J.E. Thompson couldn’t have picked a more difficult time to run for the U.S. Senate. The year was 1934, right in the middle of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term. The county was in the midst of the Great Depression. The president and his Democrat allies in Congress enjoyed strong backing.
Moreover, Thompson, a relative unknown in the state’s politics, was trying to unseat an incumbent, Democrat Henry F. Ashurst, who was one of the first two Senators ever elected from Arizona. Ashurst was also a wind bag. Time magazine once referred to Ashurst, who was legendary for his oratories, “as the longest running U.S. theatrical engagement.” He served in the Senate from 1912 to 1941.
Joseph Edward, who probably wasn’t anywhere near as glib, lost the lopsided race, securing only 25 percent of the vote.
Tony Thompson found a political pamphlet outlining his grandfather J.E.’s political positions when digging through some family papers 20 years ago. In a letter to his brothers, Bill and Boyce, Tony admitted surprise that his paternal grandfather had even run for office. No one had ever talked about it. The margin of defeat may have had something to do with that.
The brochure includes an excellent biography of J.E., who was, of course, the younger brother of William Boyce Thompson, easily the better-known of the two. He was born in Virginia City, Montana, then known as Alder Gulch, in 1875. His father, William Thompson, was one of the framers of the Montana constitution and a Republican mayor of Butte, Mont. Thompson made his fortune doing mining and real estate deals.
His political philosophy, laid out in a letter to the voters of Arizona, has been a mystery until now. A plain-spoken, take-charge individual, J.E. pledged to change the “passive representation we have had for the last few years.” He admits that some of the New Deal philosophies, which were popular at the time, were good. But he dismisses others as “visionary.” In a folksy manner, he vows to apply “good horse sense” to government proposals and reject ideas that won’t work.
Thompson’s political agenda was pretty liberal for a business-minded Republican candidate. He told voters that he favored collective bargaining, the 30-hour work week, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the hungry and homeless, and the principle of the Public Works Administration. He also suggested that the government purchase the country’s copper surplus against future national emergencies. This would reopen the mines of Arizona, he wrote, providing more jobs. It would also line the pockets of the people in his family who owned copper mines. Some might call his position enlightened self-interest. It sounds more like greed to me.
True to his financial roots, Thompson ran against direct inflation (“one of the most vicious and dangerous proposals ever made”), further devaluation of the dollar, and the idea of destroying excess farm production. The candidate vowed to be a man of action in Washington D.C. “I assure you that if I am elected I will waste no time painting word pictures, but will work diligently and untiringly in committee rooms and with departments to accomplish for Arizona the things that need to be done.” I might have voted for him.
The campaign brochure includes a testimonial from Thomas E. Campbell, the former government of Arizona, who recounts Thompson’s hard early life, entrepreneurial instincts, and business accomplishments. “As a young man, Thompson learned the value of a ‘sweaty dollar’ in a planing mill and in the Montana mines,” wrote Campbell. “Development of the mineral resources of the west appealed to him, and he studied mining engineering at the University of California.” He must not have graduated, or this would have been worded differently.
Thompson moved to Arizona in 1902, settling at Clifton. After two years in the real estate and insurance business, he moved to Bisbee, where he built and sold 128 homes within about one year. He sold many of the homes to miners on installment plans, raising capital in financial circles. “Mr. Thompson has never foreclosed a single mortgage,” the campaign brochure reads. He also served a term on the Bisbee city council.
Shortly thereafter, J.E. moved to New York City, where he worked with his brother William Boyce to finance various ventures, including several large mines in Arizona–Inspiration, Miami, Nevada Consolidated, and Shannon. The Magma copper mine at Superior, Arizona, was almost entirely a Thompson family operation. “Incidentally, there has never been a strike in any industrial operation under Thompson’s management,” Campbell wrote.
J.E. gave up his stock exchange memberships to support government efforts during WWI. A broken leg presumably prevented him from serving in the military. Instead, he headed the Liberty Loan and Red Cross drives, Belgian relief, and similar war activities. “He played a prominent part in the entertainment of American forces both en route and returning from France,” Campbell writes. We may be forever scratching our chins, wondering what kind of entertainment he provided.
After the war, J.E. returned to Phoenix and engaged in experimental farming. At the time, he had the largest experimental date grove in the country, with the exception of a government grove in Indio, Calif. He also grew 400 varieties of grapes on his ranch. He produced reports for the University of Arizona on commercially viable grapes and deciduous fruits that would grow under Arizona’s climate conditions.
“During the last 15 years, Mr. Thompson has been Arizona’s unofficial ambassador, representing every governor since statement, and an active civic leader.” He chaired a commission that staged the state fair in 1931 and 1932. As chair of the Arizona Committee, he handled a birthday celebration for President Roosevelt. He was involved in Red Cross, Community Chest, and Boy Scout activities.
Alas, it wasn’t enough to get him elected to the Senate.