Born into a wealthy family in 1854, Tom L. Johnson did not originally have political intentions or aspirations. Instead, he started off as an inventor and street railway magnate with holdings in companies in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Missouri, Brooklyn, New York, and Cleveland.
In the 1880s, Johnson became involved in politics after being influenced by the progressive ideas of Henry George. He became an advocate of free trade and the single land tax. These values were often seen as a contradiction to the ideas and practices that made Johnson rich in the past. Some opponent claimed that his past thus made his new-found ideals and claims hard to trust. Even so, Johnson was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1890 and won the mayoral race in Cleveland in 1901.
As mayor of Cleveland, Johnson represented the ideals of the Progressive movement, seeking to use government to counter the strength of big businesses and bring relief to those struggling to make ends meet. He fought against monopolies by supporting the municipal ownership of public utilities. He also fought against the city's streetcar companies in a long struggle to lower the fare to 3 cents. He supported efforts to aid Cleveland's poor residents by building public bathhouses, expanding the city's park system (as well as removing all "keep off the grass" signs), and improving public services. Under his leadership, the Group Plan Commission was formed and developed an ambitious plan to reshape the city.
Tom Johnson was re-elected for three terms. His defeat in 1909 ended what some historians have regarded as one of the greatest mayoralties in American history. In many ways, Johnson revitalized Cleveland and made the city into a lively, popular American city as concerned for the well-being of its citizens as it was for its industry. Four years after his death, an immortalized bronze likeness took his seat on Public Square in 1915.