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LeBARON: A time before Sonoma County was true-blue liberal


An election is nigh, as you may have noticed. So, since my job is to supply bits and piece of our collective past, this seems like a good time to consider the history of political Sonoma County.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that this piece of paradise we call home has not always been the snug (dare I say “smug?”) little nest of liberalism that the majority revels in today.

Gaye LeBaron.

Oh, yeah. I know that the Democrats have ruled the political roost here since, it would seem, “the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.” But, with perspective as a goal, it’s good to know when that perception began and how it really was, back when.

In the 20th century, when politics were more personal than party, almost everyone in these parts was, by today’s definition, a conservative — at least, until the hard times of the ’30s, when a few vocal socialists and communists emerged.

In our earlier, 19th century history, settlers and squatters from the southern border states brought a brand of Confederate Democratic politics. And it’s true that most of our elected representatives through much of the 20th century were Democrats. But they were not the kind of Democrat you find today.

Remember that there was a lynching here in 1920 and a widely-publicized tar-and-feather episode in 1935 that put the county squarely on the American Civil Liberties Union’s watch list. Up until 30 years ago or so, this was a very conservative place to live and to vote.

Democrat or Republican, our representatives in Congress and Sacramento were, to a man (there were no women), conservatives.

Clarence Lea is a good example. Lea holds the district record for the most terms in Congress. A former Sonoma County district attorney, he represented Sonoma County (and ten other counties) for 32 years, from 1916 to 1948.

He was a Democrat from start to finish, but in the days of cross-filing, he won both party’s primaries in all but two of his 16 elections.

My friend and partner in historical crimes, Joann Mitchell, wrote her master’s thesis on Lea’s career. It includes a quote from a Congressional colleague saying that Lea “was the best Republican on the Democratic side of the House.”

Herbert Slater is another example. Slater served 37 years in the state legislature, four in the Assembly and 33 in the Senate. He was not as steadfast as Lea. He began and ended his career as a Democrat, but he crossed the aisle four times, changing once to Progressive when Hiram Johnson was governor and once to Republican for the election of Friend Richardson, coming back to the Democratic side each time.

Clarence Lea. (Sonoma County Library historical collection)

And no one ever accused Slater of being a liberal. Or even a “flip-flopper.” These political terms weren’t in the Sonoma County lexicon.

What really tells the tale of the mood and mindset of this farm county in the 20th century, however, is the vote in the past 25 presidential elections.

Let us begin our look back in “modern times,” in 1988, when Michael Dukakis won in Sonoma County. Dukakis didn’t get many votes in the state or the nation, but he carried Sonoma County. That news rattled the Old Guard. Political junkies still talk about that as the Big Change. It may have been the back-to-land Boomers, the arrival of Generation X at the polls, the long-term effect of the “60s. Whatever, it was a distinct shift. And, ever since that memorable year, there has been no looking back for this “New Wave” of Sonoma County liberalism.

In the next five elections here it was Clinton, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama.

But six elections do not a history make. Nor does it equal certainty.

Nothing is forever and always and, as proof, I offer you a quick, two-bit tour of 100 years of presidential politics in Sonoma County.

Ready, set, go.

Democrat Woodrow Wilson carried the county in 1912, although Teddy Roosevelt came on strong, reminding us that the term “Progressive” was once the province of change-minded Republicans.

In 1916, Wilson was re-elected, but not with Sonoma County’s help. Then came 1920, when Republican Warren Harding carried every county in California — and turned out to be involved in many a scandal, oil and otherwise.

But the county voters stuck with the Republicans; Calvin Coolidge in ’24, Herbert Hoover in ’28 Then came 1932, three years after the market crashed, and the county voted Democratic for the first time since 1912. Franklin Roosevelt got 61 percent of the vote here that year and 60 percent-plus again in 1936.

But by 1940, Sonoma County voters were either disenchanted with FDR or thought two terms was enough. Republican Wendell Wilkie carried the county, as did Thomas E. Dewey in ’44.

In 1948 Democrat Harry Truman beat Dewey by just .44 of a percentage point here, mirroring .the Republican’s national near miss.

Now we were in a post-World War II mode, and national politics seemed to be changing. Returning veterans, many more of them college-educated than they would have been without the GI Bill, were laying the groundwork for change.

But when it came time to vote for president, Sonoma County hadn’t changed one little bit. Dedicated liberals like Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern got little more than the time of day from voters. Not even Jack Kennedy could carry the county in 1960.

It was Nixon and Nixon and Ford and Reagan here with just a stutter for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in ’64, but not as dramatically as elsewhere.

Jimmy Carter almost beat Gerald Ford in ’76, but not quite. He got 47.5 to Ford’s 47.7.

In ’80, Reagan got 48 percent here to Carter’s 36 percent while third and fourth party candidates gathered in nearly 20 percent of our votes.

Tally it up and you’ll find that in 25 elections, in 100 years Republicans have carried the county 14 times and Democrats, 11. And before the “Miracle of 1988,” before the population growth and shift in demographics, the count was — think about this — 14 for the Republicans, five (one of two2 Wilsons, two of four FDRS, one Truman, and one LBJ) for the Democrats.

Make of it what you will.

On Tuesday, we all march off to the polls once again — Old Guard, Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millenials. And more history will be made. That you can count on.

15 Responses to “LeBARON: A time before Sonoma County was true-blue liberal”

  1. Steve newton says:

    Gay, do you have any photo’s of the houses on the srjc property in the 1890′s

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  2. 20/20 vision says:

    So how come the three most conservative candidates for Petaluma City Council appear to have been elected? And how come district elections are not to be in Santa Rosa?

    Sorry Gaye but the people of Sonoma County may be liberal but the majority don’t vote that way.

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  3. Que Sera says:

    California is among the top three states for corruption in govt according to the press. Sonoma County has never been rated because it is small and insignificant.
    But those who know it best know Sonoma it is among the most corrupt counties in the nation and surely within the state.
    But it has always been that way, hasnt it?

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  4. micki says:

    I am SO GLAD that we not longer live in the times of LYNCHINGS and Tar and Featherings! Being “Liberal” Does Not mean being “smug” it means that you actually CARE about people, White people HISPANIC people, people who LIVE HERE and aren’t LEAVING anytime soon! This article seemed to be so “wistful” of those bygone days when “people knew their place” may we never have times like those again!!

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  5. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Okay, I say something appreciative about Gay and her columns, NOTHING POLITICAL, and you people give me thumbs down? What is the matter with you?

    Her historical columns are just too much for you? Don’t like the history of the area you live in? Then move.

    I for one love to be educated. I can’t learn enough about the world around me. My mind isn’t closed.

    I really expect the thumbs down with this post and welcome them. Go for it. It says more about you than me.

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  6. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Que Sera- in the 1960′s there were more unions per cap than there are now. Maybe you didn’t know this? There were more unions across the USA. Now that the unions cover less than 12% of the population we find that the middleclass is suffering. No one needs to wonder why. It’s because the unions speak for all workers and without unions you can expect the middleclass to disappear. Union members fought and died the last 100 years to bring fair pay and benefits, safe working environments, 40 hour work weeks with overtime pay, vacation and other benefits. If you all think your work benefits come out of the goodness of businesses’ and politicians hearts you’d better think again. If unions go, your income and working rights WILL disappear. It’s already happening in many of the states.

    VOTE NO ON PROP 32. It WILL NOT control corporate money-it’s deceptively worded. Superpacs are SPECIFICALLY EXCLUDED and that’s where the big money is coming from, out of the state to control OUR POLITICS. This is not a good thing no matter what side you are on.

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  7. Jean Anderson says:

    All Sonoma County natives from the past 50 years know the change brought about by the influx of the lunatic fringe left-wingers who have slowly been ruining this once wonderful and moderate county.

    Too many bird-brains with no clue reside here now, and not enough people with common sense who are fiscally responsible and willing to call a leech a leech.

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  8. Que Sera says:

    Sonoma County was a place to come to and live in the 1960s and even though you couldnt get a fair trial here until you became a good ole boy, the state wasnt broke, unions hadnt ruined the area, and there were few on welfare. My how liberalism and Democrats have ruined this place!

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  9. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Gay, I greatly appreciate your columns. I sincerely miss your columns when you were doing a daily one for Sonoma County. Your columns were funny and gave me my first laugh of the day. I put you right up there with Herb Caen and Molly Ivins in my enjoyment of your columns. That is high praise indeed.

    I really miss your old/older/oldest columns. Moving here in 1969, the changes since then have been huge. I still see in my mind’s eye that Scottish Rights Temple after the 1969 earthquake walking down B Street the next morning and the collapsed back wall of the REAL art decco Roxy theater. I miss the torn down Santa Rosa Hotel. I miss the CAL theatre. I miss that small hometown feel Santa Rosa had.

    Keep those columns coming. I’m hoping for big changes coming with the new owners. I’d like a better Sunday events section and also a more informative Wed food section. Both have been cut to the bone.

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  10. Barney Wilkenson says:

    Susan Gorin suits our district and the county to a T. She cares about the environment and our beautiful county and she’s willing to work with business. She is smart enough to know that the it is the lush and lovely environment itself that brings business and tourism dollars. There are not a lot of people (sorry Mr Fogel) running up to see Gunterville, Alabama. Most of us live here because we care about healthy living in a clean and pristine environment. We are justifiably proud of the Sonoma Valley and Valley of the Moon and thankful to get to live in such a beautiful land. We don’t want it sold off to the real estate interests and big business developers that support John Sawyer (along with the Republican party)

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  11. David Fogel says:

    Having fled California in 2005, moving to Guntersville Alabama which is as Republican as Sonoma County is Democrat, I found the change to be refreshing. Housing is very affordable 80K for a nice 3bdr 2ba house. I was able to purchase a 2400 sq ft home with lake access and built my private boat house for under 150K
    Very little regulation in the county. Cities do have zoning and housing codes, but they are easy to work with. Own property you can build with little hassle.

    People are very nice here also. Very well mannered and respectful for the most part.

    A happy refugee I was able to purchase 8 homes for what I sold my 70year old Sebastopol home for

    David Fogel
    Guntesville Alabama

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  12. Kay Tokerud says:

    Skippy sees the big picture. Democrats, although I’m a recovering democrat myself, have bought into the globalist theory that things will be better when people are controlled by the government. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more control we cede to the government, the more they will be corrupted by their power. That’s why we must fight to support the Constitution and bill of rights that were created by people who foresaw what would happ[en if people did not have their individual rights. The people of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which is the controlling wing, have abandoned their patriotism and are promoting a United Nations led One World Government. As a lifelong Democrat I can say that I no longer recognize the Party. We are in trouble and must resist. No on Prop 31.

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  13. John Pendergast says:

    What it really comes down to is the 1970′s. When all those Haight/Ashbury hippies decided to buy Volvos and “go back to nature” where did they go? They “occupied” all of western SoCo and then peppered themselves in the rest of it.

    Some of these people were very talented and as they became yuppies in the 80′s started making some high end craft items and opened some unique stores that helped our economy. Most of them, however, are loafers, and all of them vote for the same crap that prices the middle class out of every area they “occupy.”

    Eventually over the next 20-30 years these people will shuffle off to their Valhalla and the county will be a center/right of center place.

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  14. 20/20 vision says:

    It’s too bad that there isn’t anything in this article on even though Sonoma County has “turned liberal” we keep electing conservatives (whether they falsely call themselves Democrats or not)to our Board of Supervisors and city councils. But then the reason for that is the biased political reporting here and that’s going to get worse with two lobbyists buying the PD.

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  15. Skippy says:

    When Democrats became anti-American, the battle lines were drawn.
    As in all serious conflicts, there can be no peace without one side’s victory over the other.
    So far, liberal takers have held sway here in Paradise Annex, but their own profligate tendencies will be their downfall.
    Once again, when the children have exhausted their tantrums, the adults will have to clean up the mess and make dinner.
    The more things change, the more predictable they become.

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