This post is a continuation of the story of Luella Johnston, Sacramento (and California’s) first elected councilwoman. I strongly recommend starting with Part I, where I discussed Luella’s civic and political activism in Sacramento, culminating in her successful 1912 campaign for a seat on the Sacramento City Council. In Part II, I discuss her first year on the City Council.
Tacoma Times (1912)
Rallying behind Luella’s candidacy, Sacramento’s women helped sweep local Progressives to victory in the 1912 city elections. It was a landmark year for Sacramento’s reformers, who had finally succeeded in kicking out the political machine that had long dominated city politics. Now came the challenge of governing.
The New Government: One of Business & Efficiency
Official City Seal (1912)
1912 was unlike any prior year for another reason: The five freshman councilmembers would be the first to serve under the new city charter. Prior to 1912, Sacramento had a traditional “Strong Mayor” form of government with a part-time, nine-member City Council and a full-time elected mayor acting as the city’s chief executive officer. Under the new charter, the office of the mayor had been eliminated and the City Council – renamed the City Commission – was reduced to a five-member, full-time board. Under this “Commission” form of government, the Commission as a whole continued as the city’s legislative body but, instead of a unified executive, each councilmember – renamed a commissioner – was also individually assigned supervisory powers over a different city department.
The Commission Form was the cutting edge of early twentieth century municipal reform. The drafters of the new charter had promised it would bring about a more “efficient and business like administration.” Popularized in Gavelston, Texas, and refined in Des Moines, Iowa, Commissions were thought to promote better management, as commissioners had every incentive to specialize in their assigned policy areas, and better accountability, as the voters could more easily identify and defeat any commissioner whose departments were found lacking.
Sacramento’s charter had five commissioner positions. They were:
- Commissioner of Public Works
- Commissioner of Streets
- Commissioner of Public Health and Safety
- Commissioner of Finance
- Commissioner of Education
While the voters elected the five commissioners, the commissioners decided for themselves their departmental assignments.
Commission Minutes (1912)
By unanimous vote of her colleagues, Luella was appointed Commissioner of Education. While Luella’s election broke gender boundaries, the education assignment was a (disappointingly) safe choice in line with the era’s social norms. Luella had, however, campaigned for the assignment and, given her background as a teacher and her prior successes around curriculum reform, it was certainly a good fit.
It was also a deceptively powerful post, responsible for a good portion of the city’s budget. Under the charter, the Commissioner of Education had supervision “of all school buildings, property and grounds, and of the construction, maintenance, and repair thereof.” The former Board of Education had also been merged with the new Commission; by virtue of her assignment, Luella also served as Board president whenever the Commission reconvened as that body to decide school matters.
The scope of the Education Commissioner’s duties extended, though, even beyond the schoolhouse doors. The Commissioner supervised all parks and playgrounds; the municipal employment office; all libraries, art galleries, theaters and places of amusement; humane and reformatory boards; and “all matters affecting the intellectual and moral advancement of the city, other than police and sanitary regulations.”
As local historians Elaine Connolly and Dian Self observed, the Education Commissioner’s assignments “sounded like the script [Luella] wrote for the Tuesday Club in 1900.”
The Commission’s First Year: Sacramento Awakened
Commission Chambers (c. 1917)
Under complete Progressive control, the Commission’s first year was a whirlwind of activity as reform-minded Commissioners proposed large infrastructure investments to bring the city into the modern era and set about undoing prior municipal give-aways to the city’s public service corporations.
Luella had pledged that flood control would be her top priority; true to her word, one of the Commission’s first acts was to propose to voters a bond (which passed) to raise city levies and construct the Sacramento bypass at Bryte Bend. Other improvements followed, including extending water mains and sewer lines to the annexed neighborhoods; building of a Hall of Justice including a hospital, court, and jail; purchasing an asphalt-mixing machine to pave the streets; securing land downtown for new state buildings that promised to bring hundreds of jobs Sacramento; and creating a municipally-owned electrical distribution system to light city streets and parks through a combination of construction and eminent domain. The later proposal stoked the ire of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), the city’s private electricity provider, which furiously fought the associated bond.
Like the street light bond, many ordinances the Commission passed took direct aim at the city’s powerful public services corporations. For decades the city’s largest corporations, like PG&E and the Southern Pacific Railroad, had backed and bribed local party bosses and city officials and reaped generous city contracts and franchises, or even a municipal blind eye to their activities, in return. No more. In just one year, half-century streetcar franchises granted by the prior City Council were rescinded as too long; gas rates and telephone deposits were ordered cut; maximum rates for water, electricity, gas, phone, and other private utilities were set or planned; and a new “rental” tax was imposed on all the services corporations that used city streets and alleys to run their pipes, wires, or streetcars — supposedly the first such tax in the state.
The Commission seemed well on its way to delivering on its strident promise of a modern government where the municipality called the shots and not the corporations. “It is evident that the progressive spirit of The People has been awakened,” said Luella, “and that henceforth Sacramento is to take its place among the wide-awake and enterprising cities of the country.”
“A Very Successful Administration”
Sacramento Bee (1913)
Luella was busy with her executive duties as Education Commissioner, too. In fact, probably busier than any other commissioner.
The city charter had been written so that, each year, a different commissioner would be up for re-election. To accomplish this, the inaugural 1912 commissioners were elected to either one-, two-, three-, or four-year short terms or a five-year full term, with higher vote-getters receiving longer terms. Luella had received the fewest votes of the five winners and so would face the voters first: with the clock ticking, she knew “I shall just have to work that much harder to crowd into my present one year term all the improvements of which I am capable.”
The city’s 24 schools, her main charge, seemed to do well under her watch. Attendance increased and teachers received an across-the-board pay raise. Although costs were up as a consequence, and state and county appropriations had decreased over the previous year, Luella’s department still came in under budget. Open bidding requirements for supplies and services, in particular, had cut costs and reduced opportunities for graft and cronyism.
She responded competently to a major crisis in office. When a fire burned down the Capital School, displacing dozens of students and overcrowding nearby schools, Luella ordered the construction of seven portables so classes could quickly resume until a new site was found.
She also celebrated a number of successes. She cleared out the crony hires at the city cemetery, a notorious landing site for supporters of the old political bosses. With a donation from Weinstock, Lubin & Co., she opened the city’s second playground at South Side Park – thousands of kids attended. Library membership grew by several thousands and 11,000 new volumes were added to shelves. Finally, she scored a personal and professional victory when the Southern Pacific agreed to enroll its “shop boys” in night school, demonstrating the value of her longtime vision for integrating vocational training into the curriculum.
Luella took seriously her charter-mandated duty to advance city morals and squelch vice as well. She fought to curtail illegal gambling, prostitution, and saloons that the prior council had ignored and, of her own initiative, went after “spooning” by youths in the park. Not all of her efforts have aged well. When fighting broke out at a local play over “near-nasty musical numbers,” she threatened to create a Board of Theatrical Censors to “pass upon the moral nature of the shows.”
But, judging her record on the whole, it seems hard to disagree with the Bee’s assessment that Luella had run “a very successful administration.”
A Woman’s Place
Bee Cartoon, lampooning some men’s fear of equal suffrage (1911)
In the lead up to the 1911 election on women’s suffrage, opponents argued that allowing women to vote would destroy society because, next, they would be moving out of the home and demanding greater social, professional, and political responsibilities. Thankfully they were right about that later part. Only a year after gaining the vote, Luella ran for and won a seat on the City Commission. A year out, she had proven that women could participate and excel in what had been the very male worlds of politics and governance.
Decades later, in 1948, Luella was asked to reflect on Belle Cooledge’s election to the Sacramento City Council and historic appointment as Mayor — the first woman mayor of a major American city. In an era where most women were housewives, Luella stuck to her defiantly egalitarian views. “Man or woman has nothing to do with the case,” said Luella, age 88.
You have to do with women what you do with men – balance up their capabilities then judge. … If that type of woman[, i.e. one of Cooledge’s caliber,] is willing to assume the added responsibility of mayor, in my judgment, she is fitted for it.
In thinking about the sexism Luella had to overcome to win a seat and be successful at City Hall in 1912, it is hard to ignore recent headlines documenting the sexism and harassment women still confront in the State Capitol, just a few blocks and a hundred-plus years away. It is also hard to ignore that women remain underrepresented at all levels of elected government, including Sacramento’s nine-member City Council which, once more, has only one councilwoman. We still have far to go.
Even so, I think Luella would be proud of the women leaders following her that have continued to tear down those barriers and insist that people be judged based on their capabilities and not their gender.
Stay tuned for my third and final post on Luella, where I discuss her hard-fought re-election campaign and later years.
In putting together this account of Luella’s time in office and 1910s Sacramento I drew heavily on, and am indebted to, the following sources:
- Historical Sacramento Union and Sacramento Call articles at the California Digital Newspaper Collection
- Historical Sacramento Bee articles on microfiche and from collections at the Central Library
- A copy of the 1911 City Charter in the Sacramento Room
- Tuesday Club archives at the Center for Sacramento History
- Sacramento County Historical Society’s Golden Notes publications
- Elaine Connolly and Dian Self, Capital Women (1995)
- William Burg, Sacramento’s K Street: Where Our City Was Born (2012)
- Steven M. Avella, Sacramento: Indomitable City (2003)
- Russell MacKenzie Fehr’s unpublished study of Sacramento’s Commission Form of Government (2007)