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A Dummy Brings Down an Empire

For decades, nobody questions that Artie Samish runs Sacramento. Starting as a lobbyist in the early 1920s, Samish gradually amasses unrivaled power and influence as the lobbyist for California’s liquor interests. But an offhand joke during an magazine interview published August 13, 1949 triggers his downfall..

Artie Samish, 1938/San Francisco Examiner Photograph Archive, Bancroft Library

By the 1940s, nearly all political money in the state flows through Samish and from him to the candidates he selects. In one case, Samish hires a “tattered old-timer” who he describes as “ragged and unshaven and dirty” to successfully beat an incumbent lawmaker who opposed legislation supported by Samish’s clients.

At this height of political power, Samish grants an interview to Lester Velie, a 32-year-old reporter who writes for Collier’s.

“As long as he had come all the way across the country, I decided I’d send him back with a crackling good story,” Samish explains later in his autobiography, “I gave Velie everything he wanted, and then some. And he printed it all. Boy, did he!”

At one point during the interview, Samish poses for a photograph with a doll-sized dummy that he calls “Mr. Legislature.”

Text of Senate Resolution barring Arthur Samish
Arthur Samish Banned. Journal of the 1949 session of the Senate of the State of California/California State Library via Internet Archive

“When his photographer was taking some shots of me, I told him: ‘You want the real picture? I’ll give you something that tells the whole story.’

“Then I produced a little ventriloquist’s dummy, a cheerful hobo with white gloves and a top hat. I planted the dummy in front of me and said ‘That’s the way I lobby. That’s my legislature. That’s Mr. Legislature. How are you today, Mr. Legislature?’ “

The Secret Boss of California by Arthur H. Samish and Bob Thomas (1971)

Collier’s publishes the interview in two parts on August 13 and August 20, 1949. Sacramento’s response is stunningly swift.

Samish mugs for reporters after his release from prison in 1958

The Legislature begins an investigation of Samish on September 22. By December, Governor Earl Warren has called the Legislature into special session to address issues including the regulation of lobbyists which they do, in part, by passing a resolution permanently banning Samish from lobbying.

On November 17, 1953, a jury finds Samish guilty on eight tax evasion charges, costing him 26 months in federal prison and more than $900,000 in taxes and fines.

The curtain falls on the Age of Artie Samish.