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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington


The Washington Commonwealth Federation's newspaper, The Sunday News, from Feb. 28, 1937, announcing WCF and Communist Party member Hugh DeLacy's campaign for the Seattle City Council. DeLacy would go on and win election to Congress in 1944, the legacy of the WCF's left-labor coalition in Washington.
The Great Depression transformed political life and remade governmental institutions throughout the United States, and indeed throughout the world. The inability of governments to respond to the crisis led to widespread political unrest that in some nations toppled regimes.

In the United States, a long era of Republican Party domination came to a close with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in November 1932. With Democrats also taking charge in both houses of Congress, the Roosevelt administration transformed the capacity of the federal government over the next five years, launching spending programs to aid states and help the unemployed, establishing new regulatory institutions to manage key parts of the economy, and building a new framework of economic rights for most Americans, including the right to join a union and the right to an old-age pension. The New Deal era that began in early 1933 would remake the American economy and remake the relationship between citizens and government.

Washington State experienced its own New Deal transformation. For most of its history, the state had been a Republican Party stronghold. In the election of 1930, the GOP fortress began to weaken as voters sent several Democrats to join the still overwhelmingly Republican legislature. In 1931, Seattle voters turned against Republican Mayor Frank Edwards, who had recently fired the popular manager of the city-owned utilities company and who had done little to help the thousands of Seattle residents who had lost jobs and homes. A recall election forced Edwards from office and sounded a warning to other conservative politicians.

The 1932 election that brought Democrats to power in Washington, DC did the same in Washington State. Democrats won all six congressional seats and elected Homer T. Bone to the U.S. Senate, only the second Democrat to ever represent the state. Democrats also gained control of both houses of the legislature and sent Clarence Martin to the governor's mansion.

Radical challenges

Martin, the Democratic mayor of Cheney, proved to be a fiscal conservative and his administration soon disappointed liberals as well as the Unemployed Citizens League and other radical organizations that now mobilized tens of thousands. In the 1934 election season, the left made itself heard. The small Communist Party ran candidates but gained only a few thousand votes. More impressive was the Commonwealth Builders Inc. (CBI), an organization inspired by Upton Sinclair's concurrent campaign for governor of California. Both CBI and Sinclair pledged to end poverty by having the state take over idle farms and factories and turn them into cooperatives of the unemployed. For the 1934 campaign, Commonwealth Builders recruited candidates to run as Democrats and met with some success. The legislature that met in 1935 included a number of CBI law makers, although not enough to enact the organization's "Production for Use" program.

Governor Clarence Martin, a fiscally conservative Democrat, disappointed liberals and was challenged by the left-labor political coalition, the Washington Commonwealth Federation.

The following year, the organization changed its name to the Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF), modified its platform, and broadened its appeal. For the next decade, the WCF ran left-wing candidates from inside the Democratic Party, winning positions in the state legislature and Congress while popularizing left-wing reforms, support for unions, social programs, and old-age pensions. Although the WCF failed to unseat Governor Martin in the primary election of 1936 and thus never was able to control the Democratic Party, the organization was powerful enough to push state politics to the left. Often following the political twists of the national Communist Party, the WCF was an important part of why Washington State was considered a stronghold of unionism and radical politics in the 1930s and 1940s.

Tensions between left wing and moderate Democrats sometimes created openings for Republicans. No one was better at exploiting those openings than Arthur Langlie, who got his start in politics with the New Order of Cincinnatus, a conservative group that pledged to lower taxes and promote moral uplift. Elected to the Seattle City Council in 1935 with the Order's backing, Langlie became Seattle's mayor in 1938 in a complicated three-way race. In 1940 he capitalized again on Democratic divisions and narrowly won election as state governor, only to have to contend with a still solidly Democratic legislature. A politically adept moderate, Langlie proved receptive to some reform measures and worked well the Roosevelt administration during his four year term.

Restructuring government

The 1930s saw important changes in the structure and function of state and local governments, although not as dramatic as the changes at the federal level. In 1933 the state convened a constitutional convention to ratify the 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealing prohibition. The end of prohibition was a cause of celebration for drinkers and also lawmakers, who set up the state Liquor Control Board to collect taxes and raise much needed revenues.

Tax reform was another critical agenda. As the economy declined, falling tax revenues made it impossible for cities or the state to keep up with the need for relief funds for the hungry and homeless. In 1931, the legislature voted to create an income tax on corporate and personal income while also lowering property taxes, which had been the only major source of revenue. Conservative Governor Roland Hartley vetoed the measure, setting up his own defeat in the next election. In 1933 voters overwhelming approved an income tax in a statewide initiative jointly supported by the Grange and the state's unions. However, the Washington Supreme Court, in a tortured reading of the state constitution, invalidated the ballot measure, leaving Washington as one of the only politically progressive states to exit the 1930s without enacting an income tax. The legislature then went to work reorganizing the tax code in other ways. The Revenue Act of 1935 established the basic mix of sales taxes, business and occupations taxes, sin taxes, user fees and property taxes that provide revenues today.

Federal spending and increased state revenues made it possible for Washington to develop the bridges, dams, roads, parks, schools, and libraries that are detailed in the Public Works: Rebuilding Washington section of this project. The political climate and Democratic Party control of Washington DC and Olympia also helped the labor movement to reorganize and fostered the rapid growth of new unions as developed in the section on Strikes and Unions. In addition, the era saw new political initiatives emerge in the African American and Filipino American communities as civil rights activists found new allies on the left side of the Democratic Party and in radical groups like the Communist Party. For more on this see our section on Civil Rights.

Copyright (c) 2009, James Gregory

Next: Public Works

Click on the links below to read illustrated research reports on electoral politics and coalitions formed during Washington State's Great Depression:


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

The left/labor political coalition launched a 1936 electoral campaign to challenge the right wing, anti-New Deal Democrats in Washington State, as well as advocate radical propoerty redistribution and social insurance policies.

Building the People's Republic in Washington State: The Washington Commonwealth Federation, Comintern Foreign Policy, and the Second World War, by Skyler Cuthill

The changes in Soviet foreign policy heavily influenced the foreign policy of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, leading to successes and losses in state politics and public influence.

The Washington Commonwealth Federation and the Japanese Boycott, 1937-1938, by Chris Kwon

The labor/radical reform coalition, the Washington Commonwealth Federation, organized an "anti-fascist" boycott against Japanese goods as part of an effort to oppose Japanese imperial expansion into China. However, this stance bled into anti-Japanese sentiment that would culminate in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Fascism and Its Ally, Racism”: The Complexities of the Washington Commonwealth Federation's Stance on Civil Rights, by Catherine Roth

The civil rights policies of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a labor/left political coalition, mirrored the zigzags of the international Communist Party's politics, swerving from defending them to silence around Japanese American internment in World War II.

Reviving Radicalism: The New Order of Cincinnatus and the Role of Non-Partisan Conservatism in Depression-era Seattle Politics, by Emma Lunec

The conservative New Order of Cincinnatus, an anti-corruption and pseudo-fascist men's political organization, fostered conservative politicians who would revitalize the state Republican Party in the late 1930s to challenge the Democratic New Deal.

Seattle Newspapers' Support for FDR during the 1932 Election, by Nicholas Taylor

This paper analyzes the desire for political change on the cusp of FDR's election, analyzing Seattle-area newspapers.

The Rainy City on the “Wet Coast”: The Failure of Prohibition in Seattle, by Kayta Katherine Samuels

Prohibition failed to control the production, consumption, and enjoyment of alcohol in Seattle and the entire "wet coast."

The Washington Commonwealth Federation and Washington Pension Union, by Jennifer Phipps

Washington's Communist Party was central to two broader political formations that reshaped state politics, reform, and social services.

Washington Commonwealth Builder/Washington Commonwealth, newspaper report by Jessica Dunahoo

Read a history of the newspaper of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a left-labor-communist political coalition that reshaped state politics during the Depression.