Culbert Olson (1876-1962)

Described by the New York Times as a “strong advocate of the New Deal,” Culbert Olson was a Democratic member of the California State Senate from 1934 to 1938 and Governor of California from 1939 to 1943 [1].

Culbert Levy Olson was born on November 7, 1876, in Fillmore, Utah to George Daniel Olson and Delilah King.  He graduated from Brigham Young University in 1895 and, while working as a journalist and congressional secretary in Washington, D.C., earned a law degree from Columbian University Law School (today’s George Washington University School of Law).  In 1901, he was admitted to the Utah Bar and began practicing in Salt Lake City [2].

Olson served in the Utah State Senate from 1916 to 1920, after which he moved to California, where he practiced law, investigated corporate fraud, and was active in the Democratic Party.  In 1932, he campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt and in 1934 supported Upton Sinclair’s run for the California governorship under the famous program, “End Poverty in California” (EPIC).  Sinclair lost the election, but Olson became a California state senator [3].

During his time in the State Senate, Olson pushed hard for progressive reforms and “secured a major victory when the governor accepted his proposed bills establishing a state income tax and increasing inheritance, bank, and corporate franchise taxes…” [4].  Olson was a leading advocate of oil “prorationing” to limit output and raise prices in a depressed industry, which became national policy for the next half century.  President Roosevelt appointed Olson special assistant to the US Attorney General to pursue government suits over oil royalties [5].

In 1938, Olson was elected governor, the first Democrat to occupy the office in the 20th century. Many hoped he would usher in a New Deal for California [6].  During his inaugural address, Olson declared that, “New social concepts are born through pain and distress brought upon the people by great industrial depressions such as we have been suffering. Every individual is forced to realize that he is a social being, not an independent self-sufficient entity.  This has given us a national administration with a social viewpoint, with a New Deal program of government service to the immediate needs of a people left in despair by the total failure of the sterile policies of the old order…” [7].

Although Olson was able to advance some prison and mental health care reforms, and appointed some liberal state judges and administrators like Carey McWilliams, most of his agenda was blocked by the Republican-controlled state senate [8].  California would benefit greatly from the New Deal [9] and again as the nation mobilized for war [10], but it wasn’t enough to save Olson, who lost his reelection bid in 1942.  Ironically, his conservative Republican successor, Earl Warren, would become a postwar advocate of such New Deal era policies as expanding public education, parks and infrastructure, and then preside as Chief Justice over the most liberal Supreme Court in US history, replete with New Dealers like William O. Douglas and Hugo Black [11].

Olson remained active in the Democratic Party for a number of years after his defeat.  He died on April 13, 1962, at the age of 85, survived by his three sons, Richard, Dean, and John (his first wife was Nellie E. Boronson-Day and his second wife was Kate Jeremy) [12].

Sources: (1) “Culbert L. Olson, Ex-Governor, 85,” New York Times, April 14, 1962.  (2) Ibid., and also see “Coast Leader, Ex-Utahn Dies,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 14, 1962; and “Culbert Olson, 1939-1943,” The Governor’s Gallery, California State Library, accessed December 6, 2016.  (3) James S. Olson (ed.), Historical Dictionary of the New Deal, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985, p. 381.  (4) Ibid.  (5) See note 1.  (6) “Culbert Olson, 1939-1943,” The Governor’s Gallery, California State Library, accessed December 6, 2016.  (7) Ibid.  (8) See note 3.  (9) Richard Walker and Gray Brechin. The Living New Deal: The Unsung Benefits of the New Deal for the United States and California.  Working Paper 220-10, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California, Berkeley. 2010.  (10) “Governor Culbert L. Olson,” National Governors Association, accessed December 6, 2016.  (11) John Douglass, “Earl Warren’s new deal: economic transition, postwar planning, and higher education in California.” Journal of Policy History. 2000. 12/4: 473-512.  (12) See notes 1 and 6.