Chester Rowell once described Hiram Johnson, known for being strong-willed and combative, as “an aggressive advocate.” The son of Grove Johnson, a conservative lawyer and politician who had served as a railroad spokesman in the California legislature, Hiram grew up in Sacramento. He attended the University of California at Berkeley for three years, before dropping out to marry Minnie McNeal. The young groom then studied law in his father’s office until passing the bar examination in 1888. His legal practice included defending labor unions and prosecuting San Francisco’s notoriously corrupt political machine under Boss Ruef and Mayor Eugene E. Schmitz (see Chapter 8). Johnson disagreed with his father about railroad influence, unions, and other political matters, but absorbed his toughness, shrewdness, and temper. He would carry these traits with him into his electoral debut in 1910.
As the gubernatorial choice of the Lincoln-Roosevelt League, Johnson still had to gain the Republican Party’s nomination in what became the state’s first direct primary, as
Provided by a 1909 law. His running mate as lieutenant governor was southern Californian Albert J. Wallace, president of the Anti-Saloon League, an organization working in many states to outlaw the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Wallace lent geographical balance to the ticket and appealed to the prohibitionists, whose greatest numbers and influence were in the Southland. The two League candidates succeeded in besting their rivals, some of whom had been put up by conservative Republicans with Southern Pacific endorsement. With the League firmly in control of the Republican Party, California headed into one of the most determinative elections in the state’s history.
From the start, Johnson managed his own campaign. Seeing Leaguers’ mishandling of several news stories convinced him to take charge of his own race for the governorship. “Of all the Damn Fool Leagues that ever existed,” fumed the testy candidate, “The LINCOLN-ROOSEVELT LEAGUE not only is the worst, but the worst that could ever be conceived. . . .” He made no apologies for refusing to travel with other League candidates for office. Nevertheless, the League remained supportive of Johnson despite his at times intemperate barbs directed at it. The candidate’s rancor toward the League did not let up as he took his campaign on the road.
Up and down the state Johnson went by automobile, covering 20,000 miles and trumpeting repeatedly his one theme: “Kick the Southern Pacific out of politics.” Audiences roared their approval. He dismissed advice to include other issues because he sensed that what he was doing worked. It worked particularly well in the Central Valley, where wealthy owners of large farms and ranches had scores to settle with the Southern Pacific for charging high freight rates. Thus, Johnson was not so much the defender of small farmers and ranchers exploited by the powerful railroad as he was the champion of one segment of rich capitalists against another. His shrewdness in enlisting support from wealthy backers in the Central Valley paid off at election time.
Theodore Bell, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate, ran on a similar antiSouthern Pacific platform but addressed a wider range of issues than Johnson. As historian Spencer Olin notes, since Johnson and Bell agreed on the railroad issue, the campaign was decided largely though not entirely on the personalities of the two men. Johnson, who exuded vigor and spirit, was clearly better able to arouse large audiences than his opponent. In addition, his valid charge that Bell received financial backing from Walter Parker, chief political operative for the Southern Pacific in Los Angeles, tarnished the Democratic candidate’s reform credentials. There is no evidence that Bell solicited any help from the railroad, yet the help he was given ruined his chances at the polls.
The outcome of the election could scarcely have been better for the Lincoln-Roosevelt reformers. Johnson won the governorship with 177,191 votes to Bell’s 154,835. Berkeley’s socialist candidate J. Stitt Wilson came in a distant third with 47,819 votes.