A Republican City

Historical Essay

by William Issel and Robert Cherny

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Mayor Rolph shaking hands with Count Felix Von Luckner, 1927.

Photo: OpenSFHistory.org

Conflict over municipal ownership formed one major aspect of city politics throughout the 1920s. Another was the virtual disappearance of political parties and the emergence of several factions organized around key political leaders, most of them Republicans. Throughout the 1920s, Tom Finn and Peter McDonough vied for control of the Republican party of San Francisco. Finn, founder of the Stablemen's Union at the turn of the•century, held several elective and appointive positions under the aegis of the Union Labor party between 1901 and 1909. Untouched by the scandals, Finn's grassroots organizing for the party led to his nomination for sheriff in 1909. Elected with McCarthy that year, he shared McCarthy's fate in 1911 as well but regained the sheriff's office in 1915.Finn threw his organization behind Hiram Johnson and rapidly emerged as a major leader of the Republican party, thought by many to have control over state appointive positions in the city. He kept a reputation for supporting progressives, maintained strong ties to organized labor, and could reputedly deliver the endorsement of the Union Labor party after it became the endorsing arm of the city's unions. Finn had briefly allied with McDonough but broke with him by 1920. Peter and Thomas McDonough inherited their father's saloon and branched out in the bail bond business in 1896. Peter gradually came to dominate the city's vice operations by his ability to protect his underworld clients through his contacts in city hall.(54)

Neither Finn nor McDonough was cast from the mold of a boss like Buckley, although both were called “boss.” Finn came closer, acquiring a reputation as the person to go to for “an appointment or a job or something done,” as “the most powerful vote dictator in the State who made and unmade United States Senators; Congressmen, elevated humble men to high office, smashed the dreams of those who would be mighty.” McDonough, by contrast, looked and behaved like a businessman, protecting his operations, raising funds for political donations from the city's vice interests, and cultivating close contacts with police and politicians. Finn and McDonough locked horns repeatedly in the 1920s, with Finn usually backing candidates from the progressive wing of the Republican party and McDonough supporting conservatives. Finn's power declined a bit after 1927. That year, he delivered endorsements from both the Republican and Union Labor parties to former supervisor James E. Power, running against Rolph for mayor. Rolph accused Finn of bossism and put up a candidate against Finn for sheriff. McDonough reportedly offered ten dollars for every vote against Finn. Both Power and Finn lost, although Finn continued to be a power in the local Republican party until his death in 1938. Not until 1935 did McDonough's political clout wane, and then only after an exhaustive investigation labeled him “a fountainhead of corruption;” and he lost his bail bond license.(55)

In addition to Finn and McDonough, the city counted many other factional leaders, power brokers, and political activists. Timothy A. Reardon, Rolph's choice as president of the Board of Public Works and a member of the Democratic County Committee throughout the 1920s, developed a reputation as the person to contact for support from the Democratic party. Reardon usually backed Rolph to the hilt, and some accused him of heading a Rolph “machine” centered in the Department of Public Works, but the evidence for such accusations is scanty. Other prominent Democrats included Gavin McNab and former Senator James Phelan. The Democratic party, however, suffered growing defections among voters. At the beginning of the decade, it claimed about a third of the city's registered voters, but it held only a fifth by 1930.(56)

The city seemed overwhelmingly Republican in the 1920s, and most would-be politicos belonged to that party or—like Paul Scharrenberg and other leaders of organized labor—moved into that party before the decade's end. The state Republican party divided into progressive and conservative wings throughout the decade, and San Francisco provided much of the leadership of both factions. The conservative faction of the city's Republicans included William H. Crocker, Herbert Fleishhacker, and M. H. de Young. The progressives, led by Hiram Johnson, counted fewer bankers, although A. P. Giannini played an important role in the 1926 Republican primary by supporting progressive C. C. Young against incumbent governor Friend Richardson. Neylan, another key leader of the progressive faction, maintained a private law practice at the same time he served Hearst as publisher of the Morning Call and determined editorial policy for all five Hearst papers on the West Coast. A staunch advocate of municipal ownership of public utilities, Neylan clashed frequently with Hearst over endorsements and politics but generally had his way with editorial policy through the 1920s. In 1923 and again in 1927, Neylan tried to use his power to stiffen Rolph's commitment to municipal ownership.(57)

A Polarized Electorate

During the late teens and through the 1920s, San Francisco voters expressed their preferences on a variety of policy issues—charter amendments, bond issues, initiatives—as well as on candidates, and the results point to a sharply polarized electorate throughout the period. Tables 10 and 11 present representative examples of voting behavior illustrating the nature of the polarity. Table 10 summarizes voting on eight policy issues involving labor, municipal ownership, urban development, and planning. A dozen more policy votes might be added to the list, with patterns of support differing only in degree, not in kind, from these examples. Table 11 summarizes voting for eight candidates, and, again, a dozen or more others might be presented showing similar patterns. Table 12 summarizes census data for the same assembly districts used in Tables 10 and 11, and Map 3locates these districts.

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Table 10

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'Table 11

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Table 12

The first six assembly districts in the tables all lie south of Market Street (although part of 29 extends into the Western Addition), and these six make up a distinct political area. As indicated by the 1914 and 1916 votes (Table 10), these six districts formed the heart of labor's political strength, turning in solid majorities in favor of state laws regulating working conditions, a city ordinance requiring a union label on city printing jobs, and the recall of District Attorney Fickert. The same six districts also formed the core support for municipal ownership. Other parts of the city, at times, also registered high levels of support for particular municipal ownership issues, but the six labor districts stand out in the consistent nature of their support. These assembly districts-unlike other areas-favored municipal owner­ ship even if it meant placing the city into competition with powerful private corporations like Pacific Gas and Electric.

The behavior of these six districts on policy issues carried over into voting for candidates. "Sunny Jim of the Mission" Rolph received majorities in all six districts only once, in 1919, when he was endorsed by erstwhile labor opponents Patrick McCarthy and Andrew Gallagher and when his only serious opponent was former mayor Eugene Schmitz. Tom Finn, by con­ trast, won the sheriff's badge in 1915 by building substantial majorities in these districts, and he increased the size of those majorities in 1919 and 1923, averaging nearly 70 percent in the districts south of Market Street. State and national politics activated similar voting behavior, with the south­ east corner of the city providing Hiram Johnson's base in the city (after the pro-labor legislation of this first term) and support for Robert La Follette both in the 1912 primary and in 1924 and for AI Smith in 1928.(58)

At the opposite pole of San Francisco's politics from the six districts south of Market stood assembly district 31, the exclusive Pacific Heights and Marina area, where 60 percent of the homes fell into the upper ranges of value and rent. The south of Market districts voted two to one against the anti­ picketing ordinance, but district 31 voted three to one in favor; the labor districts voted three to two in favor of a city-owned transmission line for Hetch Hetchy power, but district 31 voted two to one against. In instance after instance, knowing the behavior of one of these two areas allows prediction of the behavior of the other simply by inverting the ratios. Where the south of Market districts favored the presidential candidacy of Hiram Johnson in 1924, by voting three to one or four to one for delegates pledged to him (Tom Finn received the highest number of votes of any of the John­ son delegates), assembly district 31 gave a two-to-one backing to Calvin Coolidge (William H. Crocker received the highest number of votes of any Coolidge delegate). When Charles Fickert ran for reelection in 1919, despite strong suspicion of having suborned perjury and despite revelations of dealings with McDonough's vice interests, district 31 still gave him 60 percent of its vote, compared with only 40 percent of the vote cast citywide.


Map 3: Assembly District Boundaries, 1912-1931

Six other assembly districts usually voted with district 31, although seldom in as high proportions. Five of these six had distinctly middle-class characteristics. Districts 26 and 30, the Western Addition, Eureka Valley, Dolores Heights, and part of Buena Vista Heights, developed in the late nineteenth century as middle-class or upper-middle-class areas, survived the earthquake and fire, and were becoming increasingly inhabited by tenants. Still, many indications of the middle-class nature of the area survived. Residents of German stock outnumbered those of Irish descent in both districts, and more than upper value ranges. Districts 27 and 28, the Sunset and Richmond areas, newer middle-class suburbs, developed for the most part after 1906. Some parts of these two districts developed primarily because of the prior construction of Municipal Railway lines and tunnels. Half of the families there owned their own homes, and nearly half the homes fell into upper ranges in value. Both districts included upper-class enclaves—Forest Hill in district 27 and Sea Cliff in district 28. These four districts usually fell somewhere between the extremes of the labor districts and Pacific Heights in their voting behavior, with the older areas (26 and 30) usually somewhat closer to the patterns of the labor districts, and the new areas (27 and 28) closer to Pacific Heights.

Districts 32 and 33, located downtown, usually behaved similarly on policy issues but showed somewhat greater diversity on candidates. District 32 included Nob Hill and the high-rent apartment district to its north, as well as the many apartment houses north of the Civic Center. Ninety percent of the housing stock was of middle or upper ranges, and 87 percent of the residents were over twenty-one years of age (compared with 75 percent citywide). Many of these apartment dwellers found employment in white­collar occupations in the downtown area. District 33 included the central business district, home to some businessmen and related clericals and professionals, but also included the Tenderloin (heart of McDonough's vice empire), Chinatown, and the Italian areas of North Beach. Nearly one of five residents had been born in Italy, and more than 30 percent were of Asian descent. Most of the housing stock fell into lower value ranges. District 33 behaved politically like district 32, rather than like a working-class district, perhaps because of very low rates of political participation. In 1931, with Angelo Rossi running for mayor, only 15 percent of the adults voted in district 33, compared with 32 percent citywide.(59)

In the factious and personality-oriented politics of the 1920s, as issues of public ownership criss-crossed with struggles to control the local Republican party, a private association called the San Francisco Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) emerged as a major force representing the business community. Describing itself as "an incorporated nonpartisan citizens' agency to study public business, cooperate with officials and specifically work for economy and efficiency in municipal affairs,” the BGR received the lion's share of its financial support from the Chamber of Commerce. The BGR grew out of an effort by the Real Estate Board's Tax Committee in 1916, when that group invited experts from the Bureau of Municipal Research of New York City to survey the structure of San Francisco government. As this survey progressed, a group of San Francisco businessmen incorporated the BGR in October 1916 as a local adjunct to the efforts of the New Yorkers. Thereafter, the BGR became a fixture in local politics, publishing a journal, The City, devoted to municipal issues. The Real Estate Board remained prominent in the leadership of the BGR, with Bruce Cornwall of Coldwell, Cornwall, and Banker serving as chairman of the board of trustees until the mid-1920s. His partner, Colbert Coldwell (a leader of the Chamber of Commerce and of the Industrial Association) was an officer of the group throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Others prominent in the leadership of the BGR included E. Clarence Holmes of Holmes Investment Company, Daniel Koshland of Levi Strauss, and John H. McCallum of McCallum Lumber. William H. Crocker served on the board of trustees through the 1920s and early 1930s, and Herbert Fleishhacker served on the board briefly.(60)

Throughout the 1920s, the BGR, through The City, provided collections of data and analysis on a wide range of city issues, but certain issues stand forth as most prominent. The streetcar and water systems, of course, took a prominent place. In both instances, the BGR favored actions to foster urban development by the construction of new streetcar lines (whether by private or public capital) and creation of an adequate water supply. Demand for salary standardization became a recurring theme: “Development of equitable and impartial salary and wage fixing procedure, centralized for the whole municipal personnel, on a basis that will remove this question from the field of politics and place it on an equitable fact-basis for the whole service.” The BGR linked its concern for low taxes to its criticism of the decentralized and "political" nature of municipal decision making. From time to time, the bureau advocated regional planning efforts and municipal ownership of garbage collection and disposal, presented extensive information on the political and engineering problems involved in construction of a bay bridge, and favored a charter amendment to shift zoning decisions from the supervisors to a commission appointed by the mayor.(61)


54. Harry S. Peters, "The Life Story of Tom Finn," Chronicle, Jan. 9, 1938, p. 16; ibid., Jan . 10, 1938, p. 9; ibid., Jan. 11, 1938, p. 14; ibid., Jan. 12, 1938, p. 14; ibid., Jan. 13, 1938, p. 28; ibid., Jan. 14, 1938, p. 14; Scharrenberg, "Reminiscences; pp. 97-98; Barnes, "'Fountainhead of Corruption’;" pp. 142-153; Chronicle, Aug. 6, 1920, p. 4.
55. Peters, "Life Story of Tom Finn;” Chronicle, Jan. 14, 1938, p. 14; Havenner, "Reminiscences; pp. 67-69; Barnes, "'Fountainhead of Corruption;’" pp. 148, 152; News, March 16, 1937, pp. 1-2, 13A-14, esp. p. 13A; Goldbeck, "Political Career of James Rolph;” pp. 11 5-125.
57. Scharrenberg, "Reminiscences;” pp. 54-55, 83; Lotchin, "John Francis Neylan;” pp. 91-92; Truth, Oct. 28, 1927 (clipping), Bank of America Archives; Dana, A. P Giannini, pp. 144-146.
58. All voting data are from the office of the Registrar of Voters. Linear regression and correlation for pairs of elections indicate very close relationships. Many of the coefficients are more significant than 0.9 (or-0.9), and nearly all are more significant than 0.7 (or-0. 7). Regression coefficients show similar patterns of significance, with the slope often near 1.0.
59. Barnes, "'Fountainhead of Corruption;" p. 148.
60. Devine, "Adoption of the 1932 Charter;” p. 6; Bureau of Municipal Research, New York, Report on a Survey of the Government of the City and County of San Francisco ... (San Francisco, 1916); City 3 (Nov. 1929):99-100; San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, minutes of the board of directors, Sept. 19, 1916, California Historical Society, San Francisco. The directors and officers of the Bureau for Governmental Research are listed in the City.
61. City 3 (Oct. 1923):87-89; ibid. 3 (June 1923):44-45; ibid. 3 (Nov. 1923): 94-95; ibid. 4 (Sept. 1924):110-112; ibid. 7 (March 1927):46-116; ibid. 8 (Oct. 1928):129-130.

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Excerpted from San Francisco 1865-1932, Chapter 8 “Politics During the Reign of Rolph, 1911-1932”

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