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

Published: Saturday, November 3, 2012 at 4:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 4, 2012 at 8:11 a.m.

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.

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Clarence Lea.

Sonoma County Library historical collection

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.

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.

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.

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