Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ambitious doctor stirs up Pendleton politics

Dr. James A. Best was a well-known and respected doctor in Umatilla County the early 1900s, first in Weston and later in Pendleton. Dr. Best became a household name in 1913 when he launched his political career, beginning with the controversial gravity-fed water project to bring drinking water from Thornhollow Springs to the city.

As the water project was heading for the finish line, Dr. Best joined in the race for a seat on the commission. Best stirred up the current board when he charged the project’s bank account was short more than $33,000 and implied one or more of the commissioners was at fault. The race was fraught with mudslinging, and Best was accused of graft when a contractor working on the project said the candidate was supplying his own horse teams for hauling gravel and demanding to be paid more than the other haulers.

When Best was elected to the commission by a large margin, the other four members of the board submitted their resignations and requested a thorough audit of the books. Contrary to Best’s allegations, the audit turned up a small ($1.14) excess in the project account. The recalcitrant commissioners were lured back to their seats on the board by the fear that anti-gravity men would be appointed to the commission and tie up the project before it could be completed.

Dr. Best’s detractors continued to try to dig up reasons why he should not be allowed to sit on the commission, citing his lack of U.S. citizenship, among other things, but the charges never seemed to stick. Best eventually gave up his seat on the water commission when he entered the race for mayor in 1915.

This campaign also was beset by strife; supporters of Best’s main opponent, John Montgomery, dredged up accusations that Best was in cahoots with local bootleggers and purveyors of bawdy houses — accusations that Dr. Best did not deny. The East Oregonian weighed in against Dr. Best, running editorials and political cartoons depicting organized crime interests using every tactic (including corrupt polling practices) to secure their candidate’s victory. Special police contingents hovered at every polling station to prevent non-eligible voters from swaying the outcome. More than 500 people were registered to vote the day of the election. In the end, after the heaviest voting ever seen in Pendleton to that point, Dr. Best was declared the winner, beating Montgomery by 232 votes, 1197 to 965.
East Oregonian file photo
 A near riot followed the close of the polls. One of Best’s other opponents for the mayoralty, Dudley Evans, left the polling station in the Bowman Hotel to walk to city hall for the official results and was followed by a mostly quiet crowd, though some of Best’s supporters began tossing about jeers and threats. After the crowd returned to the hotel, Dr. E.J. Sommerville stirred up the crowd and a short scuffle erupted in the lobby of the building, compelling officers to pull their guns to scatter the crowd. Dr. Sommerville joined up with another Best supporter, E.W. McComas, near the St. George Hotel and there ran afoul of Chief of Police Alex Manning and Officer Omar Stephens. Words led to blows and in the short melee Officer Stephens was knocked down. Chief Manning clubbed McComas over the head and took both McComas and Sommerville to the police station. The crowd reformed and attempted to force its way into city hall, but Chief Manning again drew his gun and club and, with a few well-placed blows, beat back the rioters. Several prominent citizens were able to defuse the situation, but the crowd did not disperse until well after midnight.

Dr. Best next threw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination for state representative in February of 1916, another potential step up for the aspiring politician. He polled a distant third of three candidates in the race.

Best’s time as mayor was also quite contentious. On March 23, 1916, Best attended a boxing match at the Oregon Theater, a ten-round bout between Romeo Hagan and Ray McCarroll that lasted only into the second round. McCarroll was knocked to the canvas and Mayor Best stood up to announce the match would be the last to be staged in Pendleton during his tenure, as prize fights were against the law. In the furor that resulted from his announcement Best “hurled a profane epithet and obscene injunction” at one of his tormentors that resulted in the mayor being brought up on charges. A protracted legal battle ensued, ending a year later when the mayor suddenly changed his plea to guilty, paying a fine of $15. He admitted he had broken the obscenity laws but claimed he was fighting the official charge of vagrancy; his own search of state statues revealed it was the only law on the books he could be charged with on the complaint.

Mayor Best also ruffled feathers in the police department. One of his first official moves in January of 1916 was to appoint himself the head of the police commission, which up till then had never been done. He immediately got on the wrong side of Chief of Police Thomas B. Gurdane, who claimed the mayor was undermining his authority and hampering his abilities to do his job. A protracted struggle between Mayor Best, a contingent of city councilors led by Claude Penland and Chief Gurdane built up over several months, ending in March of 1917 with Gurdane’s abrupt resignation and a barrage of letters in the East Oregonian revealing a sampling of the mayor’s alleged transgressions (including allowing illegal businesses to operate during Round-Up and splitting the profits). The city council meeting of March 9, 1917, blew up into charges and counter-charges and almost erupted into a brawl. But again, the expected firecrackers between the mayor and his detractors fizzled out when the planned “clipping of the lion’s claws” during the March 21 council meeting didn’t happen — the rebel councilors appeared to be afraid to speak up, much to the disappointment of a large crowd. Dr. Best served as Pendleton’s mayor until October of 1917, when he joined the war effort as a captain in the medical corps.

Best returned to Pendleton, after serving almost two years in the military, to continue his duties as a doctor. Dr. Best was eventually elected to the Oregon legislature, serving one term as state representative in 1933 and three terms in the Senate, where his priorities included assistance for the elderly and agriculture. He retired in December of 1944 due to ill health and died Aug. 18, 1946.

Dr. James A. Best

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