I, senator

Senator Alarcón announces his EPIC plan to wipe out poverty, a plan with roots in Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor

Muckraking socialist Upton Sinclair’s unsuccessful run for the California governorship in 1934 was a landmark election that still resonates today. <p></p>

Muckraking socialist Upton Sinclair’s unsuccessful run for the California governorship in 1934 was a landmark election that still resonates today.

Courtesy Of Richard Hansen

When state Senator Richard Alarcón, D-San Fernando Valley, invited historian Alice O’Conner to speak to a new committee about the problem of poverty, she was flattered, intrigued and a little surprised.

She was impressed by the ambition and scope of the senator’s effort in creating the committee, whose goal is to craft a master plan for putting an end to poverty in the state. But she scratched her head when she heard the name Alarcón had chosen: the Senate Select Committee on Ending Poverty In California. EPIC for short.

“Do you realize what you referring to?” O’Conner asked one of the senator’s aides. The aide informed her that Alarcón and his staff were well aware that EPIC was the platform on which novelist and lifelong socialist Upton Sinclair ran during his close but unsuccessful run for governor in 1934.

In naming his committee EPIC, Alarcón was making a direct and deliberate reference to the array of sweeping reforms Sinclair had promised to implement if elected governor.

Though Alarcón was quick to dismiss the notion that he identifies with Sinclair’s socialist ideology, he did credit Sinclair with helping Americans gain many policies they have held dear for decades: social security, laws protecting workers’ rights and unemployment benefits.

Today, more than 4 million Californians live in poverty. As a percentage of the total population, that number doesn’t come close to the economic chaos of the 1930s. But Alarcón believes, as did Sinclair and other reformers of their day, in the “fundamental notion that poverty is not necessary.”

“I think we acquiesce to poverty,” Alarcón said. “We accept it as the norm, when we should be challenging it.”

Alarcón said the idea for a new EPIC campaign came to him as he and Senate President John Burton, D-San Francisco, were visiting an exhibit on Sinclair at the California State Museum downtown.

“I turned to John, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Alarcón recalled. “And he said, ‘Cool. Let’s do it.’ ”

Bona fide progressives and folks who are nostalgic for early 20th-century radicalism should not get the wrong idea: Alarcón’s EPIC is a remarkably broad effort that solicits input across the political spectrum, from groups such as the California Labor Federation and the California Chamber of Commerce alike.

The membership of the committee includes liberals such as Alarcón and Senator Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, as well as staunch conservatives such as Senator Ross Johnson, R-Irvine. And developing a meaningful plan for tackling poverty—not to mention actually passing legislation—could take years.

Still, O’Conner, who teaches the history of poverty and public policy in her job at UC Santa Barbara, said the new initiative is a hopeful sign and a reminder of more idealistic times.

“This stuff doesn’t just come out of thin air,” she said. “There have been a couple of times in our past, the ’30s and the ’60s, when ending poverty actually seemed achievable.”

The 1930s, of course, were a period of tremendous tumult in the United States. The nation was in the throes of the Great Depression, and unemployment and poverty were rampant. Not surprisingly, many citizens—including those recently middle-class folks who lost their livelihoods—blamed corporate greed for the economic meltdown.

A special hatred was reserved for monopolistic utilities that gouged their customers, and for the whole class of bankers, brokers and speculators who accumulated wealth by manipulating money without producing anything of actual value.

Into this ferment stepped Upton Sinclair, still a household name because of his 1906 novel The Jungle, which exposed the horrific conditions in the American meatpacking industry. The book subsequently led to an overhaul of food- and workplace-safety laws and boosted the vegetarian movement. A bona fide socialist and, at that time, still a supporter of the Soviet Union, Sinclair surprised just about everyone by winning the Democratic Party nomination for governor in 1934.

His platform was the End Poverty in California plan, a blend of socialism and progressive policies aimed at leveling the tremendous gap between rich and poor, putting the unemployed to work and providing a social safety net for the elderly and disabled.

Sinclair proposed an array of public-works projects to provide work for the army of unemployed, as well as state acquisition of idle factories and farm fields that would be manned by the unemployed to produce basic goods for those who needed them.

He touted a $50 monthly pension for widows, the elderly and disabled, and he promised heavy taxation on the top brackets of personal and corporate wealth. All this he published in a brief book entitled I, Governor of California, And How I Ended Poverty, of which he distributed more than 250,000 copies.

The ideas were as heretical to the leaders of the state Democratic Party as they were to the Republican Party of then-incumbent Governor Frank Merriam. Even Franklin Roosevelt and his cadre of liberal democrats in Washington, D.C., quietly worked behind the scenes against Sinclair.

But, as with many populist outbreaks around the country at this time (Huey Long in Louisiana, the progressive LaFollettes in Wisconsin and the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota), Sinclair’s grassroots popularity posed a grave threat to the status quo. (Readers who are interested in a full accounting of the EPIC movement should check out Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century, which gives a day-by-day account of the 1934 election in just fewer than 600 pages.)

Courtesy Of Richard Hansen

To quell the insurgency, California’s business interests employed the most sophisticated negative campaigning ever seen to that point. Advertising companies that had made companies such as Schlitz, Sunkist and Quaker Oats household names now were employed to scare voters away from Sinclair’s EPIC ideas, which the ad companies derided as “End Progress in California,” “End California in Poverty” and “IPECAC” plans.

Movie studios, at the direction of Hollywood tycoon Louis B. Mayer, began pumping out short films attacking Sinclair. Soon, moviegoers settling in for the latest blockbusters featuring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford were being treated to scenes of armies of snaggle-toothed hoboes (actors) hopping trains to a California where the dole flowed freely.

Another short featured a young Chicano proclaiming his support in broken English for “Up Town Saint Clair,” before the camera panned to a sweet and worried old lady who said she was voting for Merriam because it was “safer.” Throughout the campaign, Sinclair’s opposition hammered the notion that businesses would leave the state in droves if Sinclair was elected.

It was essentially the birth of modern media politics, the attack ad, the smear campaign and the professional campaign strategist.

In the end, Sinclair was defeated, drawing 38 percent of the vote to Merriam’s 47 percent. Progressive Party candidate Ray Haight pulled in 13 percent. During the campaign, both the Sinclair and Merriam camps accused Haight of trying to spoil the election for them, but Haight likely drew support away from both sides.

One of the most significant effects of the EPIC plan was that it brought pressure from the left to bear on then President Franklin Roosevelt, who was battling in Congress about his New Deal legislation. Alarcón noted that many of the ideas in Sinclair’s EPIC plan, a plan for social security and greater workers’ rights, “things we take for granted now,” ultimately were included in the New Deal, the most fundamental overhaul of the nation’s poverty policy in modern times.

Another legacy of the EPIC plan was that it moved the California Democratic Party significantly to the left. Late California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk called the 1934 campaign “the acorn from which evolved the tree of whatever liberalism we have in California.”

Other than the name EPIC, what does Sinclair have to do with 21st-century politicians and policy? Perhaps not much, at least on the surface.

Many of those who attended the first committee hearing on October 22 had never even heard of EPIC. And the conversation revolved mostly around tinkering with existing social-service programs and other policies. Representatives of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association (an outfit Sinclair almost certainly would never have invited), for example, came to tout their proposal for cutting the sales tax on manufacturing equipment—the idea being that tax incentives would create more high-paying manufacturing jobs and help alleviate poverty. A viable idea perhaps, but hardly epic, let alone EPIC.

When asked whether evoking the name Upton Sinclair made the business community nervous, CMTA spokesperson Gino DiCaro replied, “I really don’t know anything about that.”

Still, observers like O’Conner are impressed by the ambitiousness of the initiative. “What’s remarkable is that this is being done in the current political climate. We haven’t heard the likes of this since the 1960s. Lately, we have heard much more about ending welfare than we have about ending poverty,” she said.

Then again, O’Conner notes that Sinclair’s EPIC and the New Deal, as well as the later war on poverty waged by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, came at times of tremendous change in this country. She believes there are some similarities to the modern day, although there has not been any great outbreak of populism yet.

The gap between the rich and poor has grown precipitously during the past two decades, as the wages for working-class families have stagnated and as chief executive officers’ salaries have skyrocketed. According to Fortune magazine, the salaries of the nation’s top 100 CEOs have exploded during the past 30 years. In the 1970s, the top corporate officers made 39 times the pay of the average worker. Today, they make more than 1,000 times what the working stiffs bring home.

The gap between rich and poor has become so wide that many commentators have begun to refer to our time as the new Gilded Age—a reference to the pre-New Deal era of extravagant wealth for the few and hardship or wracking poverty for the many.

Affordable health care is out of reach for many families, as are childcare and decent, affordable housing. According to the non-partisan California Budget Project, only about one-third of California families could afford to buy a median-priced home in their area, and low-income renters outnumber low-cost rentals by more than two to one.

And, while the two major political parties have never sounded more alike, progressive voices are beginning to be heard again—in the form of a more energized labor movement, anti-corporate movement and the persistent if not fully realized electoral presence of third parties such as the Green Party.

In fact, Green candidate Medea Benjamin took a page from Sinclair’s book when she published a pamphlet entitled I, Senator during her run against U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in 2000.

The name EPIC, O’Conner said, “suggests that we are at a similar moment of transformation.”

Alarcón is certainly attuned to popular discontent with corporate America. Like many, he blames companies like Enron for gouging California consumers and sending the state budget into a tailspin. He decries corporate pay scales, and the gap between the corporate titans and those who clean their offices.

“I don’t have a problem with wealth,” he said. “I have a problem if someone is building their wealth on the backs of the poor.”

That’s why, apart from his work with EPIC, Alarcón intends to introduce legislation in January that would “make it a felony to be a greedy corporation.” The details of the bill aren’t worked out yet, but he suggests severe tax penalties for companies whose top executives make more than 100 times what their lowest-paid workers make and who don’t provide health care and a minimum wage.

Surely, the argument could be made that corporations would threaten to leave the state for a more “business friendly” environment if such legislation were ever taken seriously, but Alarcón waives it off. “California is the fifth-largest economy in the world,” he said. “You can’t blow off California. If a few companies want to go and rip off some other state, that’s fine with me.”

But then he added, “We’ll see. I just want to broaden the debate.”

And somewhere, Upton Sinclair is smiling because that’s just what he did.