Ohio History Journal




DeMatteo <body bgcolor="#FFFFCC" text="#000000">
Winter-Spring 2002
pp. 7-24
Copyright 2002 by the Ohio Historical Society. All rights reserved.
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Death Knell for Progressive Leadership in Cleveland: Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915

By Arthur E. DeMatteo

Between 1890 and the early 1920s a number of progressive mayors assumed office in cities throughout America's Midwest. Hazen S. Pingree and James Couzens of Detroit, Toledo's Samuel M. "Golden Rule" Jones and Brand Whitlock, and Harry T. Hunt of Cincinnati all campaigned for municipal ownership of public utilities, warred against corrupt politics, and created more humane urban environments.1 Perhaps the most successful of these Midwestern reformers were Tom L. Johnson and Newton D. Baker of Cleveland. Under the leadership of Johnson from 1901 through 1909, and Baker from 1912 through 1915, Cleveland expanded city services, established a municipally controlled streetcar system and electric light plant, revamped its tax structure to benefit working people, and won praise as one of the country's best-governed cities.2


Arthur E. DeMatteo is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Plattsburgh State University of New York.

1. On Pingree, see Melvin G. Holli, Reform in Detroit: Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics (New York, 1969). The only book-length biography of Couzens is Harry Barnard, Independent Man: The Life of Senator James Couzens (New York, 1958), which despite its title, devotes considerable narrative to Couzens's years as mayor. See Whitlock's autobiography, Forty Years of It (New York and London, 1925), and Jack Tager, The Intellectual as Urban Reformer: Brand Whitlock and the Progressive Movement (Cleveland, Ohio, 1968). See the recent biography of Jones by his great-granddaughter Marnie Jones, Holy Toledo: Religion and Politics in the Life of "Golden Rule" Jones (Lexington, Ky., 1998). On Hunt, see Landon Warner, "Henry T. Hunt and Civic Reform in Cincinnati, 1903—1913," Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, 62 (April, 1953), 146-61. Hoyt Landon Warner, Progressivism in Ohio, 1897-1917 (Columbus, Ohio, 1964), remains the definitive work on Ohio's progressive movement, including thorough treatments of Jones, Whitlock, Hunt, and Cleveland's Tom L. Johnson and Newton D. Baker.

2. On Johnson and Baker, see Eugene C. Murdock, Tom L. Johnson of Cleveland (Dayton, Ohio, 1994), and Clarence H. Cramer, Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland and New York, 1961). A recent survey of historians, political scientists, and other urban experts chose Tom Johnson as America's second-best mayor for the period 1820-1985, surpassed only by New York's Fiorello La Guardia; Hazen Pingree was listed in third place, Samuel Jones placed


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 8

When Newton Baker declined to seek reelection to a third term, Democrat Peter Witt emerged as his heir apparent. A civic gadfly, labor activist, and innovative expert on urban mass transit, Witt had served in the administrations of both Johnson and Baker. But in a controversial election, tainted by a new system of balloting and Witt's propensity for ill-advised comments, he fell to his conservative Republican opponent. The 1915 mayoral contest marked a turning point in the city's history; it was a "death knell" for progressive leadership in Cleveland.

* * * * *

Born in 1869 on Cleveland's working-class west side, Peter Witt was one of eleven children fathered by Christian Witt, a German-born exile of the Revolution of 1848, who later became an antislavery Republican and served in the Union Army. The elder Witt's idealism undoubtedly influenced Peter Witt's attitudes and values, most notably his championing of humanitarian causes. But far more important was Witt's early exposure to manual labor, necessitated by his father's inability to support the family. Forced to quit school after the fifth grade, Witt toiled as a basket weaver, a printer's assistant, and finally as an iron molder. Witt became a militant labor activist, and as president of the Cleveland Molders Union Local 218 from 1891 to 1893 he led his members in several successful strikes. When the employers blacklisted Witt in order to provoke yet another strike, he dissuaded the union's rank-and-file from walking out on his behalf and accepted unemployment. Witt later joked that the foundry owners "decided that since I was so interested in free speech they would give me plenty of time in which to practice it."3

During the economic depression of the 1890s Witt used his newfound free time to campaign for the Populist Party, which he viewed as America's best hope for reform and renewed prosperity. As a local organizer for the party, Witt became the prototypical "soap box orator." "I remember well the first time I saw you," a friend wrote to Witt years later. "You were standing on an improvised platform made ... of some planks and a soap box. Your manner, your fiery earnestness then in

 

fourth, Brand Whitlock was seventh, and Newton Baker eighteenth. See Melvin G. Holli, The American Mayor: The Best & The Worst Big-City Leaders (University Park, Pa., 1999).

3. "From Molder to Mayor," Witt campaign pamphlet, 1915, np., and "Peter Witt for Mayor," campaign pamphlet, 1932, np., both Container 2, Folder 2, Peter Witt Papers, Mss. 3281, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio (hereafter Witt Papers, WRHS); "Peter Witt," David D. Van Tassel and John J. Grabowski, eds., The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1987), 1057; Carl Wittke, "Peter Witt: Tribune of the People," Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, 58 (October, 1949), 361-77; Cleveland Press, 20 October 1948.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
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advocacy of the populous [sic] doctrines made me think that you were inspired to do great things."4

As America's economy worsened, Witt became further embittered and began to expound a radical class ideology, condemning industrialists and other privileged interests. Witt was particularly critical of President Grover Cleveland's Democratic Party, and in 1894 he attended a campaign rally for Congressman Tom L. Johnson, a two-term Democrat seeking reelection from Cleveland's Twentieth District. As a millionaire entrepreneur who had profited from the high tariffs and tax advantages enjoyed by the wealthy, Johnson was just the sort of scoundrel whom Witt most detested. But Johnson was himself converting to the cause of tax reform, and he responded to Witt's belligerent heckling by inviting him to step forward and address the crowd. The gesture completely disarmed Witt, who uncharacteristically had little to say when he reached the podium. Johnson later reminisced that "so little kindness had come his way that he was not prepared for the warm reception and cordial introduction to the audience which I gave him." The awkward encounter marked the beginning of a close friendship between Johnson and Witt.5

Witt's political activism was indirectly responsible for Tom Johnson's decision to seek Cleveland's mayoralty. Witt served as the local manager for the 1899 independent Ohio gubernatorial campaign of Toledo's mayor, "Golden Rule" Jones. Campaigning energetically in Cleveland's working-class neighborhoods, peopled largely by recent immigrants, Witt helped Jones win an overwhelming victory in Cuyahoga County. Although Jones lost the statewide race, this local success indicated the existence of working-class discontent in Cleveland and did not go unnoticed by Tom Johnson. Out of public office after losing his congressional reelection bid and anxious for a new political challenge, Johnson returned to, Cleveland and won election as mayor in April 1901.6

Johnson immediately called upon Peter Witt to educate Cleveland's citizens on the unfairness of the existing tax structure. Both men were advocates of Henry George's "Single Tax" doctrine, which held that most of society's distress was traceable to the ability of speculators to profit from rising land values. George proposed a "single tax" on all real estate, with the value of unimproved land taxed at a rate of 100 percent,

 

4. Sylvester V. McMahon to Witt, 26 October 1915, Container 1, Folder 3, Witt Papers, WRHS.

5. Tom L. Johnson, My Story, ed. Elizabeth J. Hauser (New York, 1911), 84-86.

6. Shelton Stromquist, "The Crucible of Class: Cleveland Politics and the Origins of Municipal Reform in the Progressive Era," Journal of Urban History, 23 (January, 1997), 192-220; Arthur E. DeMatteo, "Urban Reform, Politics, and the Working Class: Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland, 1890-1922" (Ph.D. diss., University of Akron, 1999), 174-79.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 10

thus eliminating the need for any other taxes. George's ideas inspired Johnson and Witt to investigate the inequality of existing tax rates, particularly the low taxes paid by manufacturers and railroads at the expense of working people. During Johnson's first two years in office Witt operated his so-called "Tax School." Utilizing charts, maps, and stereopticon slides, Witt spoke to tent meetings of Clevelanders on possible remedies for these inequities. But numerous lawsuits filed by conservative business interests, resentful that city funds were being used to pay for the Tax School, forced the city to abandon the project. By December 1902 Peter Witt was once again unemployed.7

Tom Johnson's reelection in 1903 and the resulting Democratic takeover of Cleveland City Council enabled the mayor to arrange for Witt's appointment as council clerk, a position he held for the remaining six years of the Johnson administration. Despite his humble birth and skimpy formal education, Witt became a trusted member of the mayor's renowned inner circle of advisers, which included political economist Edward W. Bemis, humanitarian police chief Fred Kohler, social reformer Frederic C. Howe, and dynamic law director Newton D. Baker. But none of these men, with the possible exception of Baker, matched Witt in fervent loyalty to Tom Johnson and unabashed enthusiasm for the mayor's vision of Cleveland as a "City on a Hill." The centerpiece of Johnson's program of reform was municipal control of the city's street railway system, and Witt took the lead in attacking the corruption and abuses of the privately owned streetcar companies, helping the mayor achieve his goal in 1908. Witt educated himself so thoroughly in the intricacies of traction issues that, by the conclusion of Johnson's mayoralty in 1909, he was a nationally recognized expert on municipal transit.8

In 1912, after two years of Republican rule, Johnson disciple Newton D. Baker became Cleveland's mayor, and he promptly appointed Peter

 

7. James F. Richardson, "Political Reform in Cleveland," in David D. Van Tassel and John J. Grabowski, eds., Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform (Kent, Ohio, 1986), 160; Johnson, My Story, 125-31; Wittke, "Peter Witt: Tribune of the People," 367-68; "Peter Witt for Mayor." See also Charles A. Barker, "The Followers of Henry George," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 12 (July, 1953), 379-92; Robert H. Bremner, "The Single-Tax Philosophy in Cleveland and Toledo," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 9 (April, 1950), 369-76; and Warner, Progressivism in Ohio, 87-104.

8. Eugene C. Murdock, "Cleveland's Johnson: The Cabinet," Ohio Historical Quarterly, 66 (October, 1957), 375-90, and Tom L. Johnson, 80-83; Wittke, "Peter Witt: Tribune of the People," 368-69. On Johnson's efforts at municipal control of the streetcar system, see Robert H. Bremner, "The Street Railway Controversy in Cleveland," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 10 (January, 1951), 185-206; and James A. Toman and Blame S. Hays, Horse Trails to Regional Rails: The Story of Public Transit in Greater Cleveland (Kent, Ohio, and London, 1996), 68-77.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
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Witt to the post of traction commissioner. Witt worked to improve service and instituted a number of innovations, including a "skip-stop" plan to speed up service, and the use of trailer cars to increase passenger capacity and hold down labor costs. But Witt's most significant contribution was the invention of "The Car Rider's Car," popularly known as "Pete's Pet," a front-entrance, center-exit streetcar designed to better facilitate the loading and unloading of passengers. By 1916 Cleveland had purchased over 150 of these special cars; however, Witt refused to accept any royalties for his invention as long as he was on the city payroll. In ensuing years the Witt-designed streetcar went into service in a number of cities, including Toledo, Ohio, and Rochester, New York, earning handsome profits for its inventor.9 Peter Witt had tempered his radical tendencies with abilities in administration and money-making.

Peter Witt also earned a reputation for an acid tongue. On one occasion "Foul-mouthed Pete," as he became known, referred to a Republican city councilman of Italian heritage as a "dago."10 He later wrote to a political ally of Marcus Hanna that "the meanest thing that can be said of the late Senator Hanna is that after he secured your nomination and election he went away and died."11 But Witt's comments were more often humorously iconoclastic rather than mean-spirited. He took particular joy in criticizing Cleveland's conservative business community, which he termed, "skinning the skunks." "Whenever I am in doubt as to where I should stand on a public question," Witt once declared, "I wait until the Chamber of Commerce has acted. Then I take just the opposite position, for I know it will be the right one." When asked why he did not play golf, he criticized the game as one which "needlessly prolongs the life of our most useless citizens." Little wonder that Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent later wrote that Witt had "no respect for sacred images of any kind, and he is never happier than when he is smashing something that affects the people."12

When Newton Baker announced that he would not seek a third term, Witt declared himself a candidate for mayor in the upcoming 1915 election. Democratic Party regulars threw their support to Witt, and

 

9. "What Tractioner Witt Has Done," Witt campaign pamphlet, 1915, np., Container 2, Folder 2, and "The Car Rider's Car," advertising pamphlet, 1916, np., Container 2, Folder 5, Witt Papers, WRHS; Toman and Hayes, Horse Trails to Regional Rails, 85-91; Cramer, Newton D. Baker, 52-53; Wittke, "Peter Witt: Tribune of the People," 369-70.

10. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1 October 1915.

11. Wittke, "Peter Witt: Tribune of the People," 365, citing letter from Witt to Myron T. Herrick, 27 April 1904.

12. Dearborn Independent, 24 June 1922, Container 2, Folder 1, Witt Papers, WRHS.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
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Baker, as party leader, arranged for Witt to receive the official endorsement.13 No man had a stronger emotional attachment to Tom Johnson and his legacy. Witt had been the first man appointed to office by Johnson, and he had been the last person to sit with Johnson's body before it was placed on a train for burial in New York. As he lay on his death bed, Johnson had given Witt a gold medallion of Henry George, which Witt proudly wore on his watch chain. A plaster miniature of the Johnson statue on Cleveland's public square sat on Witt's desk. Witt's supporters considered him not only the logical political successor to Johnson, but his spiritual heir as well. A widely circulated Witt campaign pamphlet reproduced a photograph taken on Johnson's last day in office, showing the obviously ill and dying mayor flanked by his two closest confidants, Baker and Witt. After extolling the accomplishments of the Johnson and Baker administrations, the pamphlet concluded that "there is still much to be done and Peter Witt, fresh from his splendid achievements as street railroad commissioner, is the logical man to carry on the work."14

Witt faced a field of five other candidates, including fellow Democrat and former Johnson assistant Charles P. Salen; Republican Miner G. Norton, the city's former law director; Socialist Charles E. Ruthenberg; and Socialist Labor Party candidate Richard Koeppel.15 But Witt's most formidable opponent was Republican Harry L. Davis. An insurance executive of Welsh descent, Davis had worked his way out of the local steel mills to become a member of Cleveland's Republican Party hierarchy and, from 1910 through 1912, had served as city treasurer. Davis promised to replace the supposed waste and extravagance of Johnson and Baker with an economical "business administration." This was the second mayoral campaign for Davis, having lost to Baker two years earlier.16

Under provisions of the revised city charter of 1913, Cleveland used

 

13. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 8 December 1914, 8 January 1915; Cleveland Press, 18 January 1915.

14. "For Mayor, Peter Witt," campaign pamphlet, 1915, np., Container 2, Folder 2, Witt Papers, WRHS; Dearborn Independent, 24 June 1922.

15. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 11 October 1915. Ruthenberg would later found the American Communist Party; see Stephen M. Millett, "Charles E. Ruthenberg: The Development of an American Communist, 1909-1927," Ohio History, 81 (Summer, 1972), 193-209, and Michael O'Malley, "Charles E. Ruthenberg," Cleveland Plain Dealer, 21 January 1996.

16. "Harry Lyman Davis," Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones, eds., Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors, 1820-1980: Big City Mayors (Westport, Conn., and London, 1981), 97; "Harry Lyman Davis," Van Tassell and Grabowski, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, 333; Cleveland Press, 12 October 1915, 14 October 1915, 5 May 1950; Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives, Cleveland, Ohio.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 13

the "preferential" system of voting in municipal elections. Progressive era reformers had originally championed the party primary to lessen the influence of corrupt party bosses. These reformers soon concluded, however, that even the new primary system had shortcomings. They argued that voters should have an opportunity to express their support for good candidates from all parties, not just the party with which they had registered. In addition, independent voters unaligned to one of the major parties lost their opportunity to participate in the primary process, further strengthening the influence of the bosses over those voters who participated.

By 1911 the so-called "Bucklin" system of preferential balloting had emerged as a favorite of municipal reformers. The Bucklin format eliminated primaries altogether, and allowed any number of candidates to run on a non-partisan ballot. Voters designated a "first choice" and, if they wished, could select a "second choice" and also give votes of approval to "other choices." Only one candidate could receive a first- or second-choice vote, while there was no limit on the number of candidates receiving "other choice" votes; if a voter wished, he could actually cast a vote for every candidate on the ballot. If no candidate received a majority of first choice votes, second-choice votes were added to the total. The candidate with the highest combined total would then be elected, if this amount was greater than 50 percent of the first-choice votes cast for all candidates. If there was still no majority victor, the "other choices" would be included in the tally, and the candidate with the highest number of overall votes became the victor, whether or not he had won a majority.

Successful trials of preferential balloting in cities such as Pueblo, Colorado, and Spokane, Washington, convinced the framers of Cleveland's new charter to adopt the Bucklin format. The novel voting system had worked satisfactorily in its first trial in Cleveland in 1913, as incumbent mayor Newton D. Baker, failing to win a majority of firstplace votes, or a majority of first- and second-choice votes combined, managed to win a plurality of overall votes to defeat Davis and a third, minor candidate.17 Preferential balloting, however, would prove to be Peter Witt's political undoing.

 

17. M. Ostrogorski, Democracy and the Party System in the United States: A Study in Extra-Constitutional Government (New York, 1910), 431-50; Reginald Mott Hull, "Preferential Voting and How it Works," National Municipal Review, 1 (July, 1912), 386-400; Melvin P. Porter, "Preferential Voting and the Rule of the Majority," National Municipal Review, 3 (July, 1914), 581-85; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1 November 1913, 3 November 1913, 31 October 1915; Cramer, Newton D. Baker, 57-58; Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 14

The first week of October marked the start of the 1915 mayoral campaign. Peter Witt's platform included expansion of Cleveland's municipal electric plant, unless the privately owned Illuminating Company agreed to provide power for three cents per kilowatt hour to the entire city; a pledge that he would crusade to reform the state's tax laws, so Cleveland would receive an equitable share of tax revenue from liquor sales, most of which was generated in urban areas yet went disproportionately to "dry" rural counties; the building of a railroad depot on the lakefront, rather than on public square which he considered a "sellout" to privileged business interests; support for an amendment to the city charter granting a minimum wage of $2.50 per day for all workers on city contracts; and a general continuation of the JohnsonBaker program. Witt also declared his opposition to a state prohibition amendment on the November ballot, as well as his support for female suffrage.18

True to his Georgian convictions, Witt also condemned special tax privileges for the rich. He pointed to land around Cleveland's public square, which "125 years ago wasn't good enough to raise jimson weed, [but] now raises trips around the world, automobiles, theater parties, and sometimes even hell." Witt contended that "the unearned increment from land should be taken for social purposes. It's the product of the many and should be used by the many .... God did not give the land for some of us to own, and the rest of us to be only boarders on." Participating in a candidates' debate at the Cleveland Builders Exchange, Witt declared, "Yes, I'm a single-taxer, and when I'm mayor of Cleveland I'm going to ask you to invite me before you to talk single tax."19

The 1915 campaign reached unprecedented levels of acrimony, threats, and name-calling. Witt promised to "take the hide off" his opponents, and driven from rally to rally by his twenty-year-old daughter, Hazel, he pounded away mercilessly, calling Davis a "boob," and condemning Salen as a "peanut businessman, a betrayer of trust, a double-crosser, and a political poltroon." He sneered at the elderly Norton as a relic of Cleveland's past, and paid Ruthenberg the ultimate insult by completely ignoring him, refusing to respond to the Socialist's attacks on Witt's record as traction commissioner. There was plenty of mud-slinging from all candidates, with the Davis campaign calling Witt a "coward, a mad bull, a second-story worker, and a parasite." And

 

18. Cleveland Press, 16 October 1915, 19 October 1915; "1912-1915, The Record in a Nutshell," Witt campaign pamphlet, 1915, np., Container 2, Folder 2, Witt Papers, WRHS; "For Mayor, Peter Witt."

19. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 12 October 1915; Cleveland Press, 12 October 1915, 25 October 1915.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
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although Salen threatened to sue Witt for slander, he and his backers nonetheless commonly attacked Witt as an "atheist" and a "dangerous "20

Cleveland's Progressive Era politics were characterized by "tent meetings," a practice begun by Congressman Tom L. Johnson in the 1890s. Candidates held rallies in large circus-type tents erected on vacant lots. The events had the boisterous aura of carnivals, and opposing candidates placed hecklers, known as "clackers," in the crowd to ask embarrassing questions or just be generally obnoxious.21 "Woe Be to the Candidate Who Cannot Snipe a Heckler," declared the caption of a political cartoon published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer during the height of the campaign.22 This was "political Darwinism"; only the strong could survive the rough-and-tumble world of Cleveland politics, and Peter Witt, his eyes flashing and his fist pounding the podium, thrived in this atmosphere. "With a head full of brains and a punch in each hand,"23 Witt was adept at dispensing abuse, and sufficiently thickskinned to deal with the abuse dealt him by his opponents. He claimed to welcome hecklers into his tent to "rile me up." During one tent rally a man, working for one of Witt's opponents, approached the podium and shook the dumbfounded Witt's hand. "Don't you remember me, Pete?" the man asked. "We spent the night together in a jail cell." Witt responded by explaining to the laughing crowd that "he and I went to the calaboose back in 1896, when they tried to stop us from speaking on public square."24

These incidents had little effect on Cleveland's blue-collar electorate, which comprised Witt's most dependable base of support. Witt's campaign solicited support from organized labor by emphasizing his long-held pro-union convictions, and the suffering he had endured for his loyalty to working-class causes.25 On the campaign stump Witt championed the labor movement, declaring that "every piece of legislation, from laws to stop grinding children into dollars, to mothers' pensions, has been enacted as a result of the work of labor unions." Organized workers responded with the formation of the Peter Witt Labor

 

20. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1 October 1915, 6 October 1915, 7 October 1915; Cleveland Press, 4 October 1915, 5 October 1915, 6 October 1915, 8 October 1915, 9 October 1915, 21 October 1915, 28 October 1915; Wittke, "Peter Wilt Tribune of the People," 371.

21. Johnson, My Story, 82-84; Cleveland Press, 28 October 1915.

22. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 18 October 1915.

23. Cleveland Press, 28 October 1915.

24. Cleveland Press, 12 October 1915, 15 October 1915, 16 October 1915, 19 October 1915, 20 October 1915.

25. "From Molder to Mayor."


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 16

Club, which held Sunday rallies at downtown Cleveland's Hippodrome Theater, and a series of noontime rallies at factories throughout the city.26

This enthusiasm existed in spite of a lack of support from organized labor's most influential local publications. Witt's suspected involvement in the suppression of a streetcar strike in 1908, and his efforts as traction administrator to trim labor costs through economy measures such as trailer cars, had incurred the rancor of local labor leaders.27 These included prominent Socialist newspaper editor Max S. Hayes, whose Cleveland Citizen, the official organ of the United Trades and Labor Council, condemned Witt as a nouveau riche, upstart "ex-workingman," and endorsed Charles Ruthenberg.28 The Federationist, published by the Cleveland Federation of Labor, identified Miner Norton as the only mayoral candidate "friendly to the working men," and withheld an official endorsement.29 Only two Cleveland unions, Molders Union Local 27 and Witt's former local, Molders Union Local 218, endorsed his candidacy. But labor's leaders obviously did not speak for the majority of their rank-and-file members, as representatives from 90 percent of Cleveland's unions served in the Witt Labor Club.30

Witt also enjoyed strong support from Cleveland's unorganized workers. His background as a champion of working-class causes had gained for Witt a deep respect not only in the city's highly-unionized west side wards, but in those working-class areas on the near east side peopled by "new stock" immigrants, many of whom were employed in Cleveland's heavy industries and usually not organized into labor unions. Witt had demonstrated his capacity for vote-gathering in these neighborhoods as long ago as the 1899 Jones campaign, and he once again depended on ethnic working-class voters in 1915.

Due in large measure to this blue-collar support, oddsmakers placed

 

26. James S. Kennedy to Witt, 30 September 1915, Container 1, Folder 3, Witt Papers, WRHS; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4 October 1915; Cleveland Press, 25 October 1915.

27. Robert W. Hobbs to Witt, 14 December 1914, Container 1, Folder 2, Witt Papers, WRHS. On the 1908 streetcar strike, see Arthur E. DeMatteo, "The Downfall of a Progressive: Mayor Tom L. Johnson and The Cleveland Streetcar Strike of 1908," Ohio History, 104 (Winter-Spring, 1995), 24-41; the author could find no evidence of Peter Witt's direct involvement in the incident.

28. Cleveland Citizen, 30 October 1915. On Hayes, see Timothy L. Miller, "Max S. Hayes: A Study of Labor and Socialism" (MA. thesis, University of Akron, 1977).

29. Cleveland Federationist, 28 October 1915.

30. Endorsement of Molders' Union Local 218, 8 December 1914, endorsement of Molders' Union Local 27, 16 December 1914, and Fred L. Baumgartner (Secretary of the Cleveland Conference Board of the International Molders' Union of North America) to Witt, 16 December 1914, all Container 1, Folder 2, Witt Papers, WRHS; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4 October 1915.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
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Witt as the clear favorite to become Cleveland's next mayor, and Witt confidently boasted that he would garner at least 50,000 first-choice votes and win in a landslide.31 Realizing that Witt was the "man to beat" as election day drew near, the other candidates unleashed a last-minute barrage of attacks. Typical of this was an attempt by Salen to link the Forest City Investment Company, a real estate firm in which Witt had once served as secretary-treasurer, with the Norman Hotel, one of Cleveland's better-known houses of prostitution. But Salen's ploy backfired by making him appear mean-spirited and creating a backlash of sympathy for Witt; odds favoring Witt's election actually increased.32 It remained for Witt himself to provide an incident which transformed the election into a toss-up as the campaign drew to a close. He had earlier confided to a friend his belief that "the only thing that can defeat me is myself .... that in the heat of argument I might say things that should not be said."33 Witt soon turned this comment into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Addressing a meeting of the German-American Alliance on Cleveland's west side, Witt extolled the contributions of GermanAmericans to the city's progressive movement, calling them "the bones and sinew of the army that fought for Tom Johnson." Compelled to address the European war in which Germany was then engaged, Witt condemned the "wholesale murder" resulting from the conflict. But after expressing his wish that the war might "end in a draw," Witt played to the sympathies of the audience by declaring that

blood is thicker than water .... [and] if victory must come and I must choose between the ignorant Russia and intelligent Germany, there is but one thing for me to do, and that is to cast my lot with the Kaiser. If I felt otherwise, I would not be human.34

Witt delivered the speech on Sunday, 17 October, and Cleveland's daily papers initially paid scant attention to it. The pro-Witt Cleveland Press reported on the candidate's appearance before the Alliance but neglected

 

31. Cleveland Press, 14 October 1915, 25 October 1915.

32. Arthur W. Stockman (Secretary of the "Salen Non-Partisan League") to Rev. W.W. Bunge, 29 October 1915, Container 1, Folder 3, Witt Papers, WRHS; Cleveland Press, 27 October 1915; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 29 October 1915.

33. Witt to Demy O'Neill, 4 October 1915, Container 1, Folder 3, Witt Papers, WRHS.

34. Cleveland News, 18 October 1915; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 18 October 1915.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
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to mention his remarks, and the partisan Republican Cleveland Leader did not even cover the speech. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which strongly supported Witt's candidacy, covered the speech and published a low-key article the following day, relegating it to an obscure spot in its back pages, while the Cleveland News published a small article on page two of its Monday edition. Witt's comments went largely unnoticed for nearly two weeks.35

Unfortunately for Witt his opponents, particularly Harry Davis, were merely waiting for the most effective time to publicize his remarks. On Sunday, 31 October, just two days before the election, an organization calling itself the "Loyal Citizens' League" flooded the city's ethnic neighborhoods with 60,000 four-page newspapers, attacking Witt as a German sympathizer. Published in Czech, Polish, Slovenian, and five other European languages, the Loyal Citizen caricatured Witt in a spiked military helmet, surrounded by the German Kaiser, the AustroHungarian Emperor, the Sultan of Turkey, and the King of Bulgaria. A caption beneath the cartoon proclaimed Witt "the fifth member of this alliance and the [K]aiser's candidate for mayor of the province of Cleveland." Although Davis denied responsibility for the attack, the paper exclaimed that "a vote for Davis is a vote against kaiserism in America. To make the protest against Peter Witt and kaiserism in America effective, vote for Harry L. Davis."36

Both the Plain Dealer and the Press condemned the smear campaign as a desperate, "dastardly" attack.37 Witt continued to confidently predict an easy victory, declaring that Cleveland's voters were "too intelligent to repeat the mistake they made when they defeated Tom Johnson." But he was clearly on the defensive, and lacked adequate time to recover from this latest political attack. Anti-Witt wagering increased, and by election eve bookmakers had lowered the odds favoring his victory. Even as premature letters of congratulation arrived in Witt's mail, his mayoral campaign was in serious trouble.38

On 2 November Witt won a comfortable first-choice plurality of nearly 3000 votes, but came nowhere near capturing the majority required by the preferential system. Neither did the inclusion of the

 

35. Cleveland News, 18 October 1915; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 18 October 1915; Cleveland Press, 18 October 1915.

36. Cleveland Leader, 1 November 1915; Cleveland News, 1 November 1915.

37. Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1 November 1915; Cleveland Press, 1 November 1915.

38. Cleveland Leader, 2 November 1915; Cleveland Press, 2 November 1915; H.H. Timby to Witt, 1 November 1915, F.H. Goff to Witt, 2 November 1915, and F.F. Peitch to Witt, 2 November 1915, all Container 1, Folder 3, Witt Papers, WRHS.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
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TABLE 1: Cleveland Mayoral Election Results, 2 November 1915

Candidate

Davis
Koeppel
Norton
Ruthenberg
Salen
Witt

First

36,841
467
14,271
6,014
5,801
39,835

Second

8,535
411
8,544
4,697
7,813
3,585

Other

2,321
985
3,600
2,522
4,484
1,492

Total

47,697
1,863
26,415
13,233
18,098
44,912

Source: Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives, Cleveland, Ohio


second-choice votes resolve the issue. The situation then required that "other-choice" votes be included, with the victory going to the candidate with the plurality of all votes cast. On this basis Davis won the election by a 2,785-vote margin (see Table 1).

During the campaign Davis had declared that "every time [Witti opens his mouth he makes me a thousand votes."39 This was obviously the case with the comments regarding the war, which alienated many of Witt's strongest supporters in ethnic, working-class neighborhoods, peopled by Czechs, Poles, Slovenians, and other voters of southern and eastern European origins. Defining "ethnic" residents as foreign-born whites or native whites with at least one foreign-born parent, Cleveland's population was 68.9 percent ethnic. Ten of the city's twenty-six wards had ethnic concentrations over 75 percent. These fast-growing areas contained 42.3 percent of Cleveland's total population, and were key wards for Peter Witt, given his working-class sympathies.40 But Witt won a majority of first-choice votes in only one of these wards, while failing to win a majority of overall votes in any of them (see Table 2).

In combined totals for all ten wards Witt ran second to Davis in overall votes, and managed to best Davis by a mere 685 first-choice votes. In one particularly crucial district, Ward 13, which was 85.8 percent ethnic, Witt fell to Davis by 878 first-choice votes, and by 958 overall votes. Although Cleveland's ward boundaries had been redrawn

 

39. Cleveland Press, 20 October 1915.

40. The "ethnicity" of the city and given wards is determined by adding the number of "native white-foreign parentage," "native white-mixed parentage," and "foreign-born white," then dividing the sum by the total population; those segments of the population identified by the Census Bureau as "native white-native parentage," "Negro," and "Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and all other" are excluded.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 20


TABLE 2: Witt in Cleveland's Top Ten Ethnic Wards, 1915

Ward
%ethnic
1st Choice
Overall
votes
pct.
votes
pct.

14
13
7
23
16
10
5
4
17
15

Totals

90.3
85.8
85.1
84.7
82.4
81.1
78.6
77.2
77.1
77.0

81.9

1,244
1,210
1,348
1,759
2,374
1,582
1,784
1,628
1,335
1,601

15,865

34.1
32.5
36.2
46.4
42.4
53.2
46.9
46.2
42.2
31.8

40.7

1,360
1,330
1,522
1,964
2,677
1,713
1,940
1,803
1,520
1,804

17,633

28.9
28.3
28.2
35.8
34.0
41.6
37.2
35.6
34.3
25.1

32.6

Sources: Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920 (Washington DC, 1923), III, 801-802; Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives

twice since 1903, making direct ward-by-ward comparisons impossible, Ward 13 encompassed an area in which Witt had successfully campaigned to win majorities for Jones in 1899 and Johnson in 1901.41

It is similarly illustrative to contrast Witt's performance in 1915 with that of Newton Baker two years earlier. In the 1913 mayoral election, Baker defeated Davis in Ward 13 by sixty-six first-choice votes, and by 638 overall votes. This pattern ran constant in the ten key ethnic wards, of which Baker had won nine; in all but one of these wards Witt's firstchoice vote totals and overall vote totals were less than those earned by Baker in 1913.42 Davis, meanwhile, increased his first-choice votes in all but three of these wards, and increased his overall vote totals in all but one ward. Given his popularity with ethnic voters, and the increased registration caused by the presence of the prohibition amendment on the ballot, Witt should have reasonably expected to improve upon Baker's 1913 showing. Yet he posted 900 fewer first-choice votes and 936 fewer

 

41. Howard Whipple Green, "Wards, City of Cleveland, 1900, 1910, 1920," Population Characteristics by Census Tracts: Cleveland, Ohio, 1930 (Cleveland, 1931), 3-5; Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives; Stromquist, "Crucible of Class," 200-08.

42. Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 21

TABLE 3 Baker & Witt vs. Davis in Ethnic Wards, 1913-1915

1st-Choice Votes, 1913
1st-Choice Votes, 1915
+/- Change
Baker
Davis
16,765
12,497
Witt
Davis
15,865
15,180

-900
+2,683

Overall Votes, 1913
Overall Votes, 1915
+/- Change
Baker
Davis
18,569
14,366
Witt
Davis
17,633
18,266
-936
+3,900
Source: Election Records, Cuyahoga County Archives

overall votes than had Baker. At the same time, Davis increased his totals by 2,683 first-choice votes and 3,900 overall votes (see Table 3).

Admittedly, there is no way to determine exactly how many of these residents were naturalized citizens and how many of them actually voted. The intricacies of preferential balloting also make it impossible to determine how many supporters of Salen or Norton, for example, might have selected Witt as a second-choice or "other choice," but declined to do so based on the pro-German remarks. But Witt's poor showing in ethnic areas is undeniable, and his campaign speech before the GermanAmerican Alliance is the only reasonable explanation for this dramatic shift in voting patterns.

Philosophical in defeat, Witt wrote to a friend that he had "no regrets whatsoever .... I think [the defeat] is a good thing, for I will now go out and make some money."43 A supporter wrote to Witt that "Cleveland can be counted upon to make a monkey of itself every so often"; Witt responded that "the voters did not make monkeys out of themselves, the preferential ballot did."44 In the wake of the election, those critical of the Bucklin system began a crusade to return to a more traditional form of balloting, and one leader of the local Democratic Party even threatened to file a lawsuit to overturn the election's results. But, despite the controversy, Cleveland continued to use the preferential ballot in three ensuing elections. Ironically, Harry L. Davis's second reelection in 1919 marked the only time a mayoral candidate would win a majority of first

 

43. Witt to John McF. Howie, 3 November 1915, Container 1, Folder 3, Witt Papers, WRHS.

44. S. A. Stockwell to Witt, 12 November 1915, and Witt to Stockwell, 16 November 1915, both Container 1, Folder 3, Witt Papers, WRHS.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 22

place votes under Cleveland's preferential voting.45

Campaign politics aside, Davis was basically decent and honest and proved a perennially popular candidate for the Republicans. Reelected as mayor in 1917 and 1919, Davis resigned the post in 1920 to seek Ohio's governorship, which he won easily in the Warren G. Harding-led GOP landslide of that year. He also served an additional two-year term as mayor in the 1930s. Like Harding, Davis was best known for his quick smile and a warm handshake and, although he may never have personally used the phrase, he also represented a "return to normalcy." The Davis administration was neither reactionary nor "anti-progressive," and did not attempt to dismantle any of the Johnson-Baker reforms; but neither did it engage in any high-profile civic crusades. For example, other than maintaining Cleveland's municipal light plant, Davis did nothing to promote or expand municipal ownership of public utilities or the street railways. Streetcar service in the city's growing African American community became particularly unreliable, and black residents also complained of poor city services and a lack of recreational facilities. Nor did Davis conduct campaigns for free water, a minimum wage for city workers, or tax reform. The new mayor focused instead on small-scale civic improvements, frugality in government, and support for American involvement in the World War.46 The common wisdom was that the city's romance with progressivism had run its course; a 1950 Davis tribute noted that it was the candidate's "political good fortune to catch the ebbing tide of radicalism and sweeping civic changes."47

There is evidence, however, that Cleveland's progressive civic spirit lived on into the twenties, at least in muted form, and that Peter Witt was the catalyst behind it. In 1921, for instance, the city's voters approved a referendum to adopt the city manager form of government, a favorite of many Progressive Era urban reformers, to take effect in 1924; Peter Witt served as chairman of the city manager campaign committee. In 1924 Progressive Party presidential candidate Robert M. La Follette, calling for government ownership of utilities and attacking economic monopolies, won a majority in Cleveland; Peter Witt served as LaFollette's Ohio campaign chairman. And as the social status of Cleveland's black citizens became an issue in the 1920s, Witt became

 

45. Cleveland Leader, 5 November 1915; Cleveland Press, 20 November 1915, 27 November 1915, 7 November 1917, 5 November 1919, 9 November 1921.

46. "Harry L. Davis," Holli and Jones, Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors, 97; "Harry L. Davis," Van Tassell and Grabowski, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, 333; Kenneth L. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana and Chicago, Ill., and London, 1976), 177.

47. Cleveland Press, 22 May 1950.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 23

known as a "racial liberal," criticizing the Ku Klux Klan and leading a successful campaign to integrate City Hospital.48

Rather than tiring of reform, Clevelanders apparently remained anxious to embrace it, providing a forceful and charismatic leader was in charge. Obviously, Peter Witt was this person, but relegated to a peripheral role and shut out of city hall, his opportunities were limited. It is more probable that Witt's ill-timed remarks, combined with the peculiarities of the preferential ballot, had caused his defeat rather than an "ebbing tide of radicalism." Witt chose not to run for mayor in 1917 or 1919, enabling Davis to use the advantages of incumbency to easily win reelection over less-than-stellar opposition. Thus Cleveland was denied Witt's progressive leadership. As the Cleveland Press commented in an editorial tribute at the time of Peter Witt's death, "the whole course of municipal history could easily have been changed" had he been victorious in 1915.49 Instead, the election effectively brought to a close Cleveland's reign as America's "City on a Hill."

* * * * *

A seat in Cleveland City Council from 1923 to 1927 was the only elected office Peter Witt ever held, but he maintained a high public profile over the last three decades of his life. After leading the campaign for the city manager system and working for LaFollette, Witt ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1928. He also conducted a second campaign for mayor in 1932, after the city reinstituted the mayor-council system. But Witt's time as a serious political candidate had passed, as evidenced by his third-place finish in a nonpartisan mayoral run-off. Witt spent his later years serving as an advisor on mass transit in Cleveland and other cities, even as he continued to speak passionately on social issues. Assuming the role of Cleveland's preeminent civic gadfly, Witt led an unsuccessful crusade against the building of the union terminal project on public square, and later attacked the construction of Municipal Stadium on valuable lakefront property. Witt continued to rail against unjust taxes, particularly those on cigarettes and alcohol, which he considered an unfair burden on working people. Every February 12th he read a

 

48. Chester C. Maxey, "The Cleveland Election and the New Charter," American Political Science Review, 16 (February, 1922), 83-86; Cleveland Press, 9 November 1921; "The City Manager Plan," Van Tassell and Grabowski, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, 185-86; Wittke, "Peter Witt: Tribune of the People," 374-75; Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, 177 n.5.

49. Cleveland Press, 21 October 1948.


Peter Witt and the Mayoral Election of 1915
Page 24

poignant tribute to one of his personal heroes, "Abraham Lincoln, Man of Sorrow," over local radio station WHK. And once each year Witt held his "town meetings," where large audiences paid admission to hear him "skin the skunks."50

At a testimonial dinner for his seventieth birthday in 1939, Peter Witt spoke of his philosophy of life: "Forget yesterday, believe in today, hope for tomorrow, and live your life in your own way, wholly unmindful of what others think or say."51 Witt died in 1948, and was interred among other notable Clevelanders in historic Lakeview Cemetery. His obituary in the Cleveland Press recalled the ill-fated 1915 campaign by noting that when advisors warned Witt to be cautious in his comments lest they come back to haunt him, he responded, "I can afford not to be mayor of this city. But I can't afford not to be Peter Witt."52

 

50. Peter Witt,"The Union Depot on the Public Square and Other Grafts," typewritten essay, 1921, Container 2, Folder 5; "Think It Over," pamphlet, 1934, Container 2, Folder 1; and Philip W. Porter, "St. Peter," unidentified periodical, ca. 1932, 12-14, Container 2, Folder 1, Witt Papers, WRHS. Richardson, "Political Reform in Cleveland," 162; Van Tassel and Grabowski, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, 1057; Wittke, "Peter Witt: Tribune of the People," 370, 374-76; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 13 January 1932.

51. "70th Birthday Party and Testimonial Dinner for Peter Witt, September 21, 1939, City Club, Cleveland, Ohio," np., Container 2, Folder 1, Witt Papers, WRHS.

52. Cleveland Press, 20 October 1948.

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