Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Page 7



Was There a New Thomas Lee Woolwine in 1916?




Thirty-Eighth in a Series


THOMAS LEE WOOLWINE in 1916, after less than two years in office as district attorney, had most voters convinced—even many who had been leery of him—that he was the right man for the job. He almost won outright in the primary over four challengers.

The official tally showed he was only 80 votes shy of victory; 49,056 ballots were cast for him, and 49,136, cumulatively, for his rivals.

Woolwine asked for a recount, hoping that new tabulations would permit him to avoid a run-off with the second-place contestant, former Deputy District Attorney William T. Helms, who drew 23,139 votes.

Also seeking a recount was Harry Ellis Dean, who came in third with 10,494 votes. Dean, as recited in the last column, had quit the previous year as Woolwine’s chief deputy and early in 1916 caused the arrest of a restaurant owner in Vernon for allegedly staging illegal games of chance. It was Woolwine’s refusal to prosecute that case which formed the major basis for a doomed citizen’s petition seeking his ouster by the Superior Court for neglect of duties.   

At one point in the recount, Woolwine had gained 106 votes, seemingly capturing the prize. But in the end—with challenges to ballots, re-reckoning and re-adjusting—the incumbent fell 38 votes short of victory.

The Oct. 7 issue of the Times quotes Woolwine as pointing out that he was only four votes short of his competitors’ collective tally inasmuch as 34 votes were cast for persons whose names were written in.

The determination of which ballots were valid and which weren’t was made by a panel of nine Los Angeles Superior Court judges. The outcome was announced by Judge Charles Monroe.

Monroe also publicly called for the disbarment of Dean who had said in an affidavit that he was informed that 12,000 votes had been cast for him that were erroneously credited either to Woolwine or Helms. There was never any ground for any such suspicion, Monroe declared, commenting: “To say the least, that is trifling with an oath.”

He added that “[t]he Penal Code gives it a stronger name than that.”

Dean was not disbarred nor prosecuted, but did not again seek public office. He became business manager for a motion picture company.

The Los Angeles Times poked fun at Woolwine when he ran for the post of district attorney in 1910, backing incumbent John D. Fredericks, and in 1914 endorsed Woolwine’s opponent, Chief Deputy District Attorney Joseph Ford. But in 1916, it urged the reelection of Woolwine.

Its Nov. 5 editorial observes that the popularity Woolwine had come to enjoy was “one of the  strangest twists ever known in local politics.” It quotes the candidate, himself, as reflecting on the 1910 race (in which he conducted a nasty smear campaign against Fredericks), by saying: “I sometimes shudder now to think how unfitted I must have been in those years.”

I’ve previously noted the similarity of Woolwine to President Richard M. Nixon; both were complex men with qualities of greatness, yet signs of baseness. It was, in 1916, perceived that there was a new Woolwine, just as it was discerned at various points decades hence that there was a “new Nixon.” That phrase first surfaced in 1956. There was a “dump Nixon” movement; many within the GOP thought that President Dwight Eisenhower could fare better in seeking reelection without his current vice president on the ticket. Supporters insisted there was a “new Nixon,” a more trustworthy and responsible one. The Democratic vice presidential hopeful, U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, was quoted in the Times on Oct. 11 as telling an audience that “the new Nixon and the old Nixon are precisely the same”—and, of course, the Watergate break-in 16 years later and the ensuing cover-up showed Kefauver’s assessment to have been accurate. And when Woolwine, as district attorney of Los Angeles County, in 1921 punched his opposing counsel in the presence of a jury, it showed that the new Woolwine and the old one were the same petulant fellow.

In 1916, Woolwine’s public approval rating was high, and the common impression was that the DA had gained the essential qualities he previously lacked. The Times editorial endorsing him declares:

Two years ago Mr. Woolwine was bitterly opposed by thousands of the men and women who are today supporting him. At that time it was generally said that he lacked the temperament necessary for the proper conduct if the exalted office of District Attorney.

When he took the oath of office and launched forth upon less than two years of service, he became engaged in a number of important matters that required the keen judgment, the steady poise, the firm decision of a balanced mind.

At the close of nearly two years of this service, Mr. Woolwine has amply demonstrated a possession of those qualities. His record as District Attorney has been generally and generously indorsed by all classes of people.

He has been fearless and incorruptible.  He has won the fullest confidence of his friends and the respect of those who were once his political enemies but now have enlisted themselves among his friends.

The Examiner had lambasted Woolwine in 1914 based on his displays of violent temper. Yet, its Nov. 6, 1916 issue, the day before the general election, contains an editorial hailing him as “an excellent official, surprising both friends and enemies by his painstaking devotion to duty, his breadth and tolerance, his unswerving loyalty to the electorate.”

You’ll note that the two editorials both refer to Woolwine’s “friends” and “enemies.” With respect to Los Angeles district attorneys, before and since, such phrasing has not been commonly employed; candidates for the office have had supporters, their opponents have had a different set of supporters—and a supporter of one candidate has hardly been classed as an “enemy” of the other. Yet, Woolwine had evoked incredibly strong emotions, and the wording of the editorials was apt.

Woolwine drew support from another daily, the Los Angeles Record. Or, more to the point, Woolwine was the beneficiary of Helms drawing the newspaper’s scorn.

A Nov. 1 editorial accused Helms of being “unfit for this office because he is a dirty hypocrite, a walking lie” based on posing as a tea-totaller while, in fact, he did imbibe.

After the election, Helms signed a complaint resulting in the arrest and trial of the editor of the Record for criminal libel based on the editorial. Testimony showed that Helms frequented the Sierra Madre Club and favored mint juleps, “blue moons” and “pink garters.” On Jan. 2, 1917, a Police Court justice found the editor not guilty, declaring that “the defendant has proved Capt. Helms was two-faced and hypocritical.”

While the vote in the primary presaged a win for Woolwine in the Nov. 7 run-off, the incumbent did all the better by virtue of some help. It came from Helms. He  managed to offend the Republican County Central Committee, as well as the Democratic County Central Committee.

Helms was a Republican and Woolwine a Democrat. So, the county GOP should get behind him, Helms figured (or perhaps it was Edwin T. Earl, publisher of the Express, who was doing the figuring in the campaign). The hitch was that nonpartisan elections of local officeholders had gone into effect two years earlier, and the county Republican Party did not consider it appropriate to attempt to buck that reform.

On May 12, the Republican Club of Los Angeles County decided not to endorse aspirants for nonpartisan posts and on Oct. 16, the Republican County Central Committee, the GOP umbrella organization, by a vote of 51-17 rebuffed a motion to endorse Helms.

Ralph F. Graham—who in open court announced his resignation as deputy district attorney over a policy dispute with the newly sworn-in Woolwine and who came in fourth in the primary election for district attorney—on Oct. 21 wrote a letter to Helms. The recipient gave it to Earl, who published it in the Express on Oct. 24.

The letter bemoaned the decision of the Republican County Central Committee not to endorse Helms. It explained the decision by asserting that “certain influential members of the executive committee are afraid that some of their pet houses of prostitution might be interfered with” if Helms were elected.

That did not set well with the local Republican organization.

The letter also said that “Tommy gets the endorsement of the Democratic County Central Committee (so I am informed),” saying that their party is “not worried about nonpartisanship.”

The Democrats were far less maligned than the Republicans, but were none too happy, given that no such endorsement had been made by them.

Leon F. Moss, a former judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court and a member of the Republican executive committee, wrote to Graham asking him to identify the individuals who wanted their “pet” houses of ill repute safeguarded so that others in the group would be disassociated from the allegation. Graham, who was both city attorney of Whittier and president of its board of education, responded:

“If there are any such members on the committee to them I refer. If there are no such members on said committee then I refer to none.”

In a postscript, he wrote:

“By the way Judge, our old friendship and acquaintanceship emboldens me to inquire what is your personal interest in this matter, anyway?”

The Times and the Examiner published those letters, as well as one from Edwin A. Meserve to Moss. Meserve—who was founder of Meserve, Mumper & Hughes and went on to become Los Angeles Bar Assn. president in 1920—was also a member of the GOP’s Executive Committee, and was incensed.

“I take it that Captain Helms furnished Mr. Graham’s letter to the press and is directly responsible for its publication,” he wrote, making note that “[i]t had been my purpose before the publication of this latter to vote for Capt. Helms, because he is a Republican”—but not anymore.

“In all my experience I have never known of a more vicious, unwarranted assault made on the good names of respectable men and women,” Meserve thundered.

Also published by the morning dailies was a letter from Oscar Lawler—who became the Los Angeles Bar Assn.’s chief in 1923—to Helms. It concluded:

“Justice to the Republican committee and my own self-respect require that I shall neither vote for, nor support, your candidacy.”

The Woolwine campaign disseminated to the press a statement by Ben F. Groves, secretary of the Democratic County Central Committee, declaring that no endorsement of Woolwine or any other candidate for nonpartisan office had been made by his outfit.

Helms or anyone else making a contrary statement “must certainly know that it is absolutely false and without a shadow of foundation,” the letter said.

Helms was obviously not well advised to release Graham’s letter.

Graham, by the way, was an uncle of the late Frank C. Swain, a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court from 1935-64 and father of a current member of that court, Judge Leslie Swain.

With both the Republican and Democratic Parties sore at him, did Helms at least muster support from the Prohibition Party in light of his masquerading as a total abstainer from use of alcohol? No.

It was around Oct. 17 that Helms proclaimed his supposed fidelity to the anti-booze cause. Offering proof, he endorsed a statewide proposition on the Nov. 9 ballot which would have barred sales of alcoholic drinks at restaurants and bars. He did not take a stance on another measure that would have rendered California a “dry” state. Woolwine had not expressed a view on either measure.

A news article in the Los Angeles Times’s Oct. 22 edition begins:

“At a meeting of the Prohibition County Central Committee today, that body refused to rescind its indorsement of Thomas Lee Woolwine for District Attorney, which was made last Tuesday. The indorsement now stands with full force and effect, notwithstanding the efforts of Mr. Woolwine’s opponent and a certain Los Angeles newspaper to have such indorsement repudiated.”

A column in the Times that day by a pundit identified only as “The Watchman” says of Helms:

“It was following his repudiation by the Republicans that he flopped into the Prohibition camp and endeavored to get its approval. He failed again and may be expected to turn to the Socialists.”

Next time, I’ll take a look at the puppeteer pulling Helms’s strings, E.T. Earl.


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