials elected with supreme regard to the interest of the people.

2. That the delegates in the convention next Saturday will cooperate with me in nominating a good representative ticket. In this connection I desire to express myself with reference to the caucuses next Thursday. There is an unusual degree of competition in many wards for the selection of councilmen and delegates. I sincerely hope the respective contests will be conducted with decorum and with no semblance anywhere of dishonor or fraud.

It is my understanding that others whose names have been mentioned for the Mayoralty nomination have kindly consented to waive their claims in case my name is presented to the Republican Convention.

I make this statement with a profound appreciation of the friendliness which has been displayed for me by petitions, letters and in other ways, and with a feeling that the step which I am taking is a duty. I have received letters from President Roosevelt and Secretary Taft and have talked with Secretary Garfield, whose opinions have aided me in reaching a decision. At an early date the views of each of them may be made public.”

Mr. Burton was nominated September 7, and the only part of his platform that it is necessary to consider here was the plank which dealt with the street railway question and read as follows:

“A settlement of the traction question at a rate of fare to be left to the determination of Mr. Burton on a basis which shall in no event be less favorable to the city than seven tickets for a quarter without zone restrictions, with universal transfers and sufficient cars and upon a grant to be limited to twenty years and conditioned upon a readjustment of rates of fares at the expiration of ten years, and subject to the right of the city of purchase the property at the end of twenty years at a price to be fixed by arbitration, the grant to provide also for securing the principle of but one system and one fare.”

It was in this campaign that we nominated W. B. Haserodt, Republican councilman, at the Democratic primaries after he had failed of nomination by his own party. His defeat in the Republican primaries was his punishment for having vetoed with the administration on street railway matters. So we nominated and elected him on the Democratic ticket.

The Democratic Convention was held September 21 and besides myself the other candidates nominated were C. W. Lapp for vice mayor, Carl N. Nau for treasurer, Mr. Baker for solicitor, Springborn, Leslie and Cooley for board of public service. From the convention hall I sent a letter by messenger to Mr. Burton inviting him to engage in a series of joint debates. The first big campaign lie was already in circulation. Somebody had told somebody who told somebody else who had told Burton that a certain man had been coerced into supporting the administration by the arbitrary refusal of a building permit. We sifted this story to the very bottom, proved that it wasn’t true in a single particular, presented the proofs to Mr. Burton and his managers but never got a retraction from them. It wasn’t a very auspicious beginning for a dignified campaign.

Mr. Burton refused to meet me in debate proposing instead that we fight out the issues through the columns of the daily press. Of course there was nothing for us to do but to accept this substitute.

Never perhaps was there a campaign anywhere in which the community as a whole took such an interest and in which such intense personal feeling was manifested.

Privilege was fighting with its back to the wall now and stopped at nothing in the way of abuse or persecution, not of me only but of the men associated with me. At their clubs our boys were treated with such open contempt, such obvious insult that many of them felt they could not endure it and stayed away altogether. They were made to feel like aliens in their own city. And this treatment didn’t stop with the men. It was extended to their wives and children. To be “for Johnson” was the cardinal social sin and society proceeded to mete out its punishment of ostracism. Everywhere the campaign was the town talk. In banks and factories, in offices and stores, on the cars, in the homes, in the schools. Women talked it to their domestics, to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, to the clerks in the stores, to their dressmakers and their milliners. Even little children in the public schools engaged in the controversy. While the issues were being thus fought out among the people in personal ways public meetings were being held nightly attended by vast throngs.

Mr. Burton very early exhibited a surprising ignorance of local affairs. None of us had suspected that he was really so little informed on the questions at issue. Now the electorate of Cleveland had had a lot of education on many civic questions and on the street railway problem in particular. They commenced to ask Burton questions which he couldn’t answer. They heckled him so mercilessly that we were in daily dread of the reaction which would probably result from this. The opposition newspapers persistently played up this feature of the campaign by reporting that it was “Johnson hoodlums” who disturbed the Burton meetings. Many people no doubt believed that our side was responsible for these disturbances but it wasn’t true. The trouble was that Mr. Burton was trying to discuss matters which were strange and unfamiliar to him with men and women who knew all about them, and when they asked him questions he didn’t tell them he couldn’t answer, but tried to make believe that he could answer if he would, but that for some reason known only to himself he preferred not to do so. It wasn’t unusual for him to promise at the beginning of a meeting to answer questions at its close, and then when he finished speaking to put on his coat and in the midst of a burst of music from the band hurry off to another meeting without giving a chance for questions. He couldn’t fool those people. He complained that he couldn’t keep order in his meetings. I sent him word that I would send the whole police force to take care of his meetings if he liked, or I would agree to come myself alone and guarantee to preserve order.

The Cleveland Leader sent for Homer Davenport, the celebrated cartoonist, and for weeks his cartoons appeared daily in that paper. Davenport’s wonderful drawings had been a large factor in defeating the Cox crowd in Cincinnati at a previous election, and in other cities his services had been found invaluable in similar contests. Davenport hadn’t much heart for his task. He came to see me and explained the nature of his connection with the Leader– as I remember it, his time was sold to the Leader by an Eastern paper to which he was under contract. At any rate he appeared greatly relieved when I told him that I appreciated his position and wouldn’t bear him any personal grudge. “Go ahead and do your best for the Leader,” I said to him, “I’ll forgive you.” “Well, my father never will,” he answered, “I don’t know how I am going to square this with him.” His father like himself had for years been a single taxer.

And so the fight went on. The Republicans were sure they were going to win. They had all the money they wanted and they brought out brass bands and worked all the old-fashioned mechanical effects for all they were worth. Everything of this description had long been eliminated from our campaigns. They neglected no possible point of vantage in their efforts to influence people against our side and succeeded so well that it amounted almost to public disgrace for a business man to admit that he was for me. Everything that offered the slightest chance for attack was attacked. Cruel and malicious stories were circulated about Mr. Cooley’s administration of his department. As fast as the enemy launched one of these unspeakable falsehoods we set about running it down.

Never before or since was the contest as bitter as in that campaign. But it had its humorous aspects too. Each campaign had its own particular slogan or catch phrase. In my first race for mayor my opponent W. J. Akers made frequent reference in his speeches to picking strawberries in Newbury when he was a boy. Harvey D. Goulder who ran against me in the second campaign spoke with feeling of the old town pump. William H. Boyd had something to say of “forging thunderbolts” to my undoing. And so in their turn we had rung the changes on picking strawberries in Newburg, on drinking at the old town pump, and on the forging of thunderbolts, but Mr. Burton furnished us with the most delightful phrase of all. In accepting his nomination he declared in classic Latin, “Jacta est alae,” for Mr. Burton is a scholar. This expression, unfortunately for him, sent the man on the street into convulsions of mirth. One or two of our speakers paraphrased it in German and French, and I interpreted it for the Irish as “Let ‘er go Gallagher.”

Then Mr. Burton had an impressive way of beginning a speech by saying,

“I have spoken within the halls of Parliament in London, and in the Crystal Palace also in London, in Berlin, Germany, and with what poor French I could command in the south of France, in Brest, and once my voice was heard within the confines of the Arctic Circle, in the valley of the Yukon, Alaska, but kind friends, I am glad to be here with you to-night.”

On the heels of this address Peter Witt arose in one of our tents and began his nightly speech with great solemnity,

“I have spoken in the corn fields of Ashtabula, in the stone quarries of Berea and at the town hall in Chardon, etc., etc.”

There had been fifty-five injunctions against the low-fare companies now. Three times I had been elected on the same platform. The people had shown clearly by their votes that they wanted what we were standing for and the fifty-five injunctions indicated how hard the Cleveland Electric and its allied interests had tried to thwart their will. Would the people give up the fight now? Would they be fooled by Privilege?

I was elected by a majority of nine thousand while the city solicitor and the members of the board of public service were returned by majorities of several thousand more. It was a tremendous vindication coming as it did at the close of such a campaign. The east end, the rich and aristocratic section of the city voted solidly against me but contributed somewhat no doubt to the majorities of the candidates who ran ahead of me.

The newspapers were all agreed that the election was one of the most orderly ever held in Cleveland. That night the streets were a surging mass of humanity. The whole town seemed to be out. While some thousands were receiving election returns in the Armory and in the theaters, tens of thousands were swarming on the streets. They overflowed the sidewalks and spread out over the streets in such numbers that the street cars had to crawl at snail’s pace in the down town region, and automobiles had difficulty in getting through at all. It was unmistakably a great common people’s victory. The City Hall was packed with a happy, radiant crowd and Peter Witt gave characteristic expression to his exuberance of spirit in a telegram to President Roosevelt reading, “Cleveland as usual went moral again. The next time you tell Theodore to run tell him which way.”

Poor Mr. Burton! He must have been sadly disillusioned and deeply wounded. He had nothing to say. He hurried off to Washington or somewhere without sending me the congratulatory message which is customary on such occasions.

On election night when the returns began to show beyond doubt that Burton was defeated the Concon issued orders to stop selling seven tickets for a quarter (this rate of fare having been in operation from October 2 to November 5), and go back to the old rate of a five-cent cash fare or eleven tickets for fifty cents.


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