By Mark Gutglueck
San Bernardino County has a much-deserved reputation for being host to self-serving and corrupt politicians. Indeed, many of its elected officials, while engaging in legitimate public service and sometimes or oftentimes doing the will of those they represent and undertaking laudable efforts, have nonetheless perfected the art of simultaneously violating the public trust, masquerading as dedicated do-gooders, while enriching themselves or their cronies. The power they possess or possessed in many cases, today and in yesteryear, renders or rendered them invulnerable to the application of justice, as those with whom they serve or served are often as corrupt as they, and no one wants or wanted to upset the apple cart. Moreover, their ability to wield the scepter they hold or held and bring home the bacon of pork barrel politics in the past persuaded and even today persuades the voters to leave them be, and they are or were returned to office to both plunder and serve.
One of the quintessentially corrupt San Bernardino County politicians, the model for many of the current crop of officials fleecing those who continue to elect them, was Henry Sheppard, a New Deal Democrat first elected to the House of Representatives from San Bernardino County in 1936. He went on to serve 14 consecutive terms until his retirement on January 3, 1965.
Sheppard was born in Mobile Alabama on January 10, 1885. He attended public schools and studied law for three years, but did not pursue that profession. Rather, he went west to work for the Santa Fe Railway, engaged in copper mining in Alaska and moved to Yucaipa, where he served as president and general manager of King’s Beverage and Kings Laboratories Corporation until 1934.
Sheppard was elected in 1936 as a New Deal Democrat to the Seventy-fifth Congress.
Among his first high profiled gambits as a member of the House of Representatives was to push for allowing expanded mining in the East Mojave Desert, a concept for which he had enthusiasm as a former miner himself and which was favored by many of his supporters.
Relatively early in his tenure as congressman, Sheppard made some political missteps, but he learned from these, and thereafter, led a relatively charmed life as a politician. It was not until the very end of his career that he would engage in a faux pas, one from which he would never recover.
One of his early learning experiences occurred when he provoked a row with the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee by appointing Harold Thoreson as the acting postmaster for San Bernardino shortly after Ernest Martin, the previous postmaster, died. Other members of the committee had militated for the appointment of Walter Sullivan to the position. Despite the hard feelings this generated with some members of the county Democratic party, Sheppard survived politically.
Another early mistake manifested and loomed into public view just prior to his reelection in 1938, when members of the local chapter of the American Legion in Ontario demanded a public retraction of Sheppard’s claim that the legionnaires had endorse him. They insisted they had not. Despite the momentary embarrassment and bad publicity, Sheppard was reelected.
As he matured as a politician, Sheppard learned to give the public – his constituency – not just what they truly wanted but what they thought they wanted. And he learned as well to pander to the public sentiment.
In 1939, after Congress had approved the $12.4 million San Antonio Canyon Flood Control Project which was to be constructed under the direction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, wrangling between Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County broke out, with San Bernardino County leaders led by board of supervisors chairman C.E. Grier opposing the project as proposed on the grounds that it did not offer adequate water conservation. Sheppard joined the fray, leaping to the assistance of San Bernardino County, succeeding in having the project put on hold while changes to the project were considered.
In August 1940, during the height of a reelection campaign, Sheppard claimed he had broken his hand in an altercation in San Bernardino with a man he described as a communist.
In 1941, with the Second World War raging in Europe and a general feeling that the United States was drifting toward joining the hostilities, civic leaders from the community of Victorville, with Sheppard as their federal patron, approached the United States Army with a proposal to develop an airfield in the wide open spaces of the Mojave Desert between their town and Adelanto. As a consequence of that effort and Sheppard’s access to the Roosevelt Administration, the Victorville Air Station was completed just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and Army Air Corps pilots began training there in February 1942. The air station would later become George Air Force Base.
In 1942, he was instrumental in having the San Bernardino Municipal Airport converted, under Army Air Corp guidance, into what was then called the San Bernardino Army Air Field and the San Bernardino Air Depot, which was later renamed Norton Air Force Base after the creation of the Air Force in 1947.
Later in 1942 Sheppard captured both the Republican and Democratic nomination for congressman.
He remained an advocate for the mining industry, emphasizing its importance to the war effort.
In 1944 there was speculation that Democratic Senator Sheridan Downey would not seek reelection, and Sheppard was widely mentioned as his possible replacement.
With the war winding down, Sheppard went on record as opposing the U.S. Navy’s acquisition of tidelands along the California coast.
He sought to eliminate some 600,000 acres from the Josua Tree National Monument to allow a large number of mining claims to be opened for development.
In the 1948 Congressional election, Sheppard defeated Lowell Lathrop, later the San Bernardino County district attorney for 24 years.
Even when things went badly in those days, Sheppard landed on his feet. When he and his wife were snubbed at the Truman inaugural in 1949 when a White House naval aide turned them away from the reviewing stand because they did not have tickets, the story resulted in widespread sympathy for Sheppard and admiration for the equanimity with which he bore the slight.
Sheppard worked to keep California’s access to Colorado River water and in 1949 charged that Interior Secretary Julius Krug was siding with Arizona over California in the fight for Colorado River water and accused Krug’s aides of issuing “biased” reports on pending Colorado River legislation.
In March 1949, when it was revealed that the Navy was developing an aircraft carrier-based plane capable of carrying an atomic bomb, Sheppard, as the vice-chairman of the House Armed Forces Appropriations Committee, was at the rollout for the until-then top secret XAJ prototype with vice-admiral John Dale Price, the deputy chief of Naval Operations for Air, and Admiral Louis E. Denfield, the chief of Naval Operations, thus taking credit for Congressional support of the program.
In May 1949 Sheppard was key in the reactivation of Victorville Air Station.
In late 1949, Sheppard, while admitting he was “flattered” by the effort, refused to accede to a Democratic call to draft him as a candidate for California governor.
Sheppard sponsored legislation refurbishing existing, and building new, housing at Victorville Air Force Base.
In what was surely a sign of the times as well as an indication of what a political opportunist Sheppard was, in September 1950, he joined with 63 Democrats in supporting Republican Richard Nixon over Democrat Helen Douglas after she was smeared by Nixon with the accusation that she was sympathetic to communists.
In 1951, Sheppard was instrumental in getting $20 million appropriated to expand the San Bernardino Air Depot, which by that point had been renamed Norton Air Force Base
In early 1952, functioning under the assumption that Harry Truman would run for reelection that year, Sheppard headed a committee intent on selecting delegates to the Democratic National Convention that would stay loyal to the president. Meanwhile, throughout San Bernardino County, Sheppard had become something of a de facto kingmaker, able to designate candidate slates for various offices that were then given support by the Democratic party machinery.
After the Korean War ended, Sheppard voiced support for more defense spending and less foreign aid.
Sheppard took the side of cattlemen in their disputes with sheep owners seeking grazing permits in the area around Barstow and Hinkley in 1958.
He sought to have the water line from the Feather River Project routed through San Bernardino County.
He made efforts to protect the wine industry in the Cucamonga Wine District.
As co-chairman of the House Military Appropriations Committee in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was instrumental in bringing aviation and aerospace contracts to Southern California companies and persuading military contractors to relocate their operations or portions thereof, to the greater Los Angeles area, ensuring good paying jobs for significant numbers of his constituents.
He acceded to the position of the chairmanship of the California Congressional Delegation.
After the assassination of John Kennedy, Sheppard was at the zenith of his power, a New Deal Democrat with seniority, considered to be an asset to the Johnson Administration. But in January 1964, Sheppard was unmasked as a public official who had played a convincing role as a dedicated public servant while utilizing his position to enrich himself. During a two-day period that month, he made 27 separate $10,000 deposits into 27 different banks in Washington, D.C., and communities surrounding the nation’s capital in Virginia and Maryland. Reports pertaining to the deposits reached the nation’s newspapers. He claimed that he was merely making prudent deposits of his life savings, which he had formerly kept in a safe deposit box. Instantaneously, he was no longer an asset to Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats but rather a liability. On February 20, he announced he was retiring from Congress after the completion of that term.
Sheppard did not return to San Bernardino County to live among those he had served so well, and betrayed, during his 28 years in Congress. When he died on April 28, 1969, he was residing in Rockville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.
There are yet streets named after Sheppard in San Bernardino County and he is honored, as well, by a legion of self-serving politicians in San Bernardino County who like him are putting to current practice his formula of giving his constituents what they want with one hand, while picking their pockets with the other.
By Mark Gutglueck