Tom L. Johnson’s Tax School: The Fight for Democracy and Control of Cleveland’s Tax Machinery
by Andrew L Whitehair, 2020, Master of Arts in History, Cleveland State University, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
Prior to Tom L. Johnson’s election to mayor of Cleveland in 1901, the city’s tax system was rife with inequality. Johnson sought to correct these inequalities by democratizing Cleveland’s tax system. To accomplish this aim, he established a new department in City Hall, called the “tax school,” which was designed to educate Clevelanders about the existing tax system’s failures as well as Johnson’s proposed solutions. The tax school worked to improve the tax assessment process by implementing a scientific approach, improving transparency, and soliciting citizen input. Johnson’s efforts, however, met with resistance from an entrenched business elite that employed the state legislature and courts to destroy Johnson’s tax school. Through political campaigns of misinformation, usurpation of the primary process, and stuffing key tax institutions with friendly partisans, these business elites conspired to control the tax machinery of Cuyahoga County. This study of Johnson’s efforts to democratically reform Cleveland’s tax system reveals how the city’s business elite colluded to destroy the tax school and to retain the levers of tax power. In providing the canonical account of Cleveland’s tax school, I situate the history of the tax school within a multi-party negotiation governed by unequal power relationships between business elites and the rest of society. The wealthiest Clevelanders possessed the greatest access to the tax system, and they used that access to rig the system in their favor.