Sheridan Downey – California Politics In The 1930s – Past Daily Reference Room
Sheridan Downey, one of the longer-running Senators from California, started his career in 1924 as a supporter for Progressive Presidential Candidate Robert S. LaFollett. But in 1932 switched parties, becoming a Democrat in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1938 Downey was elected to the United States Senate where he served until his resignation in November 1950. He ran as a supporter of the proposed “Ham and Eggs” government pension program and defeated incumbent Senator William Gibbs McAdoo in the Democratic primary by more than 135,000 votes. Despite the strong backing McAdoo received from the White House and a personal campaign appearance by President Franklin Roosevelt to endorse McAdoo, Downey won the primary and went on to win the general election, defeating Republican Philip Bancroft 54%-46%. On October 24, 1938, Downey appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Though he had been considered a staunch liberal, Downey as a senator became a conservative Democrat who won the support of California’s major oil interests. He supported the efforts of oil companies and agribusiness to procure state, rather than federal, control of California’s oil resources. He also worked to exempt the California Central Valley from the Reclamation Act of 1902 to assist corporate farms. In the Senate, Downey also introduced a series of pension bills, and in 1941, he was named chairman of a special Senate committee on old-age insurance.
He took an early stand supporting a military draft but opposed the Roosevelt administration’s plans to requisition industries in time of war. During World War II, he called for the creation of a committee to investigate the status of blacks and other minorities in the armed forces and advocated a postwar United Nations, international control of atomic energy, increased veterans’ benefits, and federal pay raises. At the end of the war, he opposed continuation of the military draft.
During his years in the Senate, Downey often represented the interests of California’s powerful motion picture industry. His shift from a liberal New Dealer to a conservative Democrat would become officially recognized after the war ended.
In the course of this campaign speech, Downey talks about The Townsend Plan – here’s a little background on that:
Francis Everett Townsend was an American physician who was best known for his revolving old-age pension proposal during the Great Depression. Known as the “Townsend Plan”, this proposal influenced the establishment of the Roosevelt administration’s Social Security system.
After the war ended in 1918, Townsend moved to Long Beach, California to run a dry ice factory. After that business quickly failed, Townsend worked for real estate agent Robert Earl Clements in Midway City, California. Clements later masterminded the Townsend Plan. In September of 1933, Townsend wrote a letter to the editor of the Long Beach Press-Telegram proposing that those over age 60 should receive a $150/month pension, on condition that they not work and that they spend the money within the month. This would prevent the indignity of old-age poverty, he argued, while also stimulating the economy and freeing up employment for the young and middle-aged. The response to the letter was overwhelming, and Townsend set up shop to promote the idea and build up an organization, bringing in his former employer, real estate agent and entrepreneur Robert Earl Clements, as manager.
Townsend and Clements worked out a final version of the proposal: in order to credibly stimulate the economy, the pension would be a very generous $200/month. It would be financed not by a sales tax, as originally proposed, but by a 2% tax on all business transactions. Clements and Townsend organized their followers into dues-paying local clubs, and hired field organizers, working on commission, to distribute literature and organize new clubs around the country.
That’s a thumbnail sketch of The Townsend Plan as well as a thumbnail sketch of Sheridan Downey. It’s suggested you run a Google search and find more information for these two – there’s a lot to uncover. In the meantime, have a listen to this address by then-Senate candidate Sheridan Downey as he made this radio address on October 21, 1938.