The 1908 Santa Rosa election was actually a referendum: Should the town join the 20th century? The voters said no.

By a 17 point margin in the race for mayor and a gap more than 2x in some city council contests, voters elected a slate that represented the status quo – the “Good Ol’ Boys” who had long controlled the town. Such a sweeping victory is even more remarkable considering there was a record-breaking turnout of voters largely because the previous G.O.B. administration had spurred outrage by legalizing Nevada-style prostitution in Santa Rosa. (This is the sixth and final part of this series. For background, view the previous article or see the full index.)

Regardless of which side you wanted to win, election night was an evening that makes one yearn for a time machine. “The crowds in Newspaper Row on Fifth street in the evening were immense,” reported the PD. “From half past seven o’clock until the last returns had been thrown on the canvass outside the Press Democrat office, thousands of people blocked the streets watching the stereopticon [a ‘magic lantern’ projector].” When the final results were announced, a large bonfire was ignited and the flag-waving crowd, led by a brass band, paraded up Mendocino Ave. to College Avenue, where they rallied at the home of the mayor-elect James Gray.

Victory rally hoopla aside, it was actually a tragic night for Santa Rosa. As the wave of the reform movement continued to sweep out corruption in San Francisco and other American cities, the new mayor made certain the status quo did not change here. The “boarding house” ordinance was quickly repealed as promised (at the very first session of the new City Council), but that only dropped the license fee and the requirement that the prostitutes be examined for sexual disease. The bordellos stayed in business, as revealed in this followup posting.

So who were the Good Ol’ Boys? During the campaign, the leader of the ad-hoc “Municipal League” party named four men he claimed were the “bosses” of Santa Rosa. Whether the accusation was truthful or no, they weren’t kingpins in the sense of Boss Tweed or San Francisco’s Abe Ruef; for one thing, the four were equally divided between Republican and Democratic allegiances. The town certainly had a political machine, however, and that was shown by the Dems and Repubs making a backroom deal to present a “fusion” ticket. The local party leaders might bicker when it came to state and national candidates and issues, but they stood together when it came to blocking anyone from cracking down on Santa Rosa’s vice-driven underground economy.

In a nutshell, the Good Ol’ Boys were the men who profited and/or participated in the local underground economy, primarily prostitution and illegal gambling. It appears they mostly still had the dust of the Wild West in their thinning hair and a swaggering, I’ll-do-anything-I-please attitude; to them, it was acceptable for downtown Santa Rosa to become a lawless place after dark because it brought in lots of money, damned be the harm done. This is how the town had functioned since the 1880s or 1870s. By contrast, the Municipal League crowd wanted Santa Rosa to blossom as a middle class, mercantile community, where women could be out in the evenings without risk of being assaulted or mistaken for a prostitute.

A little peek inside the Good Ol’ Boy network inadvertently appeared in a Press Democrat editorial, revealing that two of the First street buildings being used as bordellos were owned by Cornelius Shea and Dr. Summerfield. These men, along with an adjacent property owner, Daniel Behmer, were considered upstanding business men in Santa Rosa. Con Shea owned much of the prime real estate downtown, most famously the “Shea Block” (the entire south side of Fourth st. between B and A streets, now the heart of the mall) and was VP and a director of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. Dr. J. J. Summerfield was a well-known veterinarian. These were not absentee slumlords or pimps running a prostitution empire; they were just local investors whose portfolios included whorehouses. The cynical Old Guard could make the case that Behmer was little different from any commercial real estate developer willing to “build to suit” when he had the structure at 720 First st. constructed to suit his tenant’s unique needs.

Santa Rosa was also packed with saloons, with never fewer than 30-40 downtown during that era, except for a blip after the great earthquake. Although the prohibitionist faction in the Municipal League wanted to lock their doors forever, anti-corruption reformers probably wanted city police to simply enforce the laws against illegal gambling inside them.* A 1905 exposé in the Santa Rosa Republican quoted the Chief of Police as saying he couldn’t make arrests because the City Council “will not back me up.” The betting activity historically peaked during the August horse races and was centered at the Oberon Saloon, which was located in another building owned by Con Shea.

Whether the reformers would have followed through and cleaned up the town is impossible to know, but the Good Ol’ Boys had reason to fear that the Municipal League would have more bite than bark if it won the election. Their candidate for mayor was Rolfe Thompson, a former DA who just months before had successfully sued Daniel Behmer for damages accounting to his owning property used for prostitution. If Thompson became the new mayor, he might well have ordered the District Attorney to file suit against Shea, Summerfield, and whoever owned the six other bawdy houses in Santa Rosa. A Municipal League City Council could have told the police chief that yes, you should enforce the gaming laws. There was much at stake, and their win could have been the end of the Good Ol’ Boys’ smalltown empire of crime.

There are a couple of interesting footnotes to the Santa Rosa election of 1908. It was the first local election where women played a significant political role (it would be four more years before women gained the right to vote in California). “The women took an active interest in the election, and they ‘button-holed’ the sterner sex on every hand and questioned them regarding their intentions when it came to using the little rubber stamp,” the Press Democrat reported. (Unfortunately, not enough men listened to them.) In Healdsburg, where the town had voted a day earlier on whether it would go “dry,” women lobbied for prohibition and constructed a booth where they offered a free lunch.

It was also the occasion when Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley finally jumped the shark and lost any pretense of journalistic objectivity, even by the feeble standards of the day. Finley – who was among the election night supporters of Gray speaking to the crowd from the mayor-elect’s front porch – relentlessly attacked Thompson and the Municipal League for bringing attention to Santa Rosa’s corruption to outsiders, thereby harming the town’s stellar reputation. In Finleyland, these were “…unjust and uncalled-for attacks upon some of the best-known people of the community… Santa Rosa will not be apt to recover from the effects for a long time to come.” He kept spitting at the walloped reformers even after the election, until the Santa Rosa Republican told him to stop being such a sore winner and shut up. “The Press Democrat man is a great fighter,” a Republican editorial began. “His dander is up. He is going to show the world that he is ‘real devilish’ when aroused. The combatants in the struggle just ended have disbanded and gone home. The Press Democrat man hasn’t. He never, never will lay down his arms. He is the late battlefield all alone.”

*It should be noted that we don’t really know the Municipal League’s exact position on gambling, prostitution, saloons, or anything else. No campaign literature survives, and the only known copies of the sympathetic prohibitionist’s newsletter, “The Citizen,” are from a year or more later. In one article reproduced below, the writer bemoans there was prize fighting (illegal under state law, although boxing was allowed) and “slot machines are going merrily in the saloons.” Much of what is known about the Municipal League campaign comes from rebuttals that appeared in Press Democrat editorials.



The fight concluded and all danger being past, the editor of the Evening Republican crawls from his hiding place in the brush, fans the dust off his knees, and rushes bravely to the front. Waiving his rustless sword on high, he cries:

“Stop, talking and bury the hatchet!”

There is no disposition upon his the part of anybody that we know of to continue the fight, but the resentment that has been aroused by the so-called Municipal League and which found expression at the ratification meeting in front of Mr. Gray’s residence Tuesday evening, is but natural. Under ordinary circumstances, and where the fight is fair, the disposition of the victors is usually magnanimous. But the flight as conducted by the organization mentioned was not a fair fight. The foulest of tactics were employed. False issues, and issues known to be false, were raised whenever and wherever it was thought they would secure a vote. Personalities were indulged in to an extent never before heard of in a campaign here, municipal or otherwise. Honest men, some of the very best in Santa Rosa–men who had freely devoted their time to the public service, and who were entitled to the heartfelt thanks of the entire community for services faithfully and intelligently performed, were assailed without cause and for no good reason were abused and vilified upon every possible occasion like a gang of pickpockets.

Of course such work was resented. It ought to be resented. People have and should have no right to imagine that they can do such things and then escape all responsibility by merely shouting “the gong has sounded.”

Santa Rosa now faces two years of strenuous endeavor. Time are none too good, and it is going to require some hard work and some keen manipulation to keep all the wheels turning. But it can be done, and we believe it will be done. All public-spirited citizens owe it to the community as well as to themselves to get behind the new administration and help accomplish these results. If, when the two years are passed, the results have not proved satisfactory, those who take that view of the matter will have a perfect right to say so.

But they should learn by the developments of the past few days that the public will expect them to be fair in their criticisms. and not unmindful of what is reasonable and what is just.

– Press Democrat editorial, April 9, 1908



The Press Democrat man is a great fighter. His dander is up. He is going to show the world that he is “real devilish” when aroused. The combatants in the struggle just ended have disbanded and gone home. The Press Democrat man hasn’t. He never, never will lay down his arms. He is the late battlefield all alone, and is making the fight of his life. When the silence of this scene threatens to overcome him, he whoops real loud and that keeps him from getting too scared to run away. This is the first time it in the martial annals of the world that a battle was going on after the fighting was all over. Sad indeed would have been the dying of the vanquished had they known in that last hour that the valiant Press Democrat man was going to make “rough-house” at their funeral. But he is a great fighter.

– Santa Rosa Republican editorial, April 9, 1908



Practically the entire issue of the current number of The Citizen, the official organ of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, is devoted to lambasting the Press Democrat and putting forth a thinly-veiled appeal to the church people to withdraw their support and patronage from this paper.

And why?

Has the Press Democrat ever shown itself unfriendly to the church or its institutions? Have we ever arrayed ourselves against the project undertaken by religious organizations of the city for the furtherance of the advancement of their legitimate work? Have we ever failed to accord church news proper space or attention in our local columns? Have we ever, at any time or under any circumstances, directed one word of criticism towards any true man of God laboring along broad-minded lines within his proper sphere?

Of course not, and every reader of this paper knows it.

But the Press Democrat, always resentful of anything that savored of class government and forever opposed to the interference of church and state, in the recent municipal campaign stood up and vigorously fought the attempt of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, acting by proxy and parading in fancied disguise to secure control of public affairs here. We would have opposed such an attempt upon the part of the saloon interests just as quickly–for the representatives of any other special interest or class for that matter–for no special class of people, acting and operating as such, have the right to aspire to control in this country. Individuals have the right to aspire to anything they choose, but classes have no such rights. If they were allowed to think so, we should soon have class government, which is something no sensible man can approve and something entirely opposed to the principles on which our nation is founded.

The Ministerial Union is pouring the vials of its wrath upon the Press Democrat because we opposed that organization in the last campaign and for no other reason.

And what is this so-called in Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, which in its “official organ” thus comes out and openly advocates that the Press Democrat be boycotted for standing by its principles in the recent municipal campaign? Is the organization one that is truly representative of the local ministry? Do all the ministers of the city endorse the policies of the so-called Ministerial Union? Do even the majority of them favor “the preacher in politics” or stand for the cowardly and un-American boycott, about which its own campaign paper was having so much to say only a few weeks since?


Three of the ministers actively engaged in pastoral work here takes no part in the political activities of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, and two of the remaining six or known to have little real sympathy with such methods. This is four men who really constitute the organization and direct its policies. These four men directed the recent Municipal League campaign and wrote most of the articles that appeared in the League paper. One of them acted as editor-in-chief, and had the final decision regarding the availability of all articles submitted for publication.

And these same four men are the ones who now ask the people of Santa Rosa to withdraw their support and patronage from the Press Democrat because this paper happens to have enough backbone to stand up and say what it thinks, regardless of whose toes may be temporarily trampled upon.

The public have not forgotten the kind of arguments that were put out by the Municipal League paper during the campaign just closed, or the thousand-and-one absurd accusations that were made against everything and everybody connected with the other side. Never were charges hurled about with such reckless prodigality. None of them were based upon fact. Long before the campaign was ended they had all been disproved, and not one of the terrible things that were going to happen in the event of Mr. Gray’s election have materialized.

And it is the same men who are responsible for the campaign conducted by the so-called Municipal League who are now throwing bricks at the Press Democrat, and asking people to believe that we stand for all kinds of outrageous ideas and practices.

Along with a lot of other things, the Ministerial Union in its official organ charges for the Press Democrat has “misrepresented and vilified the churches and ministers, and has consistently stood for prostitution, gambling, the Sunday saloon and the obscene story.” Of course none of these charges are true, and our readers know it. The Press Democrat is just as anxious as the members on the Ministerial Union or anybody else to see affairs here conducted properly, and to maintain and elevate the moral tone of the community. While we may not agree with certain members of the organization referred to regarding the best way of accomplishing the results desired, to contend that this paper stands for anything but what is best for all concerned is ridiculous as well as absurd. We challenge a comparison of the class of matter contained in these columns with either those of “Verity,” “The Citizen,” or “The Municipal League,” and defy any human being to show where we ever stood in all our newspaper experience “stood” for topics as questionable or stories anything like as suggestive as those discussed and told day after day and night after night after night by the Evangelist Bulgin at his big test on Fourth Street.

The Santa Rosa Ministerial Union has now been in existence for several years. in all good faith and with courtesy you should like to enquire of the gentlemen making up that body if they really think anything has been gained for the cause by the policy that has been pursued since the organization . As we view the matter, valuable support has been alienated that might just as well have been retained, strong antagonisms have been aroused where friendships might have been formed, and strife and ill-feeling has been engendered when only harmony, peace and good-will should prevail.

Why not try different tactics for a while?

– Press Democrat editorial, May 3, 1908


The city council is allowing the denizens of the “red light district” district to go on violating the law by selling liquor without a license. It is commonly reported that there are nine government licenses taken out in that district. That ought to be enough evidence. Nothing else should be needed. Talk about enforcing the law. We have a weak set of men on the council of this city. They hang their head pans supinely in the presence of a few “sporting women” and say, “we are powerless.” It is about time we had somebody in office whose backbone is not composed of shoestrings. An order was issued that the women must leave that district last August. Nothing was done about it.

We thought that Mr. Gray was to do great things if elected. He would show the Santa Rosa people how to do things. The saloon organ of this city on the 18th of March last year said, “And that there is also another reason, which is that James H. Gray is a better man for mayor of Santa Rosa than Rolfe L. Thompson could ever think of being.” We are willing to leave it to any fair-minded man who knows Mr. Thompson as to whether Mr. Thompson would have been as as inefficient in the office of mayor as Mr. Gray has been. We would like to ask with all due respect for Mr. Gray, what has been done while in office? He was going to clean up the notorious “red light district.” He has not done anything in that line. The town is going on in the same old way.

It is practically a wide-open town today. The saloons are running full blast 18 hours out of 24. We have lately had added to our list of booze resorts another, making a total of 40. Liquor is sold in the “red light district.” Prize fighting is allowed in town. Slot machines are going merrily in the saloons. Yes, there is one thing which we are glad to see the council has ostensibly stopped (we do not know whether the laws enforced or not), and that is, gambling in the rear of cigar stores. We want to give all due praise, but when we come to sum up the administration under the present mayor, who came to this office with the highest praise of the saloon organ, we find that it has been about as spineless as any thing could well be and have any existence at all.

The puzzle that was printed in The Municipal League, showing Mr. Gray in minute minutes type between Grace and Geary, had more truth than poetry in it. Where will you find the mayor today? “The only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.”

– The Citizen, April, 1909

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