Big personalities have long dominated San Francisco’s politics, and the biggest personality is known as the political boss — the one who holds the throne from which the town is run through the operation of a well-greased political machine.
The decades-old dangerous power-and-money game has had a different cast of characters from time to time, but no shortage of scandals that have brought down some of the highest-ranking city officials. And these scandals have received no shortage of coverage in The San Francisco Examiner’s 150-year history to hold the culpable accountable.
One of the biggest scandals in San Francisco history, which began to unfold in 1906, revealed rampant corruption in the political system, from the mayor to the Board of Supervisors, the police chief and some judges.
At the center of the scandal was political boss Abe Ruef. Ruef orchestrated a takeover of the City Hall machine by ensuring the puppet-like Eugene Schmitz, a political neophyte, was elected mayor. Soon Ruef was ordering giveaways of public assets to powerful corporations in exchange for loyalty and bribes — all while San Francisco was trying to resurrect itself from the devastating earthquake and fires of 1906.
William Randolph Hearst, who ran The Examiner at the time, engaged his battles with the Schmitz administration before any corruption charges came down. One notable battle was the paper’s condemnation of a fast-tracked deal to allow United Railroads to install trolley cars on public roads.
“United RailRoads would try to loot the stricken city!” a May 15, 1906 Examiner headline read.
A subsequent editorial advocated for underground conduits and said with some prescience that the deal “smacks and smells of bribery and of a ghoulish effort to steal from the city in her time of need.”
The Examiner was the only major media outlet to oppose the deal.
After the approval, the paper published a cartoon of Ruef depicted as a grinning spider with a web of trolley wires above the destroyed city. And an editorial seemed to still have hope for Schmitz, calling on him to “cut loose from Abe Ruef and the corporations that make merchandise of the city’s misery.”
The political machine operating on bribes and extortion soon imploded, and key players were indicted. A headline in a Dec. 5, 1906 Examiner article about the indictment read: “Abe Ruef Gives Orders and Supervisors Obey.”
Nine supervisors were summoned by the grand jury to “tell the story of Abe Ruef’s overpowering influence over the body which controls city and county affairs, gives valuable franchises away to rich corporations and sways, bends and bows this way and that just as the curly boss directs with his hand,” the article read. It went on to say the grand jury wanted to hear from supervisors “just how Abe Ruef exercises his wonderful mesmeric power and just how far he takes the Board of Supervisors when he places them under this hypnotic spell.”
When Ruef ended up doing time in San Quentin State Prison, he sought an early release — a prospect Hearst’s paper condemned in a scathing April 4, 1912 editorial titled, “It’s difficult to keep rich rogues in prison.”
“It’s easier for camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of prison and it seems harder still to keep him there,” the editorial began. It scoffed at Ruef’s contention that he wanted to devote his life to helping ex-convicts. “He has never yet devoted himself to anything except getting money by criminal methods.”
Ruef is often depicted as a youthful idealist who then finds himself awash in the corruption of San Francisco’s political world and becomes swept away by it, succumbing to flattery and other forms of persuasion.
“The people were apathetic; and so I drifted with the machine,” Ruef wrote in April 6, 1912 in a competing local paper called the Bulletin. He described the “influences which controlled and corrupted” and about the money of big corporations that was “the power behind every political throne.”
In a Nov. 18, 1906 full-page article titled, “The Fall of Mayor Schmitz,” The Examiner offered a cautionary tale to all public servants:
“But unfortunately Mayor Schmitz, when he became important to corporations, was tempted by them. An honest, clean man in every relation of life until he achieved political success, he seemed to waver when the corporation corrupters approached him.”
The article also said that “blandishments of rich men and corporation corruptionists turned his head completely and he surrendered altogether to evil influences.”