Home -> James H. Barry Press -> Story of the Session of the California Legislature of 1909 -> Chapter 5

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page

Chapter V.

Election of United States Senator.

Opposition to Perkins Overcome by the Dead Weight of the Machine - Movement Against His Re-election Failed for Want of Leadership - Proceedings Without Warmth or Enthusiasm.

No funeral was ever attended by greater somberness than was the re-election of George C. Perkins to the United States Senate, January 12-13, 1909. The nominating speeches were made without enthusiasm; not a cheer greeted Senator or Assemblyman charged with the task of putting the aged Senator in nomination. Pulcifer of Alameda, who made the nominating speech in the Assembly, was received with icy calmness. Even when the Alamedan referred to the veteran Senator as "one whose hair has grown white and whose eyes have grown dim in the service of his country," not so much as a ripple of applause stirred the chamber. When the speaker concluded his review of the Senator's life and political career, the incipient murmur of approval which somebody started died away for want of vitality.

In the Senate, the task of nominating Perkins fell to Stetson of Alameda. But Stetson's nominating speech was received with no more enthusiasm than was that of the shifty Pulcifer. The "system," the "organization," the "machine," have it as you will, returned George C. Perkins to the United States Senate. The people of California had no voice in it, nor, for that matter, the Legislature, although the majority of the Legislature was opposed to the machine. In carrying out the ignoble part prepared for them - prepared for them by the "machine" which a majority of them opposed - the members of Senate and Assembly went through the forms prescribed without a hand clap and without a cheer.

But it must not be thought that the re-election of Senator Perkins was without opposition. Indeed, it met with the same sort of honest but ineffective resistance that attended the election of Stanton to the Speakership of the Lower House. And like the campaign against Stanton the opposition to Perkins got nowhere because of the lack of leadership, organization and plan of action on the part of the resisting legislators.

The machine had been preparing for Perkins' re-election for months; but the opposition to Perkins made no move until after the November elections.

The first outward sign of opposition came from Assemblyman E. J. Callan of the Thirty-ninth District, the fighting reform district of San Francisco. Callan, three or four weeks before the Legislature convened, fell into a trap which the wily Alameda County politician had set some time previous. Perkins had long before invited criticism of his "record," which meant his votes on issues that had been passed upon by the United States Senate. As a matter of fact, such votes mean little, for the misplaced "courtesy of the Senate," under which schemers betray the people, makes it possible for even recognized "reformers" to be forced to vote against most desirable measures. The other fellows of the Perkins stripe when brought to book on their "record" can always give in defense: 'Why, your reformer, Senator So and So, did the same thing.' To be sure, a La Follette does kick over the traces once in a while, in which event he usually votes alone, while the solemn victims of "courtesy" vote against him according to Senatorial custom, not to use the more expressive word, stupidity.

Thus, when Perkins craftily invited his opponents to attack him on his record, they dodged the trap gingerly, all save Callan. Callan didn't walk, he rushed into it, sending a scathing letter to Perkins on that gentleman's Senatorial record. Perkins' reply and explanation came as a counter blow. The fire was tempered out of Callan's letter. Callan had permitted Perkins to select the fighting ground, and Perkins had exhibited admirable judgment.

The attack on Perkins had better been made on his attitude toward the shipping interests of California - the development of the isthmian route to New York, for example; on his attitude toward the machine, whose strangle-hold upon the State is locked with federal patronage; on his attitude toward the so-called "Roosevelt policies"; on his attitude toward the Roosevelt administration, upon which he hung with the dead weight of crafty, persistent obstruction. There were plenty of vulnerable points in the Perkins armor, but naturally in selecting the point of attack, Perkins carefully avoided them. So Callan's bolt rebounded harmlessly, to the astonishment of the various well-meaning reformers, and the intense satisfaction of the machine, whose somewhat anxious leaders recognized full well that Callan's discomfiture would discourage attacks from other possibly effective sources.

The next move against Perkins came the week before the Legislature convened. A number of anti-machine Republicans met at San Francisco to canvass the situation, and formulate a plan to defeat Perkins if possible. It was found that on joint Senate and Assembly ballot, the Democrats would have twenty-nine votes and the Republicans ninety-one. Sixty-one votes are required for the election of a Senator. The Republicans at the meeting considered these twenty-nine votes as with them in the selection of an anti-machine Republican for Perkins' place. The anti-machine Republicans thus in revolt against the machine, themselves numbered twenty Senators and Assemblymen, which made forty-nine votes against Perkins. In addition, an even dozen Republican Senators and Assemblymen were counted upon as willing to vote against Perkins if his defeat could be shown to be certain. This would have given the anti-Perkins element sixty-one votes, just enough to elect. For one of their number to fail, meant a deadlock; for two, if Republicans, to fail meant Perkins' election. It was a slender chance, but the possibility of success kept the movement alive until the hour of the Senatorial caucus.

Those who were promoting the movement were not at the time aware that six of the Democratic Assemblymen and one of the Democratic Senators were governed by such high conceptions of their duties as citizens and responsibilities as legislators, that they were to cast their votes in the Senatorial election for a San Francisco saloon keeper, on the ground that he is a "good fellow" and had "spent money liberally for the party." This of itself made the defeat of Perkins impossible.

The anti-Perkins forces were also handicapped by the fact that they had no candidate. The machine had been craftily booming Perkins for years; the reformers had boomed nobody[19]. They were, then, without material for a positive fight; all they could do was negative, which is always confession of weakness. In addition, aside from the Bulletin, there was no San Francisco publication that could be counted upon to back their movement. The Call was openly supporting Perkins. The movement against Perkins, while it admittedly represented the attitude of the majority of the electors of the State, and the feeling of a safe majority of both Houses of the Legislature, was without one element of real strength[20].

Under the United States Revised Statutes, the Legislature was called upon, to proceed on the second Tuesday after organization, to elect Senator Perkins' successor. As the Legislature had organized on January 4, the second Tuesday fell on January 12. The call for the Republican caucus to go through the form of selecting a candidate for the Senate, was circulated the third and fourth days of the session. The Republican Senators all signed it, not a few of them with the non-resistance of a wretch in the hands of a hangman.

More opposition developed in the Assembly. Callan and three or four others kept up their resistance to the last, but when the caucus assembled on Friday evening, January 8, all the Republican Senators and Assemblymen who could do so were in attendance[21].

The caucus was of course hopelessly programmed for Perkins. Nevertheless, the better element of the party endeavored to secure some expression from Senator Perkins as to his attitude toward the Western transportation problem. This led to a heated debate which kept the caucus in session until a late hour. The debate turned on the celebrated Bristow letter.

For years, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company has been able to prevent effective water competition by way of the Isthmus of Panama. The Government has a line of steamers running from New York to the Isthmus, and a railroad line across the Isthmus. With an additional line of steamers running from San Francisco to Panama, the Government would have a through line from San Francisco to New York. This would give genuine competition with the Southern Pacific system, and free the State from the grasp of the transportation monopoly.

In August, 1907, Hon. J. L. Bristow, now United States Senator from Kansas, was appointed a Special Panama Railroad Commissioner, to investigate the necessity and feasibility of putting on the Pacific line. Mr. Bristow, in a report that fairly sizzled with criticism of Southern Pacific and Pacific Mail Steamship Company methods, recommended that the government line be established. When Pacific freight rates were arbitrarily raised just before the Legislature convened, shippers of the State appealed, not to Senator Perkins or to Senator Flint, but to Senator Bristow from interior Kansas, asking that he concern himself with having government steamers put on the San Francisco-Panama route. Bristow replied that he would do what he could, that he was receiving many letters from Western shippers who favored the plan, but that the chief difficulty in the way was the opposition of the California delegation in the Senate.

This Bristow letter caused all the trouble at the Perkins caucus. The suggestion was made that Perkins owed it to the State to explain the charges brought against him by the Senator from Kansas. A resolution was accordingly introduced providing that a telegram be sent Senator Perkins calling upon him to state whether the charge made by Senator Bristow were true.

Immediately the pro-Perkins people assumed the dignified position that such a telegram would be an insult to the venerable Senator from California. Nobody seems to have taken the trouble to state that the Bristow charges were untrue, but that the requesting of the Senator to answer them would be an insult to that dignitary was made subject of the warmest oratory. So warm was it, that the opposition to Perkins melted away like wax - or putty, if putty melts - until but five members of the caucus had the courage to vote to ask Perkins to declare himself on the transportation problem. Callan of San Francisco voted for it, so did Drew of Fresno, so did Young of Berkeley and two others. But 77 members of the caucus voted against the resolution. Senator Perkins was permitted to maintain a dignified silence on the Bristow charges. After the vote on the resolution, Assemblyman Callan left the caucus.

But even with the Republican caucus nomination, Perkins did not receive the entire Republican vote. In the Assembly, Callan voted for Chester Rowell of Fresno, and Sackett for Thomas R. Bard of Ventura. Fifty-six of the Assembly votes, however, were cast for Perkins.

In the Senate, Perkins received thirty-two votes. The thirty regular Republicans voted for him, as did Senator Bell, the Independent-Republican, and Senator Caminetti, Democrat. Senator Caminetti voted for Perkins because Caminetti regarded Perkins, as nearly as could be determined, the choice of the electors to whom Caminetti owed his election. Caminetti believes that the United States Senator should be selected by the people of the State. The nearest he could get to this was to ascertain the wishes of the people of his district. He was convinced that the people of his district wished to see Perkins re-elected. So, regardless of partisan considerations, Caminetti the Democrat voted for Perkins the Republican. Caminetti's explanation of his vote is worthy of the most careful consideration[22].

The regular candidate of the minority for the Democratic complimentary vote was J. O. Davis, a gentleman of the highest character. But eight of the Democratic members voted against him. Seven of the eight, Assemblymen Black, Collum, Hopkins, Lightner, O'Neil and Wheelan and Senator Hare voted for Harry P. Flannery, a San Francisco saloon-keeper; the eighth, Senator Kennedy, voted for William H. Langdon. Six Democratic Senators and thirteen Democratic Assemblymen voted for Mr. Davis. They were: Senators Campbell, Cartwright, Curtin, Holohan, Miller, and Sanford; Assemblymen Baxter, Gibbons, Gillis, Irwin, Johnson of Placer, Juilliard, Maher, Mendenhall, Odom, Polsley, Preston, Stuckenbruck and Webber.

[19] It is interesting to note that when a good citizen gives effective resistance to the machine, that the machine invariably starts the cry - "He is a candidate for the United States Senate." The open candidacy - and liberal advertising - of a machine man for the Federal Senatorship causes no adverse comment. For an anti-machine man to so aspire - or the suspicion in machine breasts that he so aspires - is heralded as evidence of his complete unworthy and irresponsibility.

[20] But when the machine Republicans of a State unite with Democrats to elect a machine man to the Federal Senate, no such difficulties attend them. Note the election by a coalition of machine Republicans and machine Democrats in Illinois of "Billy" Lorimer, the notorious "blond boss" of the stockyards, to the United States Senate.

[21] Senator Bell, although a Republican, was excluded because he would not make his peace with Walter Parker, the Southern Pacific boss of the political district lying south of Tehachepi. See Chapter 11, Organization of the Senate.

[22] Caminetti's explanation of his vote, as printed in the Senate Journal, is in full as follows:

"Mr. President: During the campaign of 1906, in the Tenth Senatorial District, resulting in my election as Senator, I made the question of 'The election of United States Senators by direct vote of the people' one of the leading issues upon which I asked the suffrage of the people. I then pledged myself in all my speeches and in the press, to endeavor to secure the passage of a law by the Legislature in case of my election having that object in view, and in case of failure in the effort I would nevertheless follow that principle and vote for the choice of a majority of the qualified electors of that district in the selection of a Senator during my term of off cue.

"The last session of the Legislature failed to enact the necessary legislation on the subject, but the people of my district have nevertheless plainly indicated to me that Hon. George C. Perkins was at the last election, and now is, their choice for the United States Senatorship.

"Under these circumstances I feel in honor bound by my pledges to the people of the Tenth Senatorial District, to record the choice of a majority of the qualified electors thereof for Hon. George C. Perkins for United States Senator, hoping in so doing that it will never again be necessary for a member of the Legislature to vote the choice of the people of his district in this, or any other, indirect way, but that this Legislature will rise superior to partisanship and give to the people hereafter an opportunity, under suitable laws, to vote directly for candidates for that office. Should this Legislature fail in this high duty to the public, I trust that the people, in whom all power resides, will hereafter take up this matter in the way the people of the Tenth Senatorial District did two years ago, and thus be able in all legislative districts of the State to record their choice for the exalted office of United States Senator."

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page