Comic Book Ban Update!

Comic Ban 2.pngA few weeks ago, I published a post on old and odd Sacramento laws that, decades later, are still technically on the books. One of the most surprising was a 1949 ban — never repealed — on selling crime-fighting comic books to minors.

Well, last Tuesday Councilmember Hansen asked the Law and Legislation Committee to review this provision of the Municipal Code for potential clean-up, which bodes well for young comic book lovers across our city.

The story was picked up in a great little piece by CBS 13 News, and features your own humble editor — check it out here!

 

Happy 4th of July!

We hope you are having a wonderful time surrounded by family and friends.

We know many of our friends around Sacramento may not be feeling especially patriotic these days, but we choose to celebrate anyway, because as our 18th President (That’s a West Wing reference, you’re welcome.) reminded us:

TRSacramento“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”
― Theodore Roosevelt (Did you know he gave a speech in Sacramento? The Mayor he refers to in the speech was George H. Clark.)

Or as Mark Twain put it:

“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”

Most important, enjoy your celebrations safely:

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Showdown at the Shops: The 1894 Pullman Strike

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Guest Post by William Burg

On July 4, 1894, two companies of Sacramento militia, bayonets at the ready, faced three thousand strikers at the Southern Pacific passenger depot on Second and H Street, main entrance to the Southern Pacific Shops. The soldiers, all Sacramento residents, stared down their rifles at neighbors, friends, family and coworkers. Their orders were to retake the Shops from the American Railway Union (ARU) strikers, by force if necessary. A third company of Sacramento militia had refused orders and remained at the armory. The strikers, unarmed, had only their bodies to stop the militiamen. “You wouldn’t put that steel through me, would you, Bill?” said one striker to his brother in uniform. “Go ahead, Jack; jab your bayonet through me, and make your sister a widow,” said another. “Go ahead boys, and run us through, we might as well die here as to starve.”

California_National_Guardsmen in Capitol Park

California National Guardsmen in Capitol Park

The Sacramento militia commander, Brigadier General Timothy Sheehan, considered the situation. Behind him were San Francisco guardsmen, exhausted after an overnight trip to Sacramento, poorly fed, and entirely unused to Sacramento’s scorching summer heat. In front of his soldiers were strikers unwilling to yield. And on July 4, any random firecracker could be misinterpreted as a gunshot, setting off a bloodbath. Upon his arrival at the Shops, he saw that the strikers included women and children, even babies, and an atmosphere that seemed more like a picnic than a strike, until his soldiers arrived with fixed bayonets. Sheehan asked strikers to disperse. Major Harris Weinstock, partner in the Weinstock & Lubin department store and Sheehan’s executive officer, repeated the command. The strikers answered in chorus, “You can never enter here unless you do so over our dead bodies.”

The nerve of the militia broke first. Some unloaded their weapons, or even handed their rifles to the strikers. Another company from Stockton retreated to nearby shade, accepting an offer by ARU strikers of iced lemonade (the entire unit was later dishonorably discharged and imprisoned.) Sheehan reported the situation to his superior officer, who turned command over to U.S. Marshal Barry Baldwin. Baldwin dispatched the Sacramento companies to guard the bridges over the Sacramento and American rivers, and climbed atop a locomotive cab, hoping to persuade the strikers with force of oratory where arms had failed, to no avail. The Shops workers cheered as the soldiers returned to the armory at Sixth and M Street, but their victory was short-lived.

Strikers jeer US Marshall Barry Baldwin

Strikers jeer US Marshall Barry Baldwin

The struggle at the Shops began on June 28, 1894, spurred by events half a continent away, at the company-owned town of Pullman, Illinois, home of the Pullman Palace Car Company. Pullman’s patented “sleeper” passenger cars were synonymous with long-distance train travel and used on nearly every railroad. An 1893 depression brought on by railroad bankruptcies and resulting bank failures meant a dramatic drop in Pullman car sales. Pullman cut their employees’ wages by 30%. These wage cuts outraged workers. The company also refused to lower rent in their company-owned housing, and the cuts came just as stockholders received an 8% dividend. Pullman employees, members of the ARU, voted to strike and walked out on May 11, 1894.

On June 27, the strike was still unresolved, and ARU president Eugene V. Debs called on all members belonging to railroads west of Chicago to stop any train with Pullman-owned cars—in other words, nearly every passenger train. The ARU was a new union, founded in 1893 and not officially recognized by the railroads. Some railroad workers, including engineers, firemen and brakemen, already had their own unions, but many, including boilermakers, blacksmiths, and car builders, did not. The ARU was open to all railroad employees, attracting thousands of workers in cities like Pullman and Sacramento, who built or serviced railroad equipment but lacked union representation. In August 1893, the fledgling ARU forced the Great Northern Railway to roll back wage cuts, its first and only victory. The Pullman strike was the second major effort by the new union to exercise its strength, with dramatic results that stopped trains across half the continent.

In 1894, Sacramento was almost as much a company town as Pullman: Southern Pacific employed about one-third of the city’s workforce. SP traditionally had excellent labor relations, but the railroad was far less popular with the general public and the press, who objected to SP’s high rates and monopoly on California traffic. Sacramento Shops employees were not allowed to join existing railroad unions, so ARU membership became very appealing to local workers who sought the benefits that union membership brought their fellow railroad workers. The ARU’s success against Great Northern strengthened that appeal. By the 1890s, California was already one of the most urbanized and industrialized states in the country; only one-fifth of the state population was rural, and new immigration promoted enormous industrial growth in California’s cities, including Sacramento. Even the state’s agricultural resources were organized around industrial production rather than small family farms, using migrant labor on massive corporate farms called “factories in the field” by labor writer Carey McWilliams. The “Panic of 1893” and resulting depression meant many of these workers were unemployed or underpaid.

In April of 1894, only a few weeks before the Pullman strike, “Coxey’s Army,” sometimes called the Industrial Army or the Army of the Unemployed, had passed through Sacramento from the Bay Area on its way to Washington DC, intended as a national protest against economic inequality and unemployment. This group was still marching towards Washington when the Pullman strike started, but California business and government leaders were already alarmed by growing protest and labor unrest throughout the country.

Railroaders across the western United States joined in the boycott. The strike paralyzed railroad traffic across California, including Los Angeles and Oakland, but Sacramento was the hub of the California railroad network and had the largest representation of ARU members. About 2100 of the Shops’ 2500 workers joined the strike, part of an estimated 125,000 strikers nationwide, and hundreds of nearby ARU members came to Sacramento to join the strike. Its timing in deep summer, peak fruit packing season, meant that cars full of fresh fruit rotted on freight platforms and in stopped trains.

Strikers gained a propaganda coup when Jane Lathrop Stanford, widow of former Southern Pacific president Leland Stanford, was stranded in her private railroad car in northern California and wished to return home to San Francisco. She met with the strikers in Dunsmuir and received direct permission from Eugene V. Debs to run her train through Sacramento to her home. Crews decorated the train as a giant pro-strike banner, replacing “SP” (Southern Pacific) on the side of her car with “ARU” spelled out in flowers. Public opinion was swayed, more by antipathy to the railroad than support for the strikers.

Debs and the ARU offered to reopen traffic to non-Pullman trains, but Southern Pacific president Collis P. Huntington refused, and deliberately attached Pullman cars to every train. Huntington saw the chance to eliminate the union by breaking the strike, while compromise would further legitimize the ARU. SP vice-president Henry Huntington (Collis’ nephew) urged other railroad leaders to stand firm: “This is the first strike we have ever had here and as we are making history, [I] think we ought not to take a step backward and make such concession that we will hereafter regret them.”

Another method used by the railroad to avoid compromise was federal leverage. Since many trains included Railway Post Office cars, the strike interfered with the federal mail system. After convincing a U.S. District Court that it was impossible to operate any trains without Pullman cars, Collis Huntington asked for federal help to break the strike, on the grounds that interfering with mail delivery was a federal offense.

In Sacramento, this support came in the form of U.S. Marshal Barry Baldwin, who asked Governor H.H. Markham (marooned in Los Angeles by the strike) to call up the state militia. Troops quickly retook the railroads in Los Angeles, but Sacramento was a more daunting task. On July 3, Baldwin and his marshals tried breaking the strike with a group of deputies, assembling a train in the Southern Pacific yards intended to run through the blockade. Just as the train was assembled, strike leaders gave a pre-arranged signal and strikers rushed the train, disassembling it in a few minutes and thwarting Baldwin’s efforts. Railroad superintendents Wright and Heintzelman were physically removed by strikers when they attempted to start the locomotive. Baldwin tried to break through the crowd and draw his revolver, but was disarmed by strikers. After losing his sidearm, Baldwin gave up and left the depot in strikers’ hands.

Militia marching past Sixth and L Street

Militia marching passed Sixth and L Streets

Strike leaders disavowed violence, but behind the scenes strikers attacked scabs and skirmished with railroad supporters and police. In addition to the guns taken on July 4, strikers took arms from the Bersaglieri Guard, a local Italian militia organization with a small armory. Some thought that the Pullman strike might become the first wave of an armed revolution of Populists and union laborers against the federal government and private industry. Public support for the strike waned as these fears mounted. On July 7, the leaders of the ARU in Chicago were arrested, leaving the strike leaderless as federal forces gathered strength. President Grover Cleveland authorized regular Army troops to relieve the state militias, like the Sacramento soldiers who failed to fire on their friends and family when ordered to do so. More disciplined professional soldiers would have no such qualms.

On July 11, 800 U.S. Army troops arrived in Sacramento via the steamboat Alameda. Colonel Graham of the San Francisco Presidio led two troops of cavalry, five batteries of light artillery, six companies of marines, and one company of regular infantry. Marching up Front Street from the Y Street levee, gunfire was exchanged between strikers and militia, about fifty shots, but without significant casualties.

Soldiers bivouacked at SP Shops

Soldiers bivouacked at SP Shops

Upon arriving at the depot, the soldiers discovered the ARU had abandoned the Shops the previous night, so they secured the Shops and set up defensive positions. The strikers knew that federal troops would be harder to convince than local militia, and abandoned the Shops on the night of the 10th. The first train west left Sacramento for Oakland later that day, under heavy guard, but was derailed two miles before reaching Davis. Saboteurs had removed spikes and fishplates from the rails, causing a wreck that killed the train’s engineer and three soldiers. On the 13th, troops guarding a train were attacked by gunfire. The soldiers’ return fire killed one striker and wounded another. Popular opinion turned against the strikers in the wake of the sabotage, and by July 18, the Southern Pacific Railroad was back in operation and the Shops reopened. The next day, Debs telegraphed the strikers to open negotiations with the railroad, and the strike formally ended on July 22.

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Sabotaged train following Shops strike

During a month of occupation by federal troops, seven people were killed by sabotage or incidents attributed to vengeful soldiers. After the strike, Southern Pacific quietly fired ARU members and blackballed them from future employment. While the strike’s failure was a serious blow for organized labor, only steady nerves, the bonds of community, and perhaps luck prevented a bloody massacre at the entrance to the Southern Pacific Shops.

In the strike’s aftermath, Eugene V. Debs was sent to prison, despite an impassioned defense by Clarence Darrow, a former railroad lawyer who became a labor lawyer after his defense of Debs. Debs ran for President as a socialist, including one campaign run from his prison cell, and founded a new organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, in 1905. Henry Huntington, Collis’ nephew, moved to Los Angeles after the Southern Pacific board of directors did not make him the new board president following Collis Huntington’s death. Major Harris Weinstock was deeply affected by the events of the strike, and wrote a study on labor relations for the State of California, urging employers to negotiate with workers, improve worker conditions, and recognize their right to unionize. In reaction to the failure of local militias to retake the shops, California’s militia system was professionalized into the reorganized California National Guard, including a new Guard armory at Twelfth and X Street. The new Guard and armories were a direct response to labor unrest of this era, including the Pullman strike.

In The Incorporation of America, historian Alan Trachtenberg described the Pullman strike as the victory of corporate power over organized labor, a watershed moment in American labor. Sacramento’s Southern Pacific Shops became the West Coast’s greatest battlefield during that pivotal event in history.

Odd Sacramento Laws

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In ancient Rome, it was illegal to wear purple. Needless to say, that would not be a popular law in Sacramento Kings country. Times change, people change, and we expect the law to keep up.

And it usually does, except when it doesn’t. When you’re a city that’s more than a century old like Sacramento, a few oddities are bound to be lingering through inattention in the mustier pages of the city code.

So, out of curiosity, I decided to go spelunking to see just what I could find. Sacramento’s Municipal Code (SMC) did not disappoint. Here are the three most interesting artifacts I uncovered…

Comics Generally: No Laughing Matter

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Pictured: Not a violation of SMC 9.12.010 … yet.

Kerpow! Bang! Zing! Many young boys and girls love reading superhero comics. Judging by box office receipts, the exploits of Marvel and DC’s caped crusaders are fairly mainstream American entertainment these days. I mean, who doesn’t like catching up on the latest of Spider-Man’s amazing adventures, or Wonder Woman’s derring-do, or Black Panther’s virtuous acrobatics?

Well… the City of Sacramento, apparently.

According to Sacramento Municipal Code (SMC) Section 9.12.010,

“It is unlawful for any person to distribute … for use by persons under the age of eighteen (18) years any … comic book … which depicts… the crimes of arson, assault with caustic chemicals, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, kidnapping, torture, mayhem, murder, rape, robbery, theft or voluntary manslaughter.”

That’s right, in Sacramento it is illegal to sell (or even give) a minor any superhero crime-fighting comic book. So if Batman and Superman, in the comic pictured above, were to leave the basketball court for one second to stop a bank heist … verboten! The law was enacted in 1949 to, of course, protect “children of tender years.”

Interestingly, Sacramento was ahead of the curve on this moral panic: by the 1950s, concerns that comics were corrupting the youth would lead to bans across the country and ultimately prompted the industry to self-regulate by adopting the Orwellian Comics Code, which censored the storytelling of the next several generations of comic writers and illustrators.

So, next time you’re stopping by Oblivion Coffee & Comics or Big Brother Comics, just know that you have entered a wretched hive of scum and villainy that should probably have bouncers at the entrance.

Misplaced Expectations on Expectorating

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Pictured: Gaston, upon reading SMC 9.04.040, probably.

Speaking of cartoons. Those of us who grew up in the 1990s, or raised children growing up in the 1990s, will remember Gaston, the cleft-chin villain of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast who is 90% pectoral muscles.

Girls: For there’s no one as burly and brawny…

Gaston: As you see I’ve got biceps to spare…

Lefou: Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny…

Gaston: That’s right! And ev’ry last inch of me’s covered with hair!

Do you remember, though, his distinguishing talent that earned the admiration of the village ladies? He boasts, “I’m especially good at expectorating — Ptooey!” To which the crowd cheers, “Ten points for Gaston!”

Now, you may be thinking, expecto-what? Expectorating is a fancy way of saying “to spit.” And it’s illegal. So illegal.

That’s right. While Gaston’s ability to launch his saliva to great distances earned him the admiration of his peers in his “poor provincial town,” in Sacramento it would earn him a citation.

Specifically, SMC 9.04.040 provides that:

“No person shall expectorate … on any sidewalk in the city.”

This law, by the way, is ancient in city terms. I trace it at least as far back as 1896 in the city codes. (Necessary aside: demonstrating that Looney Tunes was really a PSA, another ordinance from that time, since repealed, prohibited throwing banana peels on the sidewalk!)

Spitting is of course unsightly, and might even be considered rude, but it seems pretty Victorian to prohibit what comes naturally to baseball players and 15 year-old boys. Obviously, Sacramento would not actually enforce this law.

Except that the City does! To my great surprise, from 2014 to 2016, the city issued five citations for expectorating. So, mind your Ps and Qs out there, and tell Gaston he’s probably better off staying in France.

Skee Ball: The Silent Killer

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Pictured: Pure, Unregulated Chaos without SMC 5.48.010.

You may be thinking at this point that old-timey Sacramento, when most of these laws were passed, did not want people to have any fun. You are correct.

Okay, okay, so Sacramento isn’t quite the town that banned dancing in Footloose, but we do require a lot of special licensing for recreational activities that don’t seem to pose any special health or safety risk. For example, does your business have a coin-operated pool table? That’s a ($700!) license (SMC 5.20.010). How about four or more arcade video games? You better believe that’s a license (SMC 5.12.010).

Some of these decades-old licensing statutes are delightfully hyper-specific. For example, did you know that it is illegal in Sacramento, per SMC 5.16.010, to practice, without a license, “the business or art of astrology, palmistry, phrenology, fortune-telling, cartomancy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, crystal gazing, mediumship, prophecy, augury, seership, or necromancy”? So remember kids, when you want to pay someone to help you talk to the dead, make sure you insist upon a city-licensed necromancer. Because quality matters.

But my favorite license required by the City of Sacramento is for the privilege of operating a skee ball machine (and other “mechanical amusement devices”). Skee ball is the popular arcade game where you roll balls along a curved ramp and try and get them to land in rings assigned with different point values. You know the one.

What tickles me is not so much that you need a license to have a skee ball machine, which is admittedly pretty odd in itself, but the strict regulations that licensed skee ball machines must conform to. Behold. Under SMC 5.48.010, it is illegal, in Sacramento, for any skee ball machine:

  • to give “the player, for actual play, only one ball;”
  • to charge more than “twenty-five cents” per game; and, the kicker,
  • to reward high-scoring players with “coupons or tickets.”

To review: one-ball skee ball? Illegal. Charging 50 cents for skee ball? Still illegal. Giving kids tickets for scoring 200+ points that they can turn in for erasers? Oh, most definitely illegal.

The Chuck E. Cheese animatronic rat is probably sweating right about now.

The skee ball law dates back to 1954; why it was needed, I’m not sure. But I choose to believe that a councilmember at the time visited a licensed crystal ball-gazer, who foretold of a dark future involving a dystopian children’s restaurant that enthralled the youth with ticket-spewing machines and singing giant animal cyborgs, and he said “not in my city, not on my watch.” (But, he failed, there’s a Chuck E. Cheese’s on Arden Way.)

The Lessons of Time

So, what to take away from all this? Well, first and foremost, don’t open that Old Sac Comics & Skee-Ball Fancy Arcade you’ve been dreaming of, the one with the period-appropriate sidewalk spittoons. Just a bad idea.

Second, City leaders might consider revising three sections of the Municipal Code…

But, third, we should all begin to think of policy obsolescence as a natural process and consider how to manage it. Sacramento is not unique in having some dated laws in its code. It could have been far worse. Just a few years ago, progressive-minded Oakland discovered that it still had a 131-year ban on cross-dressing on the city books.

The truth is that any city that’s more than a generation old is at risk of finding archaic, unhelpful, and/or deeply embarrassing laws in place. But even older laws that are not obviously out of step with the times deserve periodic revisiting, if only to ensure they are working.

One way to do this is to build studies and sunset dates into newly-enacted laws. This builds in a period of calm reflection, after whatever excitement caused the law to be enacted has passed. But, this approach is probably too administratively burdensome to put in place for every law; moreover, policy obsolescence often takes a generation or more, generally beyond any reasonable sunset date.

A more promising approach might be to mimic the state. California has a permanent Law Revision Commission whose mission is to review state statutes “for the purpose of discovering defects and anachronisms in the law and recommending needed reforms” to the Legislature. A local commission could take a deep dive into the SMC without the City Council itself having to devote inordinate time to the task. The city code is also much shorter than the state’s statute books, so a local commission might meet for just one out of every ten years. Some other California cities, like Roseville, have similar decennial commissions to study and suggest clean-ups to their city charter.

And just think, if we did set up a commission, it is entirely conceivable that kids could buy comic books in Sacramento by 2030!

 

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Skee ball image credit: Scott S

Luella honored!

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Last month, I urged the City Council to rename the historic council chambers in the Old City Hall after Luella Johnston, the first woman elected to the Sacramento City Council (and, for that matter, the first woman to be elected to the city council of any major city in the United States).

This past Tuesday, the City Council did just that!

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The current Co-President of the League of Women Voters of Sacramento County and the past President of the Tuesday Club accepted the Resolution on Luella Johnston’s behalf.

The Resolution, authored by Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, recognizes Luella’s unique contributions to our city and unique place in women’s history. Amazingly, up until this Tuesday, there had never been any significant memorial honoring Luella in Sacramento.

March, appropriately, is National Women’s History Month. “Men and women have worked together to build this nation,” acknowledged the first Presidential Proclamation to establish this tradition, even though “too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.

Luella’s contributions, forgotten for more than a century, certainly fall into that category. Renaming the Old Council Chambers, in which she served, is a fitting way to right this oversight and to honor a rich history of women’s leadership in our city.

Thank you to Councilmember Ashby and the City Council for this beautiful gesture.

America’s First Councilwomen (Sacramento was First)

Luella Cover

I recently finished a series of posts on Luella Johnston, who in 1912 became the first woman elected to city council not only in Sacramento, but also in all of California. It seemed probable that she was also the first woman elected to the city council of any major U.S. city, but because there’s no list of first councilwomen this was difficult to confirm.

However, after researching for longer than I care to admit, and with the generous help from city clerks, librarians, and historical societies from across the nation, I am now ready to say with confidence that Luella… *drumroll* …WAS the first councilwoman of a major American city.

Luella Headshot circa 1912 - from Sac Union 1948 article

And pretty comfortably so. The median major city didn’t elect its first councilwoman until 1956, several generations later. The last city to do so was Newark in 1994, when voters elected Mildred Crump. Luella’s closest contender for the title of first was the fascinating Estelle Lawton Lindsey, whom Angelenos elected in 1915 and have been (falsely!) claiming as the first major city councilwoman ever since.

Since it was difficult to find the first councilwoman for each major city, I’ve decided to host the list here as a public service. Each councilwoman was identified as being first in either a secondary source (like a newspaper) or by a city official or librarian. However, I don’t doubt that some names were missed or that some dates are wrong. So please send any corrections my way to SacMentality@gmail.com and I will update the list!

A quick note on methodology. First, I only counted women elected in their own right to office, as opposed to appointed to fill a vacancy (but I did note the early appointees I came across). Second, I defined “major city” as the top 100 cities by population as of the 1910 census, which immediately preceded Luella’s 1912 election. Now, lest I receive complaints, technically at 45,000 residents Sacramento fell just short of being in the top 100 cities in 1910. However, in 1911, the City annexed three neighborhoods (Oak Park, East Sacramento, and Highland Park) adding around 20,000 residents to its population, placing it comfortably in the top 100 by Luella’s 1912 election.

 

The First Elected Councilwoman of Every Major U.S. City

# City State 1910 Pop. Year Name Notes
1 New York NY 4,766,883 1937 Genevieve B. Earle
2 Chicago IL 2,185,283 1971  Anna Langford
3 Philadelphia PA 1,549,008 1951 Constance Dallas
4 St. Louis MO 687,029 1943 Clara Hempelmann
5 Boston MA 670,585 1939 Mildred Harris
6 Cleveland OH 560,663 1985 Meta D. Thomas
7 Baltimore MD 558,485 1943 Ella Bailey
8 Pittsburgh PA 533,905 1956 Irma D’Ascenzo
9 Detroit MI 465,766 1950 Mary Beck
10 Buffalo NY 423,715 1972 Virginia Purdy
11 San Francisco CA 416,912 1921 Margaret Morgan
12 Milwaukee WI 373,857 1956 Vel Phillips
13 Cincinnati OH 363,591 1921 Dr. Bertha Lietze
14 Newark NJ 347,469 1994 Mildred Crump
15 New Orleans LA 339,075 1986 Peggy Wilson
16 Washington DC 331,069 1975 Polly Shackleton, Nadine Winter, and Willie Hardy
17 Los Angeles CA 319,198 1915 Estelle Lindsey
18 Minneapolis MN 301,408 1961 Elsa Johnson
19 Jersey City NJ 267,779 1973 Lois Shaw
20 Kansas City MO 248,381 1963 Billie Hagan
21 Seattle WA 237,194 1922 Bertha Landes and Kathryn Miracle
22 Indianapolis IN 233,650 1934 Nannette Dowd
23 Providence RI 224,326 1975 Carolyn Brassil
24 Louisville KY 223,928 1929 Hattie E. Hoffman
25 Rochester NY 218,149 1973 Midge Costanza
26 Saint Paul MN 214,744 1956 Elizabeth De Courcy
27 Denver CO 213,381 1975 Cathy Reynolds and Cathy Donohue Elisa Dasmascio Pallidino was appointed in 1935, but was never elected.
28 Portland OR 207,214 1943 Dorothy McCullough Lee
29 Columbus OH 181,511 1923 Olga Anna Jones
30 Toledo OH 168,497 1963 Jane M. Kuebbeler Lucy Dittman was appointed in 1933, but was never elected.
31 Atlanta GA 154,839 1973 Panke Bradley
32 Oakland CA 150,174 1931 Wilhelmine Yoakum
33 Worcester MA 145,986 1936 Anna Kane
34 Syracuse NY 137,249 1924 Elizabeth Collins Appointed in 1923 then elected in 1924.
Melanie Kreuzer was elected in 1949.
35 New Haven CT 133,605 1927 Josepha Whitney
36 Birmingham AL 132,685 1963 Nina Miglionico
37 Memphis TN 131,105 1967 Gwen Awsumb
38 Scranton PA 129,867 1973 Grace O’Malley Schimelfenig
39 Richmond VA 127,628 1954 Eleanor P. Sheppard
40 Paterson NJ 125,600 1969 Rita Avalo May Guggenheim was appointed in 1943, but was never elected.
41 Omaha NE 124,096 1965 Betty Abbott
42 Fall River MA 119,295 1949 Margaret Stinziano
43 Dayton OH 116,577 1975 Pat Roach Gail Levin was appointed in 1973.
44 Grand Rapids MI 112,571 1961 Evangeline Lamberts
45 Nashville TN 110,364 1953 Gertrude Bartlett
46 Lowell MA 106,294 1963 Ellen Anastos Sampson
47 Cambridge MA 104,839 1925 Florence (Lee) Whitman
48 Spokane WA 104,402 1969 Margaret Leonard
49 Bridgeport CT 102,054 1935 Sadie Griffin
50 Albany NY 100,253 1943 Barbara Schenck
51 Hartford CT 98,915 1947 Lucy Williams
52 Trenton NJ 96,815 1976 Jennye Stubblefield Olivia Leggett was appointed in 1974.
53 New Bedford MA 96,652 1969 Rosalind Poll Brooker
54 San Antonio TX 96,614 1948 Emma Long
55 Reading PA 96,071 1976 Karen Miller
56 Camden NJ 94,538 1940 Maud Crawford
57 Salt Lake City UT 92,777 1979 Ione M. Davis representing District 6, Sydney R. Fonnesbeck representing District 3, and Alice Shearer representing District 4
58 Dallas TX 92,104 1957 Calvert Collins
59 Lynn MA 89,336 1938 Alice B Harrington
60 Springfield MA 88,926 1923 Emma Brigham
61 Wilmington DE 87,411 1925 Sybil Ward
62 Des Moines IA 86,368 1983 Marie C. Wilson
63 Lawrence MA 85,892 1985 Councilor at large Marguerite P. Kane and District F Councilor Pamela Neilon
64 Tacoma WA 83,743 1952 Clara Goering
65 Kansas City KS 82,331 1989 Carol Marinovich
66 Yonkers NY 79,803 1939 Edith Weldy
67 Youngstown OH 79,066 1987 Darlene K. Rogers Elizabeth Hughley was appointed to the Council in 1987 just before Darlene Rogers was elected.
68 Houston TX 78,800 1980 Eleanor Tinsley
69 Duluth MN 78,466 1956 Lucile Roemer
70 St. Joseph MO 77,403 1974 Joyce Winston
71 Somerville MA 77,236 1925 Edith B. Davidson
72 Troy NY 76,813 1943 Agnes Powers Mary Kennedy was appointed in 1918, but never elected.
73 Utica NY 74,419 1928 Lena Goldbas
74 Elizabeth NJ 73,409 1956 Mary D. Gillen
75 Fort Worth TX 73,312 1952 Clarice Spurlock
76 Waterbury CT 73,141 1953 Catherine DeLeon
77 Schenectady NY 72,826 1976 Karen Johnson
78 Hoboken NJ 70,324 1953 Loretta Haack
79 Manchester NH 70,063 1985 Catherine Schneiderat (Ward 2), Ann Bourque (Ward 3), and Leona Dykstra (Ward 6)
80 Evansville IN 69,647 1947 Irma Lynch
81 Akron OH 69,067 1937 Virginia Etheredge
82 Norfolk VA 67,452 1974 Elizabeth Howell
83 Wilkes-Barre PA 67,105 1957 Ethel Price
84 Peoria IL 66,950 1953 Myrna Harms
85 Erie PA 66,525 1981 Joyce A. Savocchio
86 Savannah GA 65,064 1923 Sarah Berrien Casey Morgan
87 Sacramento CA ~65,000 1912 Luella Johnston
88 Oklahoma City OK 64,205 1967 Patience Latting
89 Harrisburg PA 64,186 1969 Miriam Menaker
90 Fort Wayne IN 63,933 1921 Catherine Dinklage
91 Charleston SC 58,833 1923 Clelia Peronneau McGowan
92 Portland ME 58,571 1923 Florence Stevens
93 East St. Louis IL 58,547 1985 Lois Calvert Appointed in 1982, elected 1985.
94 Terre Haute IN 58,157 1925 Daisy Valentine
95 Holyoke MA 57,730 1926 Elizabeth Towne
96 Jacksonville FL 57,699 1967  Sallye Brooks Mathis and Mary Littlejohn Singleton
97 Brockton MA 56,878 1971 Anna Buckley
98 Bayonne NJ 55,545 1986 Dorothy Harrington
99 Johnstown PA 55,482 1973 Rita Clark
100 Passaic NJ 54,773 1972 Margie Semler
101 South Bend IN 53,684 1963 Janet Allen

Last updated: May 2018

Suggested Citation: Nicolas Heidorn, America’s First Councilwomen, Sacramentality.com (Mar. 18, 2018) (Updated May 2018).

California’s First Councilwoman – Part III

Luella Cover

This post is a continuation of the story of Luella Johnston, Sacramento (and California’s) first elected councilwoman. In Part I, 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 discussed her time on the City Council, then called the City Commission. In this third and final part, I discuss her re-election campaign and later years.

Luella Headshot circa 1912 - from Sac Union 1948 article

Luella Johnston Campaign Headshot (circa 1912)

Luella Johnston should have been riding high entering into the 1913 campaign season. On the power of the women’s vote in the 1912 election, the anti-corporate Progressives had won every seat of the five-member City Commission governing Sacramento. As part of that wave of reform, Luella was voted into office – the first woman elected to municipal office in California’s history.

In just one year, the reformers had also delivered on much of their agenda. Cronyism seemed to have been reined in. The mighty railcar and utility companies were subjected to greater regulation and rate controls, reducing costs for everyday Sacramentans. And the Commission had proposed and the voters passed several major infrastructure modernization projects, including a levee protection bond that Luella had championed as a candidate.

As the first of her peers to face re-election, Luella was the standard-bearer of the revolution. Luella, proclaimed the Sacramento Bee, “represents the reform and progressive movement which has done so much for the municipality.”

And yet. Despite these successes, Luella’s campaign must have launched with a sense of foreboding.

Sexism would pose an even greater threat in re-election. In 1912 she had won the last of five open seats on the Commission. In 1913, hers was the only seat at issue. “At an election where only one is to be elected,” fretted one of her female supporters, “all the chances favor the election of a man.”

She had also made enemies of some very powerful interests. Early in her 1912 term, she was warned that “if you continue your present course we will see that you stand no chance of re-election.” Nevertheless, she persisted.

That looming threat became very real when the old Political Machine put forth its challenger.

The Machine Strikes Back: Enter E. J. Carraghar

Carraghar - Cartoon - Sac Bee May 1 1913

Cartoon of Carraghar, Sacramento Bee (1913)

Edward J. Carraghar was, only one year prior, perhaps the most powerful man in Sacramento. A councilmember until the new charter went into effect in 1912, he was widely seen as the power behind Mayor Beard’s throne in the old City Hall. Under his rule the Southern Pacific, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the city’s public service corporations generally received favorable treatment; they bolstered his reign in return. Carraghar was local Progressives’ bête noire: the “champion,” editorialized the Bee, “of the Machine, the public-service corporations, and the reactionary elements generally.”

If Carraghar won, it would be, the Bee warned, “the opening wedge for the government of this city again by the old crowd. It would herald the beginning of the return to the old condition of Machine and corporation rule.”

Carraghar’s challenge was also personal. In 1912, Luella had terminated his tenure in elective office by narrowly besting him for the last seat on the Commission.

1913 was the rematch. 1913 was the counter-revolution.

The 1913 Campaign: Nasty, Brutish, & Short

1913 Campaign VS

Sacramento Union (1913)

Luella came out of the gate with several important endorsements. The Municipal Voters League, the city’s leading Progressive organization, voted overwhelmingly to support her candidacy. The Bee, too, was amongst her most vocal supporters. Luella, the paper wrote, had been “on the right side and for The People, as against corporate selfishness, graft and improper discrimination.” Finally, the Woman’s Council, that powerful coalition of women’s organizations that Luella had founded almost a decade ago, also pledged its full support: “the women of Sacramento,” declared the Council, “as citizens, voters and taxpayers have a legal and moral right to a representative of their own sex in the city government.”

With her indefatigable style, Luella re-constituted a Women’s Precinct Organization to lead her campaign. She campaigned hard not only on her Progressive bona fides, but also her accomplishments as Commissioner of Education, where she had closed a budget shortfall, addressed student overcrowding, and inaugurated several new children’s parks. It must have been quite the sight, at that time, to see a woman campaigning on her executive and legislative experience. At one campaign stump speech in Oak Park, where Luella had recently inaugurated a new, modern playground, women of the neighborhood reportedly showered her with “three minutes of bouquets of roses.”

But Carraghar was nothing if not a shrewd and battle-tested campaigner. He punched back, hard, hitting Luella wherever she was strongest. “Every trick that political ingenuity can conceive is being used against Mrs. Johnston,” criticized the Bee. “No appeal to prejudice is too base, no lie too brazen, to be rejected in an effort by the old Machine to confuse voters.”

If the Bee was exaggerating, it could only have been by a hair. Time and again the Carraghar camp peddled bald falsehoods to the electorate. For example:

  • As a Commissioner, Luella was a consistent vote to regulate the public service corporations whereas Carraghar, as Councilmember, had cut deals favorable to the Southern Pacific and other corporations. In spite of these contrasting histories, his campaign surrogates praised Carraghar as the anti-corporate candidate.
  • Luella was an ardent anti-saloon campaigner. Her first political fight was winning a moratorium on new saloons in residential areas. In stark contrast, Carraghar was, himself, a tavern owner. Yet, Carraghar allies implausibly insisted that the “liquor interests” were supporting Luella.
  • And the harshest blow of all: Luella was a suffragette, endorsed by the Woman’s Council, and the first woman elected to city office in Sacramento. To counteract this base of support, his camp orchestrated a “Woman’s E. J. Carraghar Club,” which attacked the legitimacy of Luella’s Woman’s Council’s endorsement and warned other women not to be seen as “voting for a woman because she is a woman.”

If the city’s corporations and old power brokers had underestimated the Progressive challenge in 1912, they were not set to repeat that mistake in 1913. According to contemporary accounts, whereas Luella’s was a volunteer-powered campaign, Carraghar’s was backed by “great sums of money,” widely assumed to come from the coffers of the public service corporations.

Unfortunately, Luella herself made a few blunders that her opponent was quick to seize upon. At one point, according to a pro-Carraghar publication, Luella took “an army of small boys away from their studies to distribute anti-Carraghar literature, during school hours.” She also failed to appoint a prominent parks advocate, Mrs. J. Miller, to the parks board, causing a nasty rift within her base in the women’s clubs.

When the Election Day finally arrived, it was a rout: Luella was soundly defeated in every precinct except for the annexed residential neighborhoods.

She took the defeat well, reportedly with a smile on her face as she shook the hands of hundreds of supporters. “When I leave this position,” she said, “it will be with the thought that I have given my best efforts to the city in the limited term of office that I served.”

Three months after Luella’s term officially expired, her former colleagues voted to make her the city’s Truant Officer, responsible for boosting school attendance. Outnumbered for now, Commissioner Carraghar cast a solitary, spiteful protest vote against his former opponent “on the ground that a man should fill the position.”

Progressives still controlled four of the Commission’s five seats, but the 1913 campaign was a dark omen for reformers. The old Machine had proven it was not yet vanquished; it was fighting back.

A Ghost Arises: The 1914 Campaign

Sac Bee - 1914 - Cartoon

Sacramento Bee (1914)

As the city campaign draws to a close, there is heard on the air a sound suspiciously like the rustle of grave clothes. Those bosses whom the people thought had been laid to rest for their long sleep, breaking the bonds that held them, in spectral shape again appear among the living.

Sacramento Union (1914)

Reformers and boss revanchists were set to collide again in 1914, but with even higher stakes. Due to an early resignation on the Commission, two seats instead of one were up for election. Progressive control of the Commission, won a scant two years earlier, was now in jeopardy.

Carraghar pounced. “Give me a man – no, give me two,” he told a meeting of businessmen, “that I may once more get in the saddle and work in your interests.” He was not subtle. “The men who once dictated the politics of Sacramento,” warned the Union, “that unwholesome crew of bosses, are trying to patch up the Machine.”

Emboldened by Luella’s defeat the year before, Sacramento’s business interests could not have been more eager to help.

Long used to a pliant city government, Sacramento’s corporate titans chafed under Commission rule. Dr. E. M. Wilder, the staunchly anti-corporate Commissioner of Public Works up for re-election that year, had emerged as their chief antagonist. He had ordered the Southern Pacific to tear out an unlawfully-constructed rail line, strong-armed the railroad into improving the city’s levees, and cleared the SP out of its prime staging area at the wharfs. He had used his commissionership to undermine Pacific Gas & Electric’s electrical distribution and streetcar monopolies while openly campaigning for full municipal ownership of both. He was the anti-Carraghar.

Completing the good government ticket was O.H. Miller, a prominent developer, who ran for the open Commission seat pledging himself to Wilder’s platform.

Carraghar and his allies put forward their own “Machine” ticket: Thomas Coulter, a hop grower and realty dealer, and Dr. Frederick E. Shaw, a civically-active physician. While never publicly admitted, Coulter and Shaw were generally seen as supported, per the Bee, by the full “power, influence, and money of the Southern Pacific, the Pacific Gas and Electric and other selfish public-service corporations.”

What is beyond dispute is that someone spent heavily to defeat Wilder-Miller, even more than was spent to defeat Luella. “Never before was known such lavish scattering of coin in a Sacramento election,” wrote the Sacramento Bee. Thousands of placards, hundreds of canvassers, and even a few brass bands were trumpeting the Machine candidates. The Sacramento Union estimated at one point that thousands had been spent on the 1914 campaign. (In contrast, Luella only spent $10 on her 1912 campaign.)

When the dust of the election settled, the Machine had once again triumphed. Commissioner Wilder took the loss less gamely than Luella: “It was announced two years ago by the leaders of the old gang in this city that they would get me when my time came and they have indeed done so.” Sacramento’s Progressive revolution was over.

One of the new Commission majority’s first acts: firing Luella Johnston.

Within a few years’ time many of the Commission’s 1912-13 Progressive reforms were undercut or undone. The civil service commission was defunded; health and safety ordinances, including the city’s liquor laws, went unenforced; and regulation of the city’s public service corporations, and chiefly the Southern Pacific and Pacific Gas & Electric, were once again relaxed. By the end of the 1910s, writes local historian William Burg, City Hall had descended “to even worse corruption than under Mayor Beard.”

The Commission model, which had started with such promise, was scrapped by voters in 1921 and replaced with the latest trend in municipal governance: the City Manager form of government we have today.

Later Years

Johnston - Womens Council 1955 - age 94

Luella, in her 90s, from Woman’s Council: Silhouette of Service (1955)

Luella quickly bounced back from the Machine’s retribution. Months later, a rare sister-in-politics, Sacramento County’s elected Superintendent of Schools Carolyn Webb, appointed Luella Deputy Superintendent. The assignment was short-lived. Less than a year later, in 1915, Luella would resign in protest over the county pressuring her to take a pay cut to free up funds to hire an additional employee.

In her mid-fifties now, Luella finally seemed content to return to private life. Her name fades from the historical record at this point. From the social notes pages of local newspapers, we know she remained active with both the Tuesday Club and the Woman’s Council, but not leading grand initiatives like she did in earlier years.

Johnston at 92 - Bee - 6-20-1953

Luella working on her book – Sacramento Bee (1953)

Luella’s passion for public service and education never left her, however. In her twilight years she devoted herself to writing a book to help new immigrants learn English. Tentatively entitled American Folklore, she hoped it would spark a love of reading, particularly for newspapers and magazines. “The most vital thing for any newcomer to this land,” she explained, at age 92, “is to introduce him to the newspapers at the earliest possible moment. Particularly, so he can read about the food that he eats and the clothing he wears.”

She passed away in 1958, age 97, her book unfinished.

Johnston Obit - Bee - 3-12-1953

Sacramento Bee Obituary (1958)

Legacy

Johnston Signature

Luella’s Signature (1901)

Luella Johnston played a central role in the social, cultural, and political development of early twentieth century Sacramento. It’s almost overwhelming to describe. She led to prominence the Tuesday Club, which would endure as Sacramento’s premier women’s social club for almost a century. She founded the Woman’s Council, which for decades gave women a seat at the table in making and passing municipal public policy. She was an early education reformer whose successes from the 1900s and 1910s, wrote the Sacramento Union in 1948, still remained decades later “as monuments to the efforts of one frail woman who probably never weighed 100 pounds in her life.” She was integral to the rise of the City’s Progressive moment, which, although short-lived, produced infrastructure improvements (like the Yolo Bypass) and policies (like municipal ownership of electrical distribution, which decades later would evolve into SMUD) that live with us today. She was a crusader for women’s rights in a hostile era and earned the laurel of being the first woman elected to municipal office in California. (And, quite possibly, of any major city in the United States.)

Her accomplishments seem to be too many for a single life.

Sadly, as far as I am aware, there are no memorials to Luella in Sacramento. Neither Johnston Park, Community Center, Pool, nor Road refer to Luella Johnston, but rather to Carl Johnston – an unrelated, early North Sacramento developer. The most I have found honoring her is a small (and sadly inaccurate – her 1913 election was the first in which California women could vote) plaque at her gravesite in the Old City Cemetery.

Plaque - Johnston

Old Cemetery Plaque

I can’t help but feel that is a serious oversight. It’s important to honor the city heroes who helped make Sacramento what it is today, lest they be forgotten, like Luella. It’s also important to correct omissions regarding women’s accomplishments, which are sometimes overlooked or minimized in history books.

Imagine for a moment if the Old City Council chambers where she used to serve, today nameless, were re-christened the Luella Johnston Council Chambers. In the march for gender equality, so relevant in the news today, I think it would be a beautiful reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

***

Abridged Bibliography

In putting together this account of early 1910s Sacramento political history, Luella’s last campaign, and her later years, I drew heavily on, and am indebted to, the following sources:

 

Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

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With the close of 2017, we here at Sacramentality have our first full year in the books! We published 22 posts in our inaugural year, covering everything from trees to sports to parking to the Simpsons. I’ve picked out a few of my favorites below to celebrate our first year and whet your appetite for 2018.

But first, thank you to all of our readers for joining us in indulging in a little local pride, public policy, and history. We hope you enjoyed reading these posts as much as we enjoyed writing them.

Now, without further ado, here are a few of Sacramentality’s greatest hits of 2017!

Most Popular

Ruhstaller Ad

In terms of unique views, Sacramentality’s most popular post of the year – by far – was Devin’s post on Big Beer vs. Sacramento’s Microbrews, aptly titled Whazzuuuup with Budweiser’s Attack on Sacramento Brewing? Delicious local beers! A David vs. Goliath story! Graphs! Truly, what’s not to like?

The post pairs nicely with New Helvetia’s (916) Pale Ale.

Biggest Scoop

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Our first post, on the City’s AirBNB ordinance, was our biggest scoop of the year. We were the first to break the story that fewer than 5% of AirBNB hosts had registered with the City— at a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenues per year.

The City took one of our suggestions – that AirBNB should be forced to automatically collect the tax instead of putting the onus on mom-and-pop hosts to self-report – but sadly ignored another – that these revenues should be set aside to help with the housing crisis.

Most Comprehensive

Caity wrote one of our most comprehensive (and entertaining!) posts of the year:  an overview of the 100+ invisible special districts that make life livable in Sacramento County. The post even earned a share from the Special Districts Association.

Don’t know what a reclamation district is? Not sure if you should care what a reclamation district is? Click above to find out!

Most Controversial

I authored the post that probably ruffled the most moustaches. Responding to my call for Sacramento to pick a new official flag, 10% of you furiously typed “outrageous!” while the other 90% of you scratched your heads and asked “Sacramento has a flag?”

For the record, I still think we can do better. (Maybe in 2018?)

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The horror.

Nicest Original Photography

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Another favorite post was Katie’s walking tour of four Sacramento neighborhoods – from McKinley Park to R Street. The post highlights some gems even locals may have missed and includes postcard-worthy photos of neighborhood landmarks.  

Isn’t one of your New Year’s Resolutions to walk more?

To 2018 and Beyond…

That’s it for our brief year in review! We’ll see you next week with new posts…

And most importantly, happy 2018 Sacramento!

Give Wisely. On Tuesday and Everyday.

Giving Tuesday

The concept of Black Friday emerged in Philadelphia in the 1950s, an unhappy day when the city was overrun by crowds and petty crime, forcing police to work long hours and creating the unhappy name. It remained a local tradition until emerging nationally in the late 1980s with the reimagined (and typically untrue) story that it represented the happy day when retailers finally became profitable, while offering consumers rock bottom prices.

Cyber Monday was the next shopping tradition to emerge. Coined in 2005 by Shop.Org to describe the trend, it seems to have emerged more organically than its cousin shopping days as America’s workforce returned from the Thanksgiving Holiday less than eager to dive head-on into the week’s work, instead preferring to peruse the rapidly expanding world of e-commerce.

CyberMonday

Five years later in 2010, American Express (a very large business) began promoting Small Business Saturday. The credit card company relies on small business owners as a major component of their portfolio and it proved both good marketing and a good cause as President Obama and other elected leaders began to lend their support the following year.

SmallSaturday

Two years later the family was finally complete, when Giving Tuesday emerged from the 91st Street Y in New York City, seeking to encourage giving and not just consumerism in the holiday season (Additionally, a great example of the value of including all Americans holidays in this happy season, since it was the Young Men’s Hebrew Association that brought our country together in the spirit of giving). A number of online vehicles and corporations got on board and it caught on quickly.

GenericGivingTuesday

Which brings us to today.

There are no shortage of incredible local, national and international causes that will do great work with your hard earned dollars. There are also more than a few that won’t. For example, from CharityNavigator.org:

10Worst

Giving money to organizations like these is benefitting only the executives’ yacht funds, not the first responders, veterans or children they are named for.

Of course, ratings like those are not the be-all-and-end-all of the quality of non-profits. At the extreme, they tell us who the worst swindlers are, but they do not necessarily tell us much at the margin, especially with service providing non-profits. For groups that exist primarily to raise money to disperse it to service providers, researchers, etc., these overhead-based efficiency ratings make a lot of sense because the money is all there is.

For groups that provide services directly, the money is not the point, the impact is.

While impact is not always easily quantified, especially in a way that leads to easy comparisons, the information should be readily available on the organization’s website. For example among some of our great local non-profits: My Sister’s House provided over 5,000 nights of shelter to women and children fleeing abuse; Reading Partners successfully taught 89% of their 400 students foundational reading skills; and the Front Street Shelter has taken in nearly 9,500 dogs and cats in 2017 through October, with nearly 2/3 adopted or returned home. A personal favorite of our family, is Fairy Tale Town providing incredible family fun while encouraging reading to over a quarter million visitors in the region in 2016. And, of course, the Sacramento State Alumni Association, whose board I serve on, held more than 475 events, engaged over 2,300 volunteer hours and awarded $37,000 in scholarships. Internationally, the Daraja Academy in Kenya, that a friend raises money for locally, does a particularly good job of sharing their impact:

Daraja

(These are by no means all of the charities having a great impact in our community, just a handful of good ones that came to mind.)

So while we at Sacramentality would very strongly encourage that you give generously to charities in our community, we hope in doing so that you give smart. Know the mission you are supporting and know what how much good you are buying for the world with your hard earned dollars. If a charity you are considering supporting does not make this information readily available, you may wish to consider supporting another instead.

California’s First Councilwoman – Part II

Luella Cover

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.

Photo - Tacoma Times - June 7, 1912

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

Sacramento Seal v2 - 1912

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 Galveston, 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.

Commissioner Johnston

Commission Assignments - 1912

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 - 1917

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 levees 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”

Johnston - Playground

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.

Johnston Cartoon - Boston Herald - 7-31-12 p9

Boston Herald (1912)

Luella also took very 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 on Suffrage - 2-9-11

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.

Abridged Bibliography

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: