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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

“To Vote Democratic, Vote Commonwealth”: The Washington Commonwealth Federation's 1936 Electoral Victory

by Drew May

The front page of the Washington Commonwealth Federation's newspaper from August 1, 1936, announcing their slate of candidates. John C. Stevenson, the WCF's cadidate for governor, is pictured at the center.

Statewide, no group was more successful than the Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF) in the struggle for radical political reform during the 1930s. The WCF, an alliance of trade unionists, New Deal reformers, liberals, radicals, and Communist Party members, positioned themselves as the left wing of the state Democratic Party, and pushed for large-scale New Deal reforms through electoral campaigns and propaganda. The WCF sought to organize a progressive movement that could represent the working class and push for large-scale political and social reforms, and that could also open political space to the left of the official state Democratic Party. State Democratic officials like the Seattle Mayor and Governor Clarence Martin, were mesmerized by the money of eastern companies and failed to equalize taxes or raise relief funds during the Depression. As a result, the WCF launched a massive electoral campaign in 1936 in an attempted to win nomination over the right-wing of the Democratic Party and to spread its often-radical pro-reform message.[1] 

Clarence Martin’s choices as governor were not well received by the Washington Commonwealth Federation. According to WCF leader Howard Costigan, writing in the WCF newspaper The Sunday News in September of 1936, Martin had refused to tax the rich and approved the misuse of approximately $30,000,000 worth of funding that was intended for the impoverished and unemployed, only increasing the gap between the working and upper classes. Martin also sidelined a free education proposal, as well as a push for increased salaries for teachers. As a representative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Democratic Party, Martin was supposed to have labor’s best interest in mind. His management of union strikes, however, showed quite the opposite. When Washington Lumber went on strike to voice their dissatisfaction with industry conditions, Martin sent the National Guard into Aberdeen and Tacoma to crush the strike. As if his use of state force against workers was not enough, Martin's plan for old age pensions was inadequate to the needs of most working citizens. Martin claimed to have administered over 25,000 pensions but in reality, this number barely reached 20,000, and the benefit sent was a meager twenty dollars per month.[2] Martin’s retreat from adequate social reform in Olympia earned him the antagonism of both Costigan and the WCF.

The desire to extend relief to poverty-stricken groups led the WCF to formulate a political ticket for the upcoming elections of 1936. Originally, the WCF wanted to form its own political party, unassociated with the current Democratic system in the state. This idea was quickly disbanded, and WCF correspondence papers show arguments against the separation. One of these papers, generated by the Pend Oreille County Assembly and addressed to the November 9, 1936 WCF Convention, highly discouraged dissociation from the Democratic Party.[3] The Pend Oreille Assembly was not opposed to electoral participation per se, but believed the most useful course of action was further work within already established political parties. WCF took the Pend Oreille Assembly’s advice, and prepared itself for the electoral campaign with statewide organizing.

The frontpage for September 4, 1936: The WCF was intially wary of allowing Communist Party members into their coalition, as they believed it would open them up to charges of being too radical or Soviet-controlled. Here, they report that Democrat Gov. Martin has been distributing handbills falsely painting the WCF candidate for gvoernor, John C. Stevenson, as a Communist.

Informing these strategic debates was the WCF’s wariness of an affiliation with the Communist Party, fearing mainstream ostracization and charges of being directed from Russia by Party strategy. Because of these concerns, the WCF initially set itself apart from the radical movement, and refused to seat “suspected Communists” at their conventions. However, political reality changed their minds, as continued work within the progressive movement against fascists and intransigent politicians like Governor Martin justified cooperation. In 1936, the WCF agreed to allow Communists seats at their convention and a voice within their federation. “Is it bomb-throwing, cannibalism, or free love to want Washington’s cow for Washington citizens?,” the Trades Council asked when in defense of the WCF’s radical program of redistribution and economic reform. [4]

Both Communist and WCF members alike wanted to take the Washington economy from Wall Street and put it back in the hands of Washington residents.[5] It was hoped that the 1936 campaign could promote these radical policies by running progressive candidates and publicizing a comprehensive platform of social insurance, work programs, labor rights, and taxation of businesses and the wealthy in order to fund eduction and social programs.

The first step in the WCF’s 1936 electoral campaign was publicizing its endorsement of Radio Speaker John C. Stevenson for Washington State governor. John C. Stevenson had run for the governor’s office two years prior, but had been met with defeat, first because of a charge of fraud while he was a New York State resident and second, because of a calculated spoling strategy from right-wing opposition Democrats.[6] They tried to confuse voters by throwing another candidate, with the same last name, into the running. As a result, John C. Stevenson lost many votes as he split the ticket with this imposter. To avoid the same form of trickery, John C. Stevenson legally changed his name to Radio Speaker John C. Stevenson, as it would appear on the 1936 ballot.[7]

Stevenson’s successful service as the King County Commissioner gained him popularity as the 1936 election approached. Throughout his term, Stevenson's administration was able to decrease county debt and budget by twenty-five percent, and taxes on homes dropped an impressive twenty percent as well. King County experienced market growth and increased bond value. If Stevenson was able to incorporate his success on a statewide scale, it seemed that economic stability could have been reached and the state would have served as a model for the rest of the nation. Stevenson’s platform was a complete reverse of that of Martin’s. With the timber workers’ strike in mind, Stevenson encouraged the passing of a six-hour work day as well as higher wages. Where Martin failed to equalize the taxation in Washington, Stevenson offered a program for fair taxation based on property holdings. He strived to level educational funds and provide better salaries for teachers, and advocated for an old age pension for the elderly.

Heading Stevenson’s ticket, and marking him as a radical, was his support for Initiative 119, which proposed to take idle factories and farmland and turn them into cooperatives.[8] This plan, known as “production for use,” was designed to employ the jobless as well as eliminate the market middle-man. Four districts would be set up where factories would be operated by employed workers from the cities. They would receive either a wage or commodities for their labor. Funds essential to the development of this program were to be gained from a small tax levy and of course, federal aid: the goal of financing such a project was to not contribute to the state debt.[9]

Acting Democratic governor Clarence Martin who, though he was in Roosevelt's Democratic Party, refused to initiate New Deal reforms and was challenged by the Washington Commonwealth Federation. (Image courtesy Washington State Archives).

If Radio Speaker John C. Stevenson and others were to be elected, the WCF had to assemble a strong political unit that could popularize its candidates and reform policies, and indeed, the organization and unity of the Washington Commonwealth Federation were the key factors for their electoral victories in 1936. For the 1936 campaign, largely on the pro-reform, pro-labor nature of the WCF’s campaign platforms, more labor councils joined the WCF which gained their campaign more funds and a wider audience.[10] Already in existence was The Sunday News, a newspaper printed by and in the interest of the WCF members. During 1936, however, the newspaper grew four pages to upwards of eight, even sixteen pages. The Sunday News helped every member stay up-to-date on campaign politics and WCF news, and even appealed to a broader audience with its sports and cinema sections. Editiorials, such as those of WCF leader Howard Costigan, were both popular and quite radical, though they led some to label the WCF a Communist front. While Costigan was a member of the Communist Party, it is true that the paper, like the WCF, was attractive to broader layers of Washingtonians because it argued for large-scale social and economic reform, job programs, and poverty relief, which the mainstream Democrats were not willing to advocate.

The WCF worked hard to spread the campaign—and especially its radical pro-reform message—throughout the state and to finance it properly. Petitions were made and campaign headquarters were established in every legislative district. Since the WCF was not a financial powerhouse, it relied on its members and candidates to help pay campaign expenditures: candidates for state office were expected to pay ten percent of headquarter costs, while county commissioners paid twenty percent. Financing the campaign would prove to be extremely beneficial as it enabled different tactics of publicity, from signs and pamphlets to cards and handbills, many printed with the popular slogan “To vote Democratic, vote Commonwealth.”[11] The WCF utilized every advertising outlet at their disposal, even using a sound truck donated by the Commonwealth Builders Inc. for public speeches. The biggest source of advertisement, other than the WCF’s newspaper, was KIRO radio station, which featured installments of political news amidst its normal programming. This proved to be in the best interest of the aptly-named Radio Speaker John C. Stevenson.[12]

In addition to newspaper, radio, and print propaganda, many committees were formed to supervise all aspects of the election campaign and to make the WCF’s electoral slate attractive throughout all regions of the Washington. The WCF’s Election Committee was chaired by the Executive Director of the WCF, Howard Costigan, who had the responsibility of overseeing the selection of candidates in order to strengthen the slate. Costigan received letters from districts voicing their opinions about who should be endorsed by the WCF and who might mistakenly split the vote. The point was to have one candidate per office in each district, and this was where communication became crucial in organizing a strong slate. For example, Costigan was advised by the Eastern District Campaign Committee to stop Ira Shea from running in the fifth district. There was fear Shea would split the ticket with the already popular Millikan. Permitting Shea to continue in the running would ensure the victory of an opposing progressive candidate.[13]

Besides supervision of the slate, Costigan had to appoint a sub-committee resided over by WCF President, Cyrus E. Woodward. Three members of the state board helped administratively, while the financial manager and publicity manager specialized in certain campaign tasks. Melvin London, the financial manager, had complete jurisdiction over the campaign finances. He was allowed to determine a set budget for the Campaign Committee in addition to disbursement of money for radio time, printing and equipment. The publicity director, Richard Neuberger, had complete control over press and radio releases.[14] The growth of publicity during this 1936 campaign set the stage for future elections. Above all else, it revealed to the public the WCF’s commitment to bringing their message of economic and social reform to Washington State.

Economic and social reform was the highlight of the WCF’s progressive platform, which included increasing taxes on businesses and the wealthy to support federal social insurance programs, a corporation franchise tax, and support of the “production-for-use” initiative. [15]  One article from The Sunday News on February 22, 1936 illustrates the concerns and political slant of the WCF’s campaign: featuring a picture collage of homes listed with their assessed tax amount, the article highlighted the need for property tax reform by showing that a working family’s rundown home was taxed at the same rate as a new residential track home. The WCF also supported the federal Frazier-Lundeen Bill, which was a more extensive proposal than President Roosevelt’s Economic Security Act, and would have federally guaranteed social security and pensions to all workers.

The WCF gained outside support from the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), who wrote to the WCF to support the production of a survey depicting the unemployment situation in the Northwest, which would demonstrate the need for mass relief to federal officials.[16] The WPA was hoping to approve a two billion dollar grant from the United States Treasury for work projects, including slum clearance, street improvement, flood control, and park and school upkeep in working-class districts.[17]

Social policies of the WCF centered on questions of labor rights and militarism. The WCF supported the right of every worker to join a union. The WCF called for the abolition of yellow-dog contracts, agreements workers were forced to sign upon hiring guaranteeing that they would never join a union, and discouraged company-run unions. Unlike Governor Clarence Martin, the WCF was not in favor of using state or police forces to break strikes. The WCF also opposed state militarism: during the 1936 election, the WCF opposed Is involvement in the war brewing in Europe, and marked compulsory military training as a violation of civil rights. When the American Student Union of the University of Washington submitted a petition for support in making military training optional in Washington State, the WCF listened and adopted the point for their electoral platform.[18]

Farm legislature reform was covered in the WCF’s platform by their support for Initiative 119, the “production-for-use” bill that proposed to turn idle farms into cooperatives. Farmers lost a lot of revenue through the private enterprise that distributed their goods in the open market, and this plan would secure adequate funds for farms to remain open. For those farmers who still struggled, the WCF endorsed a plan that would provide assistance by state-owned corporations. Continued farm production, the WCF argued, would boost the economy of Washington State as a whole.

“In the field of education, in fact, lies the primary hope for social advance. Only social education leads to social security.”[19] These words, spoken by Reverend W. W. Withington and Professor F. B. Farquaharson, expressed confidence in the state’s youth. These two individuals were the lead School Board candidates for the WCF. They felt the strong need for increased taxation to fund improved school conditions and teachers’ salaries, and advocated for cooperation with the federal government to establish a permanent adult education program. During the crisis of the Great Depression, the abolition of tuition fees in all public educational institutions was not only viewed right, but fair. Among other things, security of tenure and substantial pensions for educators were two main attempts at keeping teachers in school and educating promising youth. Although Farquharson and Withington lost in 1936, they received over 30,000 votes, which speaks to the depth of support for radical education reform.[20]

Resulting from the WCF’s mass organization and ability to gain popular interest, many small district politicians won their nomination. Although Radio Speaker John C. Stevenson and other big figures lost in their attempt to achieve office, the influence of the WCF in the 1936 election was marked. The 1936 election gave the WCF a reputation as a progressive leader with favorable appeal in future elections, and opened up space for a coherent public politics of radical social and economic reform.

Copyright (c) 2009, Drew May
HSTAA 353 Spring 2009

[1] Slogan of the WCF's campaign, Washington Commonwealth Federation, “Guidance in WCF Campaign,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[2] Howard Costigan, “On His Record..Clarence Martin..For Oblivion.” The Sunday News, September 4, 1936, p.8.

[3] Pend Oreille County Assembly of Washington Commonwealth Federation, “Affiliation with Progressive Movement,” September 8, 1936, Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[4] Trades Council, “A Few Honest Questions and Answers…” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[5] M. Raport, District Organizer of Northwest District of Communism “Correspondence with Washington Commonwealth Federation,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[6] Albert A. Acena, “The Washington Commonwealth Federation: Reform Politics and the Popular Front,” unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Washington, 1975.

[7] “What Will the People’s Verdict Be?” The Sunday News, September 4, 1936, p.1.

[8] Paul Frame, “What Does Stevenson Stand For?” The Sunday News, September 4, 1936, p.4.

[9] “Official Argument for Initiative 119.” The Sunday News, July 25, 1936, p.5.

[10] “WCF Makes Steady Steady Stride Solid Growth-Victory Ahead.” The Sunday News, January 11, 1936, p.1.

[11] Washington Commonwealth Federation, “Guidance in WCF Campaign,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[12] Washington Commonwealth Federation, “Guidance in WCF Campaign,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[13] Campaign Committee Eastern District, “Request Support of Nominee in 5th District,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[14] Howard Costigan, “Construction of Campaign Sub-Committee,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[15] Washington Commonwealth Federation, “The Truth…About Initiative 119,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[16] Works Progress Administration, “Support Effort of WPA on Unemployment Situation,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box4.

[17] Project Workers Union, “Request WCF Endorsement of Frazier-Lundeen Bill,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[18] American Student Union; Youth Section of Washington Commonwealth Federation, “A Resolution on Compulsory Military Training,” n.d., Robert Burke Collection, Accession 2874-002, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division, Box 4.

[19] “Liberal Candidates for School Board.” The Sunday News, February 8, 1936, p.1.

[20] Acena, “The Washington Commonwealth Federation.”