American West Briefing Tour: 1906 Earthquake spawns the beginning of direct democracy in California

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September 22, 2011

American West.jpg

By Al Ortiz

Ballopedia Travel Journal

SAN FRANCISCO, California: On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., the city of San Francisco awoke to a major earthquake; one that would result in subsequent fires causing massive damage and a devastating death toll. This natural disaster in Northern California, however, has been pointed to as a symbol of the birth of direct democracy in the state.

The 1906 earthquake and the unfortunate aftermath at the time brought up questions of building code requirements and building near active faults, among other concerns. As a result, a reform of policy changes swept through the state, including direct democracy through the initiative and referendum process.

The Phelan Building front door sign

To highlight this landmark event in the Golden State's history, 2011 Briefing Tour participants were taken through a historic walk through the financial district of San Francisco, highlighting buildings and areas relevant to the 1906 disaster.

Among the historically significant buildings the tour came upon was The Phelan Building. Named after James D. Phelan, Mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902, the current building stands upon the same site as the old Phelan Building, remarkably built only 11 months after the 1906 earthquake. According to the engraved sign just outside the doors, the building "boasts the distinction of being the first building to be rebuilt after the devastating earthquake."

Also among the tour was the unique story of Hiram Johnson, former governor of California from 1911 to 1917, and the 1908 graft prosecution of Abe Reuf and Mayor Eugene Schmitz. Tour guide Joe Mathews stopped the tour mid-way, discussing in detail how the events surrounding the prosecution shaped the initiative and referendum process to how it is today.

Joe Mathews guiding the tour through San Francisco

At the time, Ruef and Schmitz were accused of bribery during the trial proceedings, a trial that saw lead prosecutor Francis J. Heney gunned down during a break in the courtroom by a man in a trench coat.

That man was later found dead in his jail cell, begging the questions of a conspiracy theory. Further adding to this was the peculiar disappearance of the city police chief.

Johnson then took over the lead in the prosecution, winning the case and sending Reuf, who some people believed to be the city's boss of political corruption, to prison. Mathews stated that in Johnson's prosecution, he was not giving any room to negotiation, sometimes even going down to Ruef's level in sending him to prison.

According to Mathews, this bitter fight, distrust and anger during a time when direct democracy was being developed help shape the current initiative and referendum process in the state. Mathews stated that direct democracy in California "doesn't have any flexibility, not a lot of room for negotiation, because these people were not negotiating. They were coming out in a political fight where people were being shot and cornered and dying. And that kind of culture in that terrible moment in San Francisco really helped shape the personality [of the I&R process]."

Quite a first day, indeed.

  • Current City: San Francisco

What else to look for today

  • Hastings: Lunch with Professor Michael Salerno discussing the strong and weak points of initiative and referendum
  • San Francisco City Hall: Meeting with local administrators and practitioners of direct democracy.
  • Home of the Swiss Consul General: Dinner and discussion
Learn more about the tour and its participants here.

Follow the tour!

See also