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The Ultimate Golden Oldie: A Citizen-Legislature : Politics: In California's formative years, legislators worked part time and weren't paid much. Enter the real law-making powers.

November 04, 1990|Francis M. Carney | Francis M. Carney is a professor of history at UC Riverside, specializing in California.

Since classical antiquity, lovers of republican government have been charmed by the notion of the citizen-politician--especially the citizen- legislator. Propositions 131 and 140, the term-limitation initiatives, promise to return us to those golden political days.

In the United States, there is little doubt that most Americans prefer legislatures that look like themselves. Andrew Jackson probably spoke--and speaks--for Americans when, in his first message to Congress in 1829, he said: "The duties of all public officers are . . . so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify themselves for their performance; and I cannot but believe that more is lost by the long continuance of men in office than is generally to be gained by their experience." Turnover of politicians, he added, "constitutes a leading principle in the republican creed."

So it has largely gone for state legislatures. Some states paid their legislators nothing, picking up their expenses only when the law-makers were in session, typically a few weeks. Staff was minuscule, quarters cramped. Some state legislatures convened a general session every other year, others a "budget-only" session. A man could get rich serving in a state legislature, but not honestly.

From its first session, in 1849, until recently, the California Legislature conformed to this general pattern. In fact, the modern, professionalized state Legislature was born in California in the 1960s, fathered by Jess Unruh of Inglewood. Before 1966, the state was "blessed" by citizen-legislators, even though they seldom lost elections.

That first California Legislature met in San Jose. Miners predominated. There was plenty of confusion and much uncertainty during sessions. Legislating was hard work, and the men frequently adjourned during the day to a saloon across the road. The session is immortalized in California history books as "The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks."

Actually, the legislators got quite a bit accomplished. They chose a governor and decided on Sacramento as the state's permanent capital. The presence of several veterans of state politics "back east" probably helped to facilitate the session's productivity. The slavery controversy was also raging in the country and it gave a structure to the politics of even far-off California.

Somehow, Californians back in those Gold Rush days were not charmed by the quality of their citizen-Legislature. John Caughey, the foremost historian of the Gold Rush, reports that one San Francisco newspaperman characterized the Legislature, in 1851, as an "infamous, ignorant, drunken, rowdy, perjured and traitorous body of men." At that, the citizen-legislators were probably not a lot different from a random sample of their male constituents.

Two or three decades later, manners in Sacramento improved. But the moral tone was, if anything, worse. In the aftermath of the Civil War and in the age of the Robber Barons, the Republican Party overshadowed its Democratic counterpart well into the 20th Century. But that really didn't matter between 1879 and 1910, when there existed an "invisible third party in California--the Southern Pacific Company."

The railroad didn't completely control all government in the state. But it was the dominant political force. It was easy.

Even then, California was a state of incredibly diverse politics, blessed or cursed with a multiplicity of interest groups and weak, poorly led political parties. Southern Pacific's technique was to dominate the Republican Party's nominating conventions and buy itself enough legislators of both parties to enable it to broker most coalitions. On any issue touching its interests, the railroad was invincible. The legislators were part-time politicians, with only nominal salaries, little or no staff, no powerful party to back them up and manage their campaigns.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, the situation had become scandalous. Abraham Ruef, the subtly corrupt and intelligent Republican "boss" of San Francisco, was in the railroad's pocket. Writes Kevin Starr: "(In 1907), Abe Ruef, his coat pockets bristling with sheaves of legislation he wanted passed, took to the floor of the Senate and the Assembly, although he was not an elected member of either body, sitting here and there next to a legislator for a moment of kibbitzing and quiet smiles."

A photograph of Ruef taken at the Republican convention at Santa Cruz in 1906 showed him lolling familiarly with the entire Republican hierarchy, including the party's candidate for governor, whose nomination Ruef had just brokered. The photo created a sensation. It was soon dubbed "The Shame of California," and it popped up on billboards all over the state. It was a powerful stimulus to reformers seeking to break the power of "The Octopus"--Southern Pacific--over California's government.

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