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From the Outside Looking In


By Alexa Llewellyn



March 25, 2003

The Art of Taking Direction Well

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts.

-- Aung San Suu Kyi


We are the city's fathers... How much money is in it for us?

-- Supervisor Charles Boxton in 1905 (became mayor of SF in 1907)

Abe Ruef started his career in politics as a reformer.

He ended his career with four years and seven months in San Quentin.

It was arrogance that destroyed his career.

According to Walton Bean's book, Boss Ruef's San Francisco (University of California Press, 1952), when Ruef went to his first political meeting (at a saloon near the wharves), he found only one person in attendance. The lone attendee assured him that he had just missed a huge meeting of 150 delegates, who had voted to make two outstanding individuals (one being the witness left to speak with Ruef) officers of the wharf district's Republican Committee. With all of the details given to Ruef by this "witness," Ruef created a sensational story and dropped it off at the city's various newspapers. As it turned out, the meeting was attended by only the two new officers -- but Ruef had begun his career in politics.

Ruef found his calling there. With a vision of running for office, he joined every group that he could get membership papers for -- neighborhood associations, community improvement districts, ethnic groups, and unions. If there was a crowd, there was Ruef. After trying unsuccessfully to take over the local Republican Party, Ruef saw his chance for political power with the newly formed Union Labor Party. In 1901, there was a waterfront strike in San Francisco where the police were sent in against the teamsters. Then as now, Democrats held the power in San Francisco, but Mayor James D. Phelan's use of the police to break up the strike lost the Democrats their key supporters -- the workers. Angry at the Democrats, the Union Labor Party asked each union to nominate a member to run for supervisor in November 1901. The Musicians' Union nominated their president, Eugene Schmidt. As luck would have it, Schmidt was a client of Ruef's. Thinking that this was fate, Ruef convinced Schmidt to run for mayor.

History books tells us that Schmidt was neither the brightest man nor the most ambitious man in the city. But he dressed well, campaigned well, spoke well, and more important to Ruef, took direction well. Ruef paid most of the campaign costs and called on the assistance of his clients who were saloonkeepers. Schmidt became mayor, and three more Union Labor Party members won the position of supervisor. Added wins in the 1905 elections allowed the Union Labor Party to have a majority on the Board of Supervisors.

It was an open secret that Ruef was the power behind the mayor. Legislation did not get passed without Ruef's approval. And Ruef found that his law business was booming. Anyone who wanted to get business done in the city had to go to him first -- and pay healthy legal fees for legal services never rendered. At first, Ruef discreetly shared his bounty as a way of getting all of the supervisors to vote his way. But quickly they began to anticipate votes "that had interest" in the same way that a housecat anticipates his/her next meal.

Each Sunday, the supervisors, the mayor, and Ruef would get together for a "caucus." Upcoming issues were discussed. Cued beforehand by Ruef, the mayor would state that he was in favor of one vote or another. At the caucus, speeches were divvied up and lines were rehearsed. Of course, money was never discussed -- but it was not far from anyone's mind. The supervisors quickly fell into line. They also took direction well.

Sometimes, a supervisor needed to be on record as having some initial objections to the legislation -- to help keep the voters happy. The ever-thoughtful Ruef would help him create a statement of his original position before he switched and voted the party line.

Just an aside -- While I don't long for those corrupt days, wouldn't it be wonderful if someone would say, "Just read this brief page, Supervisor. The audience only needs to hear your stance once and in a succinct fashion in order to get the flavor of your opposition."

Retainers of $30,000 to $125,000 were routinely doled out to 14 of the 15 supervisors. One honest but obviously not very bright supervisor voted the party line with nary a bribe. He never figured out that his peers were on the take.

Ruef could also get very creative with "interest" votes. One company, Home Telephone, supplied Ruef with a retainer of $125,000 to lobby for the franchise to San Francisco. A competing company, Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph, paid him a monthly retainer of $1,200 but also paid retainers directly to the supervisors for their votes. In the end, Ruef used the money from Pacific States to get the supervisors to vote for its competitor, Home Telephone, who had smartly given its "retainer" only to Ruef.

If you wanted to be appointed to a commission, you went to Ruef. If you wanted a liquor license, you went to Ruef. If you wanted a franchise agreement, you went to Ruef. In his memoirs, Ruef reported that he once used shirt boxes to pick up his "legal fees."

So what brought Ruef down? Simple arrogance.

During the beginning part of the last century, for example, French restaurants in San Francisco provided a unique service. The first floor was open to families in an open dining room setting. The second floor contained private dining rooms with fine décor and higher-priced meals. Here, men could go to talk about the concerns of the day. And they might bring an attractive female companion to brighten the meal. On the upper floors, there were "private supper bedrooms" where a guest could enjoy more than just a meal with a companion of his choice.

This titillating option became great fodder for headlines (then as now, sex sold lot of papers), and there was a public outcry to deny these restaurants liquor licenses. But while liquor licenses were useful for increasing business on the first floor, they were critical for attracting customers to the private rooms.

Being clever businessmen, the restaurateurs hired Abe Ruef to represent their interests. When, despite the adverse publicity, their licenses were suddenly forthcoming, the public received a clear signal that their attorney was on the take.

Ruef also did himself in with a naked attempt at revenge. One of his critics was the district attorney, who was running for governor of California at the time. Ruef decided to oust him from the office of District Attorney for being on the road campaigning. With his opponent temporarily out of the way, Ruef then tried to take the job of district attorney for himself. Even in jaded and corrupt San Francisco, this raw grab for power raised eyebrows.

I was reminded of Ruef and his story when I heard the news of the most recent nomination for the Port Commission. I also was reminded of Ruef and his story when I heard the news of the most recent changes in the senior staff at the Police Department and the actions of the Police Commission. Again, the antics of Abe Ruef came to mind when the Airport Commission's refused to file a suit against a contractor who has allegedly been committing fraud against the City.

It appears that it is still easy to find people who take direction well.