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Labor Party nearly staged upset in 1919 election
The 1919 Bloomington Labor Party ticket included mayoral candidate John Brown Lennon and four at-large commissioners. (Courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History) McLean County Museum of History

"Do we want socialists to govern our city?" That was the question (or stark warning) posed by Bloomington Mayor Edwin E. Jones and his supporters who, in the spring of 1919, faced a tight re-election bid against the upstart Labor Party. | From Our Past page

Seeking a second term, Jones faced off against challenger John Brown Lennon, a national labor leader who settled here in 1896.

Lennon headed the Journeymen Tailors' Union of America and served as national treasurer of the American Federation of Labor.

It was in the latter position that he became the right-hand man of famed AFL President Samuel Gompers.

The Bloomington Labor Party platform (the Democrats did not run a slate in 1919) included public ownership of utilities, the creation of a salaried public health officer, cleaner alleyways and free textbooks for schoolchildren. With a heavily unionized workforce, centered at the sprawling Chicago & Alton Railroad shops on the city's west side, the Labor Party was a political force capable of upending the establishment order.

Incumbent Edwin Jones, who headed the "Administration" (or Republican Party) ticket, emphasized the steady-as-she-goes competence of his four years in office.

Pro-Administration advertisements described the mayor and his running mates as "careful, economical, clean, square and trained men." First term accomplishments included expansion of Miller Park, construction of the Locust Street viaduct and the "motorization" of the previously horse-dependent fire department.

"Going negative" was much a part of the 1919 contest as any spirited, too-close-to-call race.

Under attack

Lennon's Labor Party came under attack from a group that called itself Friends of Good Government. Headed by Mayor Jones, the "Friends" ran full- and half-page ads in the local press accusing the new party of class warfare. "They desire to array Labor against Capital," declared one such advertisement.

"In Bloomington, we are all laborers. There are no swollen, ill-gotten fortunes here."

The Friends raised the specter of not only militant unionism but also socialism. "Shall our city government be tainted with socialism?" the group asked.

While living in Denver in the early 1880s, Lennon ran for mayor on a labor-socialist

ticket.

In the years afterward, he gravitated toward the AFL's philosophy of working within the political mainstream, redefining himself as a labor man rather than a socialist.

"They have said we are all Socialists. Well, I'm not a Socialist, although I have nothing to say against Socialists," Lennon explained during the 1919 mayor's race. "The other four boys (Labor Party candidates for commissioner) may be Socialists - I don't know and I don't care - that's their business."

Of course, Lennon's apparent nonchalance over who was or wasn't a socialist on the Labor ticket played right into the hands of Jones and his supporters.

'Abuse and vilification'

To no avail, Lennon decried the "abuse and vilification" heaped upon himself and his party.

The most vitriolic attacks came from local attorney Clinton B. Hughes. Of socialists, he had this to say: "As long as I live I will do all in my power to keep their ungodly hands from the throat of my country."

There was a measure of irony in these attacks. Lennon was hardly the rabble-rousing socialist boogieman of Hughes' diatribe.

Rather, the aging labor leader (he would turn 70 four days after the election) was an eager participant in the fraternal and religious life of conservative Bloomington.

On election night, April 1, 1919, crowds gathered along "Newspaper Row" to follow the results as they were posted on large bulletin boards (Newspaper Row was the name given to the 200 and 300 blocks of North Madison Street, home to The Daily Pantagraph and its competitor, The Daily Bulletin). The Pantagraph reported that the election, "while close and hotly contested, was utterly devoid of rowdyism or ungentlemanly conduct."

In the end, Lennon fell just short of upsetting Jones. The incumbent garnered 51.5 percent of vote, or a slender margin of 286 out of 9,794 ballots cast.

The Administration ticket also swept the four commissioner seats, and all the township offices to boot.

In the mayoral race, precinct-by-precinct vote totals show a city sharply split east and west, with Main Street serving as the dividing line.

Jones received more than 75 percent of the vote in five precincts east of Main St., while Lennon enjoyed similar landslides in four west side precincts.

In 1919, Bloomington was truly a city divided.

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