Political turf wars began in 1926

January 13, 2018

Madera County Historical Society
Madera County Sheriff John Barnett (left) is shown here in 1921 with Undersheriff Clarence Osborn and prisoner Ah Coon, who was being taken to jail. Barnett served Madera County as sheriff until 1926, when local politics soured him on continuing his career in law enforcement.

For the first 19 years of its existence as an incorporated city, Madera’s political machinery ran without rancor or hard feelings, for the most part.  Most office seekers simply offered their services to fill various community needs and did little to tarnish the political landscape. During those early years, challenges to incumbent office holders were rare.


In 1926, however, things began to change, and real political turf wars appeared for the first time in Madera in contests for the city council and the office of sheriff.


It all started when three members of the city council were challenged in their bids for reelection.


On April 10, 1926, Maderans went to the polls to cast their votes for the three open seats on the five-man city council. Incumbent Mayor E.M. Saunders and trustees J.L. Freeman and G.N. Mickel were on the ballot, as were the names of three challengers: John B. Gordon, Ben H. Catching, and Thomas Warburton. There didn’t appear to be any public acrimony, and the incumbents all felt sure of their reelection.


How they failed to detect the cabal that was operating against them is anybody’s guess, but when the dust had settled on election day, it was apparent that a coup had taken place. The slate of challengers carried the day.


Adding insult to injury, Saunders, the defeated mayor, had the job of administering the oath of office to the winners at the next meeting. The council then chose John Gordon to replace Saunders as mayor.


Born in 1892, the new mayor had arrived in Madera from Tennessee with his family when he was five years old. He once stated that his first recollections of the town consisted of wooden sidewalks, citizens on horseback, and “22 saloons in the heart of the business district.”


Gordon attended the old Eastside Grammar School and then Madera High School, from which he and 9 other students graduated in 1911. In addition to becoming Mayor, Gordon was the manager of the local Security Title Guaranty Company and secretary/manager of the Building and Loan Agency.


After Gordon was sworn in as mayor, Catching and Warburton completed the insurgency by taking seats formerly held by councilmen Freeman and Mickel.


Then, just a few days after the new city council took over, the race for sheriff began. Nobody expected the popular John Barnett to be challenged for the job he had held for the previous eight years, so when Earl W. Rogers threw his hat in the ring on May 4, tongues began to wag. Rogers had come from Fresno in 1920 to purchase 100 acres of grapes near Skaggs bridge, and from the start he began to hurl stones at the sheriff.


Some of them must have struck home, for two weeks after this 1926 challenge to Barnett, he announced that he was no longer seeking reelection. The sheriff caught everyone by surprise and with some regret, especially when Barnett let it be known that the main reason he was quitting was the criticism that had been directed his way. Without being specific, Barnett pointed to unjustified faultfinding of his police work, and the attempts of his political enemies to cast an eye of suspicion at his record.


Barnett’s supporters quickly pointed out that he had earned a reputation in fighting criminals that would be difficult to equal. Not only had he captured nearly every fugitive from justice in Madera, but in the majority of instances he had persuaded the violators to confess their acts even though his admissible evidence was scanty.


Barnett’s sudden withdrawal from the sheriff’s race drew candidates out of the woodwork. In addition to Earl Rodgers, J.F. Lewis, Welton C. Rhodes, and Andy Clark announced their candidacies.


Lewis had been elected sheriff in 1914, and had been defeated by Barnett in 1918. Rumor had it that Lewis was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and while he indicated that he had great respect for the Klan, he denied being a member.


Clark also had considerable law enforcement experience as a traffic officer, city marshal, and a deputy sheriff under Lewis. Rhodes was Madera County’s auditor.


The primary election was held on Aug. 31, 1926, and Welton Rhodes scored a runaway victory, although he did not escape a runoff. The county auditor garnered 1,683 votes while Lewis tallied 997. Andy Clark got 975 votes, and Earl Rogers received 913.


In the Sept. 1, general election, Rhodes defeated Lewis 2,384 to 2,108. Madera County had a new sheriff, and the City of Madera had a new mayor, one that would survive the vicissitudes of local politics for the next 25 years.


Thus did Madera lose its political innocence in 1926; things would never be the same. The town had come of age, and with its emergence from political adolescence came an awareness that communities of conflicting interests had arisen as well. Politics was here to stay.

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