Abe Ruef started his career in politics as a reformer.
He ended his career with four years and seven months in
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
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