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Chapter II: Early Political Activity


Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first year in office impressed my father, and by 1934 he became actively involved in electoral politics as a Democrat. The Democrats did well throughout California during 1932. One of the two Republican Senate seats came under Democratic control when Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, defeated his Republican opponent in the race for the seat being vacated by GOP Senator Samuel Shortridge. Even more impressive, the number of Democratic Congressmen from California increased more than ten-fold when eleven Democrats were elected to the first New Deal Congress. During the previous Congress, there was only one Democrat from California in the House of Representatives. All nine of California' S new House seats, which were awarded to the state as a result of the 1930 census, were occupied by Democrats. Instead of one Democrat out of eleven California Congressmen, there were now eleven Democrats and only nine Republicans. Of course, FDR carried every county in the state except Riverside, which remained with Hoover by a close vote. Roosevelt's statewide popular vote majority over Hoover was almost half a million ballots.

Upton Sinclair, the muckraking pamphleteer, was one of my father's heroes. Sinclair changed his registration in 1933 from Socialist to Democrat, and in 1934 he ran for Governor of the state. He was most famous for his expose of unhealthy practices in the food processing industry through his novel, The Jungle. This work led to the establishment of the Pure Food and Drug Administration in 1905 and earned Sinclair the undying hostility of the business community.

Sinclair's movement was entitled EPIC, or End Poverty in California, and included my father, Augustus Hawkins, California's first African-American Congressman, and future Governor Culbert Olson. Among other things, EPIC advocated ending unemployment through production for use rather than for profit. This involved creation of self-sufficient communities that would operate independent of the worldwide market economy. My father ran as the EPIC Democratic candidate for the seat representing California's 49th Assembly District in the Pomona Valley. He won the Democratic nomination easily, but he had an uphill struggle as far as the election was concerned. My father had a busy schedule as Headmaster of the Voorhis School, which then contained approximately 65 boys, as well as cottage mothers, maintenance personnel, and a faculty of approximately half a dozen teachers or instructors. The budget was increasingly restricted due to the Depression's shrinking of both its endowment and income, derived largely from Charles B. Voorhis' investments. In addition to budgetary, managerial and instructional duties at the school, my father was lecturing in history at Pomona College, and he was making speeches on behalf of Sinclair's Gubernatorial campaign in Northern California. Like my father, Sinclair easily defeated his conservative Democratic opponent in the primary. But he, also, had a tough race against conservative Republican stalwart Frank Merriam, the incumbent Governor.

My father and Sinclair both lost to their Republican opponents in November. However, not all EPIC candidates lost in 1934. Culbert Olson was elected to the state Senate as the representative from Los Angeles County. He would soon become Democratic State Chairman. Four years later, this EPIC-Democrat was elected Governor of California. Augustus Hawkins was elected in a largely African-American assembly district, and from there he want on to become California's first black Congressman.

After the election of 1934, my father continued his duties as Headmaster of the Voorhis School, but he was being drawn irresistibly into the political arena. Although Upton Sinclair went down in defeat, other election results were quite heartening for populists and progressives like my father. For example, the newly formed Progressive Party of Wisconsin scored a massive victory in 1934. Formerly Republican Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr., was reelected as a Progressive. His brother Phil defeated Democratic incumbent Albert G. Schmedeman in the race for Governor; and five Republican Congressmen along with two Democrats were replaced with Progressives. After 1934, one Senate seat, the Governorship, and seven House seats in Wisconsin were held by Progressives. This fact was not lost on my father, who struck up close personal friendships with two Wisconsin Progressive Congressmen, Tom Amlie and Bernard Gehrmann.

During 1935, the New Deal moved sharply to the left. Several acts of Congress in that year established the National Labor Relations Board, the Social Security System, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, a steeply graduated personal income tax, higher taxes on corporations, especially the largest and most successful, and finally the Federal Power Commission, and other regulatory boards aimed at decentralizing utility companies. Also by 1935, the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and Rural Electrification programs made it possible for most farmers to see an improvement in their fortunes during the desperate situation they faced in 1932. The new policies of the Roosevelt Administration made my father a committed Democrat and an enthusiastic backer of the New Deal.

In California, EPIC supporters like Culbert Olson were transforming the Democratic party from a relatively conservative organization to a progressive movement well to the left of the Republicans. By the spring of 1936, my father entered his name as a candidate for the seat representing California's 12th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. My father' s first opponent, ironically enough, was the incumbent Democratic Congressman from the 12th District, John Henry Hoeppel. Hoeppel had served for two terms and was running for his third. He had many weaknesses. First, he was elected in 1932 with only 45.8% of the total vote; his opposition was divided between a strong Republican opponent, Frederick F. Houser, who received 43.2%, and a Prohibitionist. Houser almost defeated Hoeppel in 1934 when he garnered 49.3% of the vote, to incumbent Hoeppel's 50.6%. By 1936, Hoeppel was feuding with the New Deal over most issues, except monetary reform and veterans' relief. He was one of many conservative Democratic Congressmen who became disenchanted with the Roosevelt Administration as it moved further to the left.

New Deal Democrats and many EPIC supporters throughout the 12th District rallied around my father's candidacy. My father and his backers correctly concluded that 1936 was a good year for him to be elected to this House seat. Roosevelt was more popular than ever, especially in California. It looked as if he would do better in the state than he did during 1932, when he carried every county but one. This time1 the head of the Democratic ticket in California was not a Socialist pamphleteer. He was a popular incumbent President.

My father won easily in the primary election. He came in first, followed by a third-party candidate who supported the Townsend Program for old-age pensions, which was more generous than the new Social Security System. Hoeppel, the incumbent, came in third.

The November election was a much bigger hurdle for my father. There were signs of dissension in the EPIC movement, which finally compelled him to resign from that organization's Board of Directors. Communists and other extremists began to disrupt EPIC meetings and activities to such an extent that my father decided to become a full-fledged Democrat. Partly because of his reservations about EPIC, conservative Democratic leaders like Postmaster General James A. Farley, Senator McAdoo, and George Creel endorsed my father's candidacy by November.

Fred Houser, my father's Republican opponent, was a formidable and popular campaigner. He later became Lieutenant Governor of California and the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in 1944. Despite the Roosevelt landslide, my father defeated Houser only by a close margin. Of all the winners in the 1936 Congressional elections throughout California, my father won with the smallest majority. Ironically, he would do much better in the Republican years of 1938 and 1942 than in the Democratic landslide of 1936. My father won thanks to the fact that he piled up big votes in the Democratic strongholds of East Los Angeles, Montebello, Monterey Park, El Monte, Baldwin Park and San Gabriel, while winning in marginal areas like Alhambra. Only rock-ribbed Republican strongholds like South Pasadena and San Marino voted heavily against him. The election of 1936 not only resulted in my father's victory. For the first and only time in the 20th century, every House seat in Southern California was occupied by a Democrat.

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