Springfield’s Teddy Roosevelt supporters were in the lead 100 years ago today when the city embraced the reforming spirit of the Progressive era and adopted a city manager form of government.
Although the Aug. 26, 1913, vote of 5,985-2,682 produced a resounding majority of nearly 70 percent, neither the city’s voters nor leaders knew how narrow a victory it was they exited the polls that Tuesday.
A single vote officially cast that same day in Columbus could have not merely rained on but hurled golf-ball size hailstones on the city’s parade and thrown Springfield politics into chaos.
The earliest signs that Springfield might abandon its traditional ward representation and strong mayor form of government came in early January of 1913, something made possible the year before.
Although most know it as the Bull-Moose Party, the official name of the Teddy Roosevelt’s party for his unsuccessful third party presidential bid of 1912 was the Progressive Party.
As the Ohio Historical Society’s Ohio History Central reports, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Americans became interested in reform of the political system in the United States and their concerns contributed to the growth of Progressivism.”
And in 1912, the same year Roosevelt won 32 of 42 delegates from incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft in the Ohio primary, Ohioans held a Constitutional Convention in the progressive spirit of the times.
Ohio voters ultimately did not approve all the convention’s proposed 41 changes: Women did not get the vote, the word “white” remained in the document, and the death penalty was not made unconstitutional.
But they did approved 33 of the 41 amendments, including one for so-called home rule that allowed cities to decide on the form of their own local government.
“Ever since the passage of the ‘home rule’ amendment last September, the Progressive leaders in the city have been working quietly toward a proposal for the commission form of government,” the Springfield Daily News reported in January of 1913. “All these men … were members of the executive committee which led the Bull-Moose movement in Clark County.”
Although Aug. 26 had long been set for the date of the special election, the Springfield campaign started in earnest after the Aug. 13 news that a 60 percent majority of Dayton voters adopted a virtually identical plan.
“Dayton Victory Gives Workers Fresh Energy,” the Daily News trumpeted in a headline. “Campaign for proposed charter may now be said to be in full swing.”
“The charter government means that Springfield will be a big corporation and each voter will be the owner of one share of common stock,” the newspaper said. “The five men elected as commissioners … will conduct the affairs of the city the same way as boards of directors conduct the affairs of railroads, factories and like concerns.”
“No matter how much commercial organizations, labor assemblies, merchants’ associations and manufacturers do to build up a city,” it added, “much of their effort is lost if there is an inefficient or dishonest government. Cities are in competition … and those who have the best and most efficient government … are going to go ahead.”
On its editorial page, the newspaper expressed two worries: that the campaign was too late in starting, and that the apparent lack of organized opposition was “terribly dangerous because the friends of the charter are fighting a skulking enemy, which refuses to come out in the open and fight as men should.”
The editors were proven wrong on both points.
Beginning Monday, Aug. 18, eight days before the vote, charter proponents, who had started by assembling prominent citizens in a Committee of One Hundred, launched a comprehensive campaign, holding series of four or five noon hour meetings a day at all the city’s largest factories.
That first day, J.E. Bowman spoke at a joint gathering of employees from the Duplex Mill and Winters-Coleman Scale Co. Horace Stafford went to Mast Foos and Co.; E.F. O’Brien to Indianapolis Switch and Frog and Harry Brenner to the Foos Gas Engine Co.
Later stops were made at piano makers French and Hecht, Lagonda Manufacturing, Bauer Brothers and American Radiator Co.
Speakers, including prominent lawyer Stewart L. Tatum and Wittenberg College President Charles G. Heckert, also spread the word at Wickham Piano Plate, Hennesy Foundry, Springfield Coffin and Casket, Champion Chemical and Miller Gas Engine Co.
Meanwhile, Thomas D. Gorey’s Anti-Charter League was neither skulking nor hiding, though it did show its mistrust of the Daily News by speaking out in a series of paid advertisements.
One warned that the city manager, a powerful figure in local affairs, “could be an outsider from another city or state” — not from Springfield at all.
Another challenged a “few old tight wads and old fossils” that trumpeted how great a city Springfield and urged adoption of the charter at the same time. If Springfield was so great — as indicated by its being named the best 60,000 city on the continent that year — how bad could its government be?
While conceding the city had for a time been sleeping, Gorey argued that it was clearly on the move and that instead of putting energy into passing a new charter, a progressive-minded citizen should “put your shoulder to the wheel and be thankful that you have officials with your democratic form of government that awakened Springfield.”
The most serious argument — one that went unanswered until election day — was whether the charter’s provisions that commissioners be elected by non-partisan ballot violated Ohio’s new constitution.
Wittenberg Professor R.W. McKinney said they did.
As a result, “the voters of this city will not be given an opportunity to elect the five commissioners this year if the charter is adopted,” he said.
The Anti-Charter League hammered home the same message, saying those same forces had “cocked and primed” a mechanism that would cause commissioners to be appointed to their four-year terms, leaving voters with “no voice in the selection of these men …. no recourse (and) no chance at recall.”
Thundered Gorey: “You will bow to this monarchical government as you would to a king.”
The pro-charter forces argued that the lawyers in the 10 Ohio cities with similar proposals on the ballot couldn’t be wrong and that the provisions must be constitutional.
The day Springfielders went to the polls, the Ohio Supreme Court announced it was deadlocked on the matter.
The issue was not over whether non-partisan elections could be held but over whether charters gave cities authority over elections, a power that had rested with the state. Three justices saw it one way, three the other.
The new Constitution declared that when the higher court was deadlocked, the ruling of the lower court would stand. Because the lower court had ruled in favor of the City of Cleveland and the authority of its charter, that became the law of the state.
In a sign of Springfield’s immigrant-rich population, one of the next big pieces of charter news came across the Atlantic in a cablegram from Dublin, Ireland.
Visiting his homeland, P.J. Shouvlin let it be known that he would serve on the commission if nominated and elected, which he subsequently was.
Familiar with the duties of someone on a board of directors, the man the City Directory listed as “proprietor” of the Superior Gas and Engine Co. and manager of the Vulcanized Cap & Valve Co. was just the sort of commissioner the progressives who had proposed the charter had in mind.