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L.A. Then and Now

Lobbyist's ego led to downfall, prison

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Artie Samish got lawmakers elected and 'unelected' to appease his clients.

February 03, 2008|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Artie Samish never ran for public office, but for decades he was one of the most powerful -- and colorful -- players in California politics.

Before California had a full-time Legislature and when special interests could quietly give unlimited amounts of money to elect favored candidates, he was a consummate string-puller, a hired gun working for the highest pay. And, from the 1920s through the early 1950s, he used his clients' money and his insider's knowledge of how Sacramento worked to "select and elect" legislators.

Standing 6 feet 2 and weighing 300 pounds, he bragged that he could tell in an instant whether a lawmaker needed "a baked potato, a girl, or money." The self-styled "secret boss of California" loved to boast about how he once got a transient elected to the Assembly and about his prowess at getting bills passed to benefit railroads, the liquor industry, racetracks and others who paid him big bucks to lobby.

But his outsized ego also proved to be his undoing. Boastful statements in a 1949 magazine series soon cost him his lobbying career and eventually helped put him in prison for tax evasion.

"The Samish era was a strong motivation for [Assembly Speaker] Jesse Unruh to advocate the full-time Legislature [in 1966]," said Tracy Wood, a former Capitol reporter for UPI and The Times.

Arthur H. Samish was born in Boyle Heights in 1897. The family moved to San Francisco when he was 4 years old. Shortly after, his father abandoned him and his mother. Their home was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. His mother later opened a boardinghouse and young Artie helped make ends meet by working odd jobs.

He never got beyond seventh grade, but he taught himself to type and worked at various government jobs -- including in the San Francisco tax collector's office, where he met politicians who would help him in his career.

In 1920, he moved to Sacramento, where he was a clerk for the Legislature and learned how laws are passed or killed. There, in 1921, he met and married Merced Sullivan. The couple had two daughters.

By the early 1930s, with his lobbying business taking off and his well-heeled client list swelling, Samish worked from offices at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, the Kohl Building in San Francisco and Sacramento's Senator Hotel, across the street from the Capitol.

"I selected the candidates that I thought would be agreeable to my clients, and I saw that they got elected. And if they didn't behave, I saw that they got unelected," Samish wrote in his 1971 autobiography. Co-written by the Associated Press' Bob Thomas, "The Secret Boss of California" had the same title as the magazine series that led to his downfall.

Once Samish settled on a candidate, Wood said, "he would get his clients to donate enough money to ensure the candidate was elected."

"None of that was illegal at the time, and Samish had access to huge amounts of his clients' money for campaigns. And all of the men he supported knew loud and clear that if they crossed him, they'd be out of office at the next election," Wood said.

Samish's autobiography provided an example of how he worked.

In 1934, a Samish client was unhappy with Republican Assemblyman Clair Woolwine of Los Angeles' 44th District. He told Samish, who ordered his assistant, "Get . . . a candidate."

The assistant, Bill Jasper, walked into the downtown L.A. campaign headquarters of author Upton Sinclair, who was running for governor. Jasper called out to a roomful of campaign workers, "Any of you fellows from the 44th District?" A tattered, unshaven transient named John Pelletier, 50, who had been stuffing envelopes for Sinclair, raised his hand.

As Samish tells it, Jasper got Pelletier fed, washed, shaved and dressed in a new suit and filed his papers for the primary election, listing his occupation as a "researcher." Jasper then paid Pelletier $10 a day to plaster posters of himself -- 25 years younger -- all over the district. He beat Woolwine and served five terms.

Samish liked to describe himself as "the guy who gets things done." It helped that he often offered up a Senator Hotel buffet of lobster, shrimp, caviar and other goodies to everyone from bootblacks to legislators, and he ran the best-stocked bar in Sacramento.

He kept a black book, dubbed his "bible," with sensitive information on every politician in the state, from their traffic tickets to their drinking habits. He relied on a staff of more than two dozen informants to feed him information.

But it all began to come apart in 1949, when Samish made the mistake of describing his activities to a Collier's magazine reporter.

"I am the governor of the Legislature, to hell with the governor of California," Samish boasted.

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