Naturally, the bulk of the CWA money flowed to the largest states. Eleven of them—much of the industrial Northeast and Midwest, and Texas and California—got 57 percent of the total. This produced accusations that contradicted one another. Republicans charged the administration with buying votes with patronage, while Democratic senators in the job-heavy states complained that they were given no input in choosing CWA supervisors. Colorado senator Edward Costigan, a Democrat and a Roosevelt ally, said plaintively, “Is it too much to ask that names considered for important official administrative posts here be referred to me in advance for advice?”
In California, where administrator Ray Branion was running both the CWA and FERA, Senator William McAdoo went to war because Branion was a Republican and accused him of political corruption and incompetence. Although McAdoo was just entering his first term, he was seventy years old and others were already vying to succeed him, so political maneuvering complicated the scenario. The United States attorney in San Francisco, who had applied for Branion’s job, followed McAdoo’s lead and indicted Branion and Pierce Williams, Hopkins’s CWA field representative for California, on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government. Hopkins countered by dispatching a Justice Department attorney from Washington to investigate the charges, with Roosevelt’s consent to quashing the indictment if the department approved. The investigation proved them innocent and the charges were dropped, although Hopkins had to move both Branion and Williams out of California.
Everybody wanted a piece of the CWA money. The Chicago Democratic machine tried to steer it to projects that were not approved, forcing Hopkins to interpose engineers to enforce high project standards. Labor unions in some locales claimed that workers had to join their ranks before the CWA would hire them, and the American Legion tried a similar tactic aimed at enlarging its membership before the CWA halted these practices.
The Republican National Committee attacked the CWA from the outset, charging it with “gross waste” and “downright corruption” without ever mustering specifics. Almost all such accusations were politically inspired, and Hopkins, knowing that even the hint of graft or favoritism could undermine public support, did a good job of staying out in front of them. Following the advice he’d received from the president on his first day on the job at FERA, he continued to run the relief apparatus without favoring Democrats. He rejected political hacks in favor of professional administrators who knew how to identify the needy and get them what they needed, be it food, clothing, or jobs. It was inevitable that political interference would take place, but he had stopped getting mad about it, he told a congressional committee in January when CWA jobs were at their peak. He was “amazed at the number of people who are trying to horn in on making a little money,” he said, and was dedicated to exposing this himself. “I may have made a mistake in kicking a lot of this stuff outdoors,” he said. “But I don’t like it when people…'finagle around the back door.”
Hopkins’s quote, and his picture, made the cover of Time magazine on February 19, 1934, confirming his growing national prominence. The story described his efforts to run the jobs program and keep politics and fraud at bay. It credited him with “a thoroughly professional job.” On his orders, CWA payroll and purchase records were open to the public. He had a staff of 130 investigators checking reported cases of fraud. Accountants pored over the agency’s books. Accusations of graft and corruption far outweighed the reality. What cases there were mostly involved violations and irregularities that fell short of criminal magnitude. They were handled with dismissals and restitution, although seventy-seven cases eventually were referred for prosecution and resulted in seventeen convictions.
Roosevelt, aware of the potential political dynamite in the accusations, did some intelligence gathering of his own. He sent his old friend Frank C. Walker to test reactions to the jobs program and to look for signs of corruption, incompetence, and waste. Walker was a Butte, Montana, copper miner turned lawyer and New York businessman—he owned a chain of movie theaters—who had known Roosevelt since 1920 and been one of his earliest presidential backers. Now he directed the president’s Executive Council and also the National Emergency Council, both bodies consisting of department and agency heads and cabinet secretaries. The councils were supposed to coordinate the government’s multifarious initiatives but were just as likely to break down in bureaucratic squabbles, and Walker, a staunch supporter without ambitions of his own who was good at soothing tender egos, served as a peacemaker. To assess the CWA, he left Washington and roamed the country. Back home in Butte, where he had practiced law, he found men he knew digging ditches and laying sewer pipe in their business suits and shoes because they couldn’t afford work clothes. He was surprised, when he talked with them, to find that they weren’t bitter. One man pulled out some coins and told Walker, “Do you know, Frank, this is the first money I’ve had in my pockets in a year and a half. Up to now I’ve had nothing but tickets that you exchange for groceries.” Another said the CWA job had been all that prevented him from heaving a rock through the window of the local bakery and stealing bread to feed his children.
Returning to Washington, Walker told Roosevelt to ignore criticism of the CWA and the way Hopkins was running it. The jobs it provided had “averted one of the most serious crises in our history” and the threat, if not the reality, of revolution.
Obviously, not all of the CWA hires embraced their jobs enthusiastically, and many worked under poor conditions. CWA rules dictated that most project dollars be spent for labor, while local officials argued that leaving out equipment, material, and administration costs would make projects harder to complete successfully. Hopkins was able to ignore most of these protests, but not all. In late 1933, Fiorello La Guardia had just been elected mayor of New York City and had asked Long Island parks commissioner Robert Moses to take over the city’s parks as well. Moses, whose lust to build would prove to be equaled only by his love of power, had one single focus when it came to the growing number of projects under his iron control: they would be done his way or not at all. Anticipating the city parks job before the state legislature gave him permission to accept it, Moses and his top aides spied on some of the 68,000 CWA workers assigned to park cleanup and other projects in the city. They found a ragtag workforce that was ill-equipped and badly supervised. Workers laid asphalt roads and paths without adequate foundations, so these broke up from frost action within days. Other workers shoveled sand from truck beds to build up a reef off Staten Island, and as they waited for the next truckload they watched waves already washing away the sand they had just shoveled. Moses and his men saw thousands of laborers at Brooklyn’s Marine Park, 2,000 acres of undeveloped salt marsh at the entrance to Jamaica Bay, warding off the cold wind from the water by passing around wine bottles concealed in paper bags and huddling over fires made from the chopped-up handles of their shovels. The few men whose consciences prompted them to work had little to do but rake the sand or rearrange the landscape’s scattered stones.
Moses was sworn in as New York City’s consolidated parks commissioner in January 1934, and within days he strong-armed the city’s CWA administration into freeing money for plans, materials, and supervision. He used a favorite tactic: he threatened to quit if his demands weren’t granted. And once he forced the CWA to change its rules and put real oversight in place, he hired hundreds of architects and engineers from the ravaged ranks of those professions. He put them to work in the red-brick Arsenal in Central Park, kept them at their desks for fourteen-hour days, and told those who didn’t last not to bother coming back. The plans they turned out went into the field practically before the ink was dry. There, construction “ramrods” whom Moses had hired on loan from contractors as far away as Pennsylvania and New England ordered the CWA laborers to leave their wine and bonfires and get to work. Those who didn’t were fired on the spot.
In fact, most workers were conscientious, like those Frank Walker had encountered in Montana. Diligence was the norm, not the exception, in almost every city and town around the country. CWA crews worked into a winter that in much of the nation was one of the worst ever. Temperatures fell to 56 below zero in the higher elevations of New England, 14 below in New York City, and 6 below in Washington, D.C. Few of the men sent out to work in those conditions were equipped for it, as Walker too had observed. Former white-collar workers had never owned the right clothes and shoes for work as laborers, and the onetime factory workers and mill hands who might have had decent work clothes in the past had been unable to replace them. Working for the CWA, the $13.44 a week they made on average disappeared into hungry mouths at home, which took priority over any other needs. To stretch their budgets for necessities, some men walked long distances to their jobsites rather than pay carfare.
Laborers held most, but not all, of the CWA jobs. Hopkins and his staff saw no sense in forcing artists, writers, and musicians to become third-rate laborers when they had skills that could be used in other ways. About 190,000 CWA-paid workers were classified as “non-manual and professional.” Three thousand of these were artists, including painters, etchers, sculptors, and mural painters. Gutzon Borglum, the monumental sculptor who had been carving the profiles of four presidents out of the granite of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota since 1927, applauded the hiring of artists. He wrote Aubrey Williams in 1933 to say that Hopkins and the CWA had “almost immediately shifted public aid from cold business to human helpfulness” and created “an army of workers whose goal must be to better, to make more livable our towns and cities, our schools more cheerful, our playgrounds and our parks a pride and a delight.” As for the artists who were part of that army, Borglum wrote that they were hungry not just for food but with “unexpressed, creative longing” and were “anxious to be a part of the great comeback.”
Most of the white-collar jobs were held by teachers, as they had been under FERA. Around 50,000 of them taught at all levels of the primary and secondary public education system, and in adult education. For others, innovative job creation was employed. Window dressers and clerks were sent to museums to help build displays and put old records in order; statisticians reported to hospitals to track disease patterns; bookbinders went to libraries to repair tattered books; and historians and architects were dispatched to far-flung spots around the country to compile the beginnings of a list of historic American buildings.
Republicans and the anti-Roosevelt press were quick to criticize jobs such as these, but Hopkins had little patience for their views. Of the white-collar jobholders he said with his usual terseness, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.”