A Socialist Who Almost Was Mayor

Long a decaying reminder of a former age’s optimistic elegance, the Higgins Building on the southwest corner of 2nd and Main streets, currently being renovated, stands as one of downtown Los Angeles’ temples of triumph and tragedy.

When copper magnate Thomas Higgins built his 10-story showpiece in 1910, Main Street was an avenue of fine hotels, the city’s best social clubs and theaters. The Higgins Building towered above all with its marble-lined hallways, high ceilings and wrought-iron elevator doors.

In those years, it numbered many local notables among its tenants, but none was more memorable than the tubercular preacher- turned-socialist labor attorney, Job Harriman.

Nine floors above the street, in an office with a fine view of St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, Harriman laid out mayoral campaigns, planned the McNamara brothers’ defense in the bombing of The Times with famed attorney Clarence Darrow, and envisioned and developed a personal paradise, Llano del Rio Cooperative Colony--one of the most important nonreligious utopian colonies in Western American history.


Born in 1861, Harriman was a farmer’s son from Indiana, an ordained minister and a compelling speaker. Heading west to San Francisco in 1886, he entered the world of Progressive Party politics. Inspired the following year by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel “Looking Backward,” he founded the Pacific Nationalist Club, devoted to reading, discussing and promoting cooperative ideas of economic and racial equality.

Harriman soon became smitten with 27-year-old Mary Theodosia Gray, the sister of a college roommate who was in turn swayed by his handsome looks, wit, oratorical intensity and charisma. They married five years later, and “Theo” gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, in 1895. Before the family moved south to Los Angeles, the daughter died and Harriman’s own health worsened.

By 1898, Harriman was the Socialist Labor Party’s California gubernatorial candidate. He was labor leader Eugene Debs’ running mate on the Socialist Party presidential ticket two years later. Despite his unsuccessful election attempts, his eloquent and powerful pleas on behalf of the working masses moved the nation.

In the next decade, Harriman traveled the country, increasing his influence while building a strong base of socialist and labor union support in Los Angeles. He ultimately settled in Highland Park, a neighborhood popular with the city’s “progressive” element.


In 1907, Harriman achieved even more fame when he successfully defended writer and anarchist hero Ricardo Flores Magon against trumped-up charges of murder and treason.

When Magon helped launch the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Harriman personified the enemy in the eyes of Los Angeles Times Editor Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, who had political connections with Mexico’s dictatorial president, Porfirio Diaz.

That same year, nearly every trade in Los Angeles had gone on strike--butchers, trolley car operators, painters, printers, brewers and high-rise ironworkers.

The anti-union Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., led by Otis, won passage of an anti-picketing ordinance--written by attorney Earl Rogers--restricting free speech. About 500 workers were arrested for violating the law.

Harriman came to their rescue and few were convicted.

After sympathetic juries acquitted his clients, Harriman decided to try for a home run against the establishment and run for mayor. But flooding the city with 20,000 copies of Darrow’s pamphlet against the open shop and doubling the Socialist Party membership only made the anti-union group more determined to rid the city of Harriman.

Disaster struck early on the morning of Oct. 1, 1910, when a huge explosion tore apart the Los Angeles Times building on the northeast corner of 1st Street and Broadway, setting off a roaring fire that killed 20 men. The paper immediately blamed the fire on organized labor’s leaders in a makeshift edition that screamed “Unionist Bombs Wreck the Times.”

Public opinion ran strongly against Otis for letting The Times become a firetrap with its antiquated gas lighting system.


But after a six-month manhunt--financed by Otis--the perpetrators, John and Jim McNamara, a pair of labor activists, were arrested for planting the bomb in “Ink Alley” at The Times. For Otis and the Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., it was justice realized. For labor and socialism, it was an outrage. A frame-up.

As the national labor movement mobilized to defend the McNamara brothers, the slogan in L.A. was “Fight Otis, organize the city and elect a Socialist mayor--Job Harriman.”

Even as Harriman was among the lawyers planning the McNamara brothers’ defense, he was also busy with his mayoral campaign, promoting the Owens Valley-to-Los Angeles aqueduct and arguing that the citizens of Los Angeles who were paying for it should profit from it, rather than Otis, who was busy buying up the San Fernando Valley, which would blossom with the aqueduct’s water.

Winning the primary election, Harriman appeared headed toward a mayoral victory until his two clients in the bombing case entered 11th-hour guilty pleas; voters deserted the Socialist cause in droves. Harriman lost the election by 34,000 votes.

Despite that, Harriman, determined to become mayor, ran again and came within 800 votes of victory in 1913.

Defeated again, but optimistic, Harriman and five partners purchased 2,000 acres of flat scrubland near Big Rock Creek for $80,000 and founded the “gateway to the future.”

By 1914, his personal magnetism had attracted a collection of 1,000 left-wing activists to make the arduous trek to the Antelope Valley. Participants contributed about $500 each for equipment and tools and then built a sawmill, lime kiln, dairy, cannery, bakery, printing plant, hotel, offices, barns and houses.

While Harriman was spending half his time in a tent with colonist Mildred Buxton and the other half at his office in the Higgins Building fighting lawsuits over water rights, the Llano experiment began to falter amid squabbling about money and work assignments.


In 1918, Harriman found a new site for utopia in Leesville, La. That community endured into the mid-1930s, but Harriman could withstand only a few years in the damp location because of his tuberculosis, which had improved in the dry climes of the Antelope Valley. Leaving Buxton behind, he returned to Los Angeles, patched up his marriage and lived with his wife at the Melrose Hotel on Bunker Hill until his death in 1925.