San Francisco is a city with a long history of kingmakers. In this year’s mayor’s race, billionaire venture capitalist Ron Conway has backed Sup. London Breed while slinging YouTube mud at Jane Kim, all from the luxury of his $25 million Marin estate. But there was a time when you had to get your hands dirty if you wanted to swing an election in this town. Back in the waning days of the Barbary Coast, Abe Ruef was the man who got his hands dirty.
Ruef’s mastery of backroom dealings earned this smalltime attorney the unofficial title of party boss. As the architect behind the upstart Union Labor Party’s victory in the 1901 mayor’s race, Ruef wrested political power in San Francisco from corporate interests and handed it to the working class. While even President Teddy Roosevelt feared that Union Labor could become a threat to the American two-party system, this fledgling movement was undermined by Ruef’s own penny ante-corruption. Ruef’s grasp of power survived the 1906 Earthquake, but it all came down hard in the French restaurant shakedown scandal later that same year.
Abraham Ruef was born in San Francisco to French-Jewish parents on Sept. 2, 1864. Unlike political bosses of other big cities, who were barely better educated than the voters they corralled, Ruef graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and earned his law degree from Hastings. As a young man, Ruef and some other idealistic students formed the Municipal Reform League to study party bosses with the goal of purging them from power. The league disbanded after other members returned to their Ivy League schools, leaving an ambitious Ruef in San Francisco, still drawn to politics but not reforming them.
“Whatever ideals I once had were relegated to the background,” he wrote in his memoirs.
In the 1880s, Ruef rose through the ranks of the Republican Party by writing rousing accounts of party meetings that never happened and getting them published in friendly newspapers. By the 1890s, he became a tireless speaker at political meetings that actually occurred, and he was able to win over hostile crowds.
“Throw all the rest of those eggs at one time, so that we can get down to business,” Ruef taunted, standing on a stage splattered with “uncooked omelets” at one rowdy meeting. After a barrage of yolks hit the stage, Ruef finished his speech to applause.
However, even with Ruef’s smarts and talents, he could only rise so far in a Republican Party dominated by the Southern Pacific Railroad and its longtime cronies. To realize his growing ambitions, Ruef would have to find a new party. The aftermath of the bloody Teamsters and waterfront strike that paralyzed San Francisco from July through October 1901 provided Ruef with the career opportunity he needed.
When reform-minded Democratic Mayor James Phelan sent the police in to bust up the strikers, he lost his party the support of union voters. In advance of that year’s mayoral race, several factions of San Francisco’s organized labor moved to form the Union Labor Party to seize political power directly instead of just lobbying or bribing for it.
Ruef stepped into this vacuum of a party with no history or organization, and quickly started running it despite his bourgeois background. Ruef recruited union bandleader and violinist Eugene “Handsome Gene” Schmitz as a mayoral candidate who could charm a crowd, but also be controlled. Schmitz was hesitant to run, calling the idea “preposterous” the first time he and Ruef discussed it. After flattering Schmitz by telling him how “tall and well-built” he was, Ruef said, “The psychology of the mass of voters is like that of a crowd of small boys or primitive men.”
“Of two candidates, they will almost invariably follow the strong, finely built man,” Ruef added.
After consulting with a psychic a few days later, Schmitz was in. The seer who predicted Schmitz would “hold a high and mighty position in his native city” turned out to be right. On Nov. 5, 1901, the bandleader and political novice won a three-way race against candidates from an obviously crooked GOP and a Democratic Party that angered its base.
“I regard my election as a just and overwhelming rebuke to bossism,” Schmitz said on election night after the newspapers had called the race for him. This all sounded good, but Ruef, a man who once burned to be the Republican Party’s top boss, was planning Schmitz’s incoming Union Labor Party administration from his regular table at the Pup, a French restaurant on Stockton Street near Market.
French restaurants in early-1900s San Francisco didn’t necessarily serve French food. They were early examples of mixed-use facilities with affordable family dining on the first floor and brothels upstairs. While respectable types didn’t venture beyond the ground floor, these establishments were a popular tourist attraction in those days before Pier 39.
Wine was the one thing that made the French restaurants French in the public imagination no matter what kind of slumgullion they actually served. In 1904, the Schmitz administration held up renewal of those crucial licenses until the proprietors of Marchand’s, Delmonico’s, the New Poodle Dog, and the Bay State forked over thousands in retainer fees to Ruef so he could make sure this wouldn’t happen again.
Ruef later said he split the take with Schmitz. Schmitz denied this, although his brother Herbert did become one-quarter owner of an out-and-out brothel close to Civic Center called the Municipal Crib. This Michael Cohen-type enterprise seemed like a small bit of business compared to how the Southern Pacific Railroad bought out the entire Republican Party and half the Democrats, but it was just the kind of tawdry affair that a jury could understand.
In the mayor’s race of 1905, the Democrats and Republicans combined their ticket to deprive Schmitz of eking out another victory in what newspapers at the time referred to as a “three-cornered race.” Instead, Schmitz trounced fusion candidate John S. Partridge, a young city attorney who Ruef described as “devoid of external magnetism.”
The fusion strategy was such an utter failure that the Union Labor Party succeeded far beyond Ruef’s predictions and swept every seat on the Board of Supervisors. Unfortunately, Ruef had packed Union Labor’s slate of candidates with knuckleheads he did not expect to win. The city ended up with supervisors he described as “so greedy for plunder, they’d eat the paint off a house.” Ruef had to spend enormous energies keeping these supes in line with quiet payouts designed to avoid detection.
The first shock of the Great San Francisco Earthquake hit at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906. Holes in the ground swallowed entire buildings. Fires engulfed the rubble and burned through much of the city. “The mayor dashed to the emergency with forethought and executive skill,” the Chronicle effused. Newspapers across the country printed gripping accounts of Schmitz leading efforts to quell the fires before they ravaged the wood-framed homes of the Western Addition and Richmond District.
With the catastrophe bringing his protégé to national prominence, Ruef thought the time was finally right to put Schmitz in the Governor’s Mansion while taking a U.S. Senate seat for himself. Schmitz’s “America’s Mayor” moment was even shorter-lived than Rudy Giuliani’s, however. The indictments in the French restaurant case came down by the end of the year.
With the city still in ruins, Schmitz was tried in a synagogue and convicted of extortion and removed from the mayor’s office on June 7, 1906. Schmitz beat his conviction on appeal, and was later elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1921, where he served until 1925. Ruef was sentenced to 14 years in San Quentin. He was the only individual to serve time in the scandal. After his release, Ruef ran a small real estate office on the fourth floor of 916 Kearny St. until he died on Feb. 29, 1936.
Ruef and Schmitz were brought down by a special prosecutor appointed by a U.S. President and funded by the sugar-fortune-heir publisher of the San Francisco Call — a consortium more troubling than the petty larcenies going on in San Francisco at the time. Although Ruef and Schmitz never truly represented the needs of organized labor more than they looked after their own best interests, there was always the chance that someone who actually believed in this stuff could gain control of the Union Labor Party. And for that, it all had to come down so San Francisco would remain safe for the Ron Conways of today.
This is one of three stories that make up our May 17 feature. Check out: