Overseeing all was the Union, where Douglas Gunn had been editor and proprietor for 17 years. In 1886, Gunn had sold the paper to John R. Berry, and Berry continued the paper's Republican stamp. In April 1889, Gunn and Berry were the candidates for mayor. Gunn ran on the Straight Republican ticket; Berry, on the Citizens' Non-Partisan ticket. (Gunn won.) In 1887, there was a choice; in 1889, there was only an echo. San Diego's election norm had been born.
George Marston v. Louis Wilde (1917)
It would be incorrect to suggest that the local battle between labor and capital ended with the demise of the Workingmen. And yet, except for the occasional socialist candidate or New Deal Democrat, except for E.W. Scripps's liberal San Diego Sun, which folded in 1939, working-class issues have seldom been a force in local elections. San Diego's political trail has been blazed by the growers, not the field hands. To grow slowly or to grow fast has been for a century the city's and the region's prime political issue. This issue has dominated nearly every election, insuring that candidates either kowtow to the city's growth-and-wealth machine or risk unfunded and uncovered campaigns.
Slow growth took to the political stage first in 1899, when Edwin Capps, an engineer, ran for mayor on the following plank: "We should cater to the entertainment of the tourist, make [San Diego] pleasant and congenial, have public places of resort in the nature of beautiful parks, fine boulevards, roads and drives." That popular philosophy, combining development with preservation, got Capps elected mayor twice, in 1899 and 1915. But catering to the tourist required that someone bring the resources of civilization -- water, railroads, schools, culture -- to the garden. Enter John D. Spreckels, a carpetbagger whose father's sugar profits in Hawaii allowed him to buy rights and access to much of the city's water supply as well as, in 1890, the San Diego Union. For years, Spreckels and his ilk helped lay development's fast track.
In 1917, the city's population had reached 50,000, and the speed of the city's growth became the issue of the mayor's race. Slow-growth advocate George W. Marston opposed Texas oil tycoon Louis Wilde. Marston was a department store owner, a city councilmember, and a park builder. Wilde was a banker who invested in imported silkworms, downtown apartment and office buildings, and hotels, one of which, the U.S. Grant, he rescued from bankruptcy with a $1.35 million shot in the arm.
In a 1917 photo, Wilde is a pasty-faced man whose pince-nez enlarge the judgmental aspect of his deep-set eyes. In his photo, Marston has a haughty countenance, a man who used a small pocket comb on his mustache before speaking to the Ladies' Auxiliary. Wilde tagged the mayoral battle a contest between his wool socks and Marston's silks.
San Diego had recently held its Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, which, like other local park and waterfront projects, Marston had shepherded. Such a display of commercial possibility had infected San Diegans with the desire for another boom. The city fathers, though, knew Los Angeles was being overrun by capital. There, the economy's foundation -- based in motion pictures, clothing manufacture, oil wells, fish canning -- meant further expansion would likely be unstoppable. Did San Diegans want this?
Wilde said, yes, bring it on. He announced that unless the city invited manufacturers in, we'd remain a convalescent center. "We don't want San Diego to become 'the amen corner' of the United States." For Wilde, it was a simple choice, "whether we are to be a second Palm Beach or another Philadelphia." Marston countered that the exposition had revealed the beauty of our climate and natural surroundings. Now millions knew what we knew. "The development of the city's beauty and civic welfare," Marston wrote, "can go along with industrial development." Marston never opposed growth. If elected, he would "encourage...manufacturing, commerce and horticulture."
The Wilde-Marston race was nicknamed "Smokestacks v. Geraniums." Marston became Geranium George, Wilde, the "Smokestack" candidate. Marston opined that those leaning toward Wilde were "terrified at the thought that the aroma of flowers may destroy the fumes emanating from ten thousand smokestacks." Though Marston had a sizable payroll of workers, he ignored labor during his campaign. In his slow-blooming Eden, productivity was not the point. Wilde courted labor's vote, arguing that as a capitalist he was really their candidate. What else but smokestacks would bring good jobs and good wages? "Remember," he wrote, "that this is a fight to the last ditch [for] the wage earner, against big interests, high taxes, bond issues and expensive parks and flowers along millionaire row, against big expenditures for the pleasure of a few smug plutocrats."
Marston stuck to his aesthetic. Dedicating the Spreckels pipe organ at the exposition, he'd said, "I consider the giving of this instrument greater than building railroads or steamships. We who are in San Diego can live without means of transportation, for we never intend leaving here anyway, but we cannot live without music." Wilde boasted of his religious ties: his parents were Methodist, his uncle a Lutheran minister, his wife a Catholic, and he belonged "to the big Church of Gratitude, Loyalty, Freedom and Sunshine -- Eight Hours of Rest, Eight Hours of Happiness, Eight Hours of Steady Work."
Just as the Citizens' Party in 1887 had warned that land buyers would leave if the Workingmen won, Wilde also made threats. He hinted that with a Marston victory the commerce-bearing Salt Lake Railroad would never arrive. Marston often refused to respond. His daughter remarked later that the "name-calling and slandering" of Wilde's attack ads "wearied" him. Marston made the fatal calculation that by championing restraint, he'd win. Sure, he may have predicted urban sprawl in a letter -- "Here in Southern California there is bound to be a great population. The land will be so well covered...that there will be very little wild woods left for future generations" -- but the visionary's insight didn't do the politician much good.