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Chapter VII: The Early Election Campaigns


During 1937 and 1935, America was undergoing a profound period of political and economic crisis. Through the Judicial Reorganization Bill, or The Supreme Court Packing Plan, as the press labeled it, the Roosevelt Administration attempted to enlarge the membership of the U.S. Supreme Court in such a way so that the then current conservative majority of justices could be outvoted by newly appointed pro-New Deal liberals. During the two years before the Packing Plan was introduced in February 1937, the Supreme Court's conservative majority struck down both the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration as being unconstitutional. This was no big loss for the New Deal in the long run. The industrial codes of the National Recovery Administration, or NRA, were codified in a different form through the Wagner Labor Relations and Fair Employment Standards Acts. Help for farmers, which was funneled through the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, was channeled through a new agency, the Commodity Credit Corporation, without funding from the special food processors tax to which the Court had objected. Finally, by 1937, the Court majority shifted to the liberals when Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Justice Owen Roberts started to approve of New Deal programs and agencies, like Social Security and the National Labor Relations Board.

Despite the shift in the Court's majority, and despite the Packing Plan's defeat in the Senate, Roosevelt's proposal unleashed a storm of protest which put my father in the middle of the New Deal's worst crisis of confidence. Almost immediately after he was sworn in as a freshman Congressman, he had to take sides in this controversy. He supported the President. This immediately put my father in jeopardy since the majority of voters, and the Overwhelming majority of newspapers in the 12th District, opposed the Court Packing Plan.

In addition to the Packing Plan, which created a host of enemies for the New Deal, unemployment increased sharply in late 1937 and 1938. Also during 1938, corporate profits were less than during the previous year, and the stock market suffered a decline. These economic problems were caused by several factors, and perhaps the most important of these was labor unrest. The number of strikes in 1937 was more than double the total for 1936. The 1937 strike total was greater than that of any previous Post-World War I year except for 1919. During the first year of FDR's second term in office, organized labor had an attitude of confidence and militancy that stemmed in large part from a newly established alliance between it and the Roosevelt Administration during the 1936 campaign. Also, under the terms of the Wagner Act, union recognition elections were being held across America under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board. Strikes were particularly frequent in the previously unorganized auto and steel industries, as well as in textile factories and retail establishments. Another major economic problem was the atmosphere of fear and gloom within the business community due to new and stricter taxation policies on the part of the federal government and many states. Federal income taxes increased sharply, especially in the upper brackets, and corporate taxes also increased as a result of legislation passed in 1935. Also, new taxes on employers and employees, which were necessary to finance federal unemployment insurance and Social Security programs, served as an additional hindrance on both private spending and investment. Finally1 the full-scale war between China and Japan which broke out in 1937, the Spanish Civil war, and the Munich crisis, all served to produce a gloomy business climate internationally.

All of these negative factors were a problem for my father during his reelection campaign. They were partially offset by his successful support for the Fair Labor standards Act, which was signed into law on June 25, 1938. He also was able to establish a good rapport with the leaders of Congress, and he managed to take a much more active role than the average freshman Congressman in debates and the drafting of legislation. These factors were not lost on politically astute voters in the 12th District. Also, liberals within the District were undoubtedly impressed with my father's attempts, in light of the 1938 recession, to get the Roosevelt Administration to reverse its recent decision to cut back on public works spending.

Finally, although 1938 turned out to be a very bad year for Democrats nationally, it was a good year for Democrats in California. Culbert Olson, the popular State Senator from Los Angeles County, was running for Governor against an embattled and increasingly unpopular incumbent Republican, Frank Merriam. Merriam had defeated Upton Sinclair four years earlier, but even in 1934 he received a minority of the total Gubernatorial vote. By 1938 his Administration had made a number of political enemies, not just on the left, but among many independents and liberal Republicans. Ironically, because of the fact that he was one of only six Republican Governors during 1938, Merriam was also taking much of the heat for the economic and social troubles of that year1 while in other states voter resentment was vented against incumbent Democratic administrations.

In the Senate race, Sheridan Downey, long-time EPIC activist, was campaigning on a ham-and-eggs program against a lackluster Republican opponent for the seat being vacated by Democratic kingmaker, William Gibbs McAdoo. The ham-and-eggs program was simply a State ballot proposition which promised the elderly a pension of $30 every Thursday. This would supplement their new Social Security income. Downey had the enthusiastic support of the Progressive and Townsendite Parties as well as the Democratic nomination, in large part because of his ham-and-eggs program.

Nineteen thirty-eight turned out to be as good, if not better, for my father than it was for the California Democratic Party. His most formidable potential opponent on the Republican side1 Fred Houser, decided to run for the State Assembly instead of for Congress. The GOP primary in the 12th District turned out to be a contest between former Diacritic Congressman John Henry Hoeppel, who had converted to the GOP by 1938, and a relatively unknown Eugene Nixon (not related to Richard M. Nixon), Pomona College's Athletic Director. Eugene Nixon won the GOP primary by a big margin over Hoeppel, in large part because he was backed by the 12th District's regular Republican organization.

During 1938 my father was facing a novice in politics who had limited name recognition -- a real contrast to 1936, when he had to run against an entrenched Democratic incumbent during the primary and a popular and well-known Fred Houser in November. Finally, during 1938, unlike 1936, my father had no opposition in the Democratic primary. Interestingly enough, he did have sane thunder on his left which underscored his troubled relationship with third parties in California. A Townsendite candidate by the name of Russell R. Hand received 7,903 votes in the final election. Most of these Townsendite votes would have probably gone to my father if the election were a two-man race.

The 1938 election was a clear-cut victory for my father. His percentage of the total vote was about 61 %. This was a great improvement over 1936, when he received only 53.7% of the vote. It was even more remarkable in view of the fact that the number of Republican House seats in California doubled as a result of the 1938 elections. The GOP had only four House seats in California before the election. After November, they had eight. Unfortunately for 12th District Republicans, the GOP surge in California House races did not affect my father 's district.

On the state level, Democrats were able to do much better than in House races. Culbert Olson defeated Frank Merriam with 52.5% of the vote to Merriam's rather unimpressive 44%. Sheridan Downey was elected with a majority of more than 246,000 votes.

Although Democrats ousted Republicans from the Governorship, Republicans were elected to the lesser statewide offices. The elected Secretary of State, Controller, State Treasurer, and Attorney General were all Republicans. The newly elected Republican Attorney General was Earl Warren, the man who would unseat Olson four years later. Warren's charisma and political strength were so great that he won the Republican, Democratic, and Progressive primaries even before the general election. In the November election he received almost twice as many votes as the combined total for his three opponents. Warren would turn California's system of cross-filing into a fine art. He, Senator Hiram Johnson, and Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr. were and probably always will be California's most successful politicians.

The years leading up to the election of 1940 saw an estrangement develop between my father and the Roosevelt Administration, not just over defense and foreign policy, but also regarding the future of the Democratic Party. Nineteen thirty-eight was a major turning point for my father and the Voorhis family. In that year, due to a shrinking endowment and mounting expenses, my grandfather and father decided to deed the Voorhis School to the State of California. It then became a Southern Campus for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and soon became part of California State Polytechnic College in Pomona by the mid-1950s. This decision was financially advisable but my father had guilt feelings about it for the rest of his life, and the necessity of giving up the school tended to contribute to his negative feelings toward Congress, electoral politics, and the federal government.

This distrust of government and the changing international picture made my father much more conservative during his second term in office than he was either before or since. My father broke with the Roosevelt Administration when he voted in favor of preserving intact virtually all the provisions of the 1937 Neutrality Act in the new Neutrality Legislation which was being proposed during November of 1939. The 1939 Act removed the arms and loan embargo provisions of the old Neutrality Act, but only over the opposition of my father and almost 200 mostly isolationist Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats.

The passage of the Voorhis Act made my father the author of legislation directed against foreign countries like the Soviet Union and left-wing extremist groups like the Communist Party. The Voorhis Act also covered right-wing groups that were controlled by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. But the loudest and most frequent complaint about the Act came from the Communists.

Finally, shortly after he was reelected, my father joined and supported the House Committee, on UnAmerican Activities. These developments were not lost on the predominantly conservative and isolationist voters of California's 12th District.

My father's only appearance at a Democratic Convention as a delegate occurred in 1940, the momentous Third Term Convention. In this Convention, his behavior marked a strong contrast to his activities during 1936. Four years earlier, he and several other EPIC supporters, led by Culbert Olson, resigned from the pro-Roosevelt California Convention Delegation because it refused to endorse Upton Sinclair's principle of production for use. During 1936, my father and Culbert Olson refused to attend the Democratic Convention because of their passionate attachment to a utopian socialist principle. Four years later, in 1940, my father not only attended the Democratic Convention but during the Vice Presidential balloting he supported the candidacy of moderate House Speaker William Bankhead over that of the eventual nominee, the more progressive Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace. This was an act of rebellion against FDR, who wanted Wallace to be his running mate, and it made enemies for my father within the Roosevelt Administration. His vote for Bankhead particularly provoked the wrath of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. It also antagonized a number of his liberal colleagues inside and outside of Congress.

These three developments--my father's membership in H.U.A.C.1 passage of the Voorhis Act, and his opposition to Wallace as a running mate--produced support for my father among moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the 12th District, as well as among many Republicans and independents. Wallace was looked upon as a radical by many voters in the 12th District, and it should be remembered that many, if not most, 12th District Democrats were from the Southern and Border States, or their parents or grandparents came from that part of the country. My father's support for Bankhead and his rapport with the Southern leaders of Congress undoubtedly strengthened their support of him, especially in 1940.

During the 1940 primary my father faced virtually no opposition and in the final election the ~P candidate was a relatively unknown figure, Captain Irwin Minger, Commandant of a small military school for boys. The 1940 election was a contest between two school headmasters. My father in it with 64% of the total vote, as against only 35.2% for Minger. My father was lucky enough to have a Communist candidate running against him. The Communist Congressional candidate received 1,152 votes, and his opposition to my father may have contributed at least two or three thousand votes to my father's overall majority.

Nineteen forty was a high-water mark in my father's political career. If his politics had remained as moderate-to-conservative as it had become in 1940, he might have stayed in Congress for several decades, possibly for the rest of his life. He might have become Chairman of the Agriculture Committee. However, World War II, Japanese internment, the U.S. Government's often cozy wartime relationship with major corporations like Standard Oil, and the wartime-induced federal deficit, all contributed to a leftward tilt to my father's politics, which ultimately produced his defeat in 1946. My father would once again become conservative, or at least moderate, but only after he left Congress and became active in the private sector, or the U.S. cooperative movement.

Roosevelt won big throughout California during 1940. He received 57% of the total vote and carried all but seven counties. FDR's landslide undoubtedly added votes to my father's total, but my father ran well ahead of FDR within the 12th District. My father's raw vote total in 1940 was 99,494 ballots. He could now be considered in the same league with entrenched California House veterans and cross-filers, like Clarence Lea from Northern California or Bertrand Gearhart from the Central Valley.

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