After his 1909 defeat, a reporter asked beloved Cleveland mayor and Democrat Tom L. Johnson if he had quit politics. “I am in politics until I die,” Johnson replied. All those votes in his favor, thousands of them, were an addictive tonic.
Following eight years as mayor, Johnson lost his bid for a fifth two-year term to Republican Herman Baehr. According to his autobiography, My Story, as the returns came in at City Hall, Johnson’s staff swore and wept.
Their reformist Cleveland — the 3-cent streetcar fare, public ownership of utilities, the triumph of the common man over the rich one — seemed at an end. But their leader remained composed.
When word came that Newton D. Baker, a Johnson acolyte, kept his post as city solicitor, Baker gripped Johnson’s hand. “I don’t know how I can do it,” Baker said. To which Johnson replied, “Of course you can do it. You’ve got to do it. The people want you.”
Already ill, Johnson escaped Cleveland for Europe in early 1910 and seemed to recuperate. A photograph from that year shows a pensive Johnson surveying downtown Painesville from the driver’s seat of the Red Devil, the car he drove during his campaigns. A flock of curious boys wonder at the novelty.
Johnson’s illness soon caught up to him. In 1911, the 56-year-old died due to symptoms of kidney inflammation. He offered final words to those who voted for him and rallied to his cause: “It’s all right. I’m so happy.”