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The Bay Area wasn't always as solidly Democratic as it is today. Republicans once made up a larger portion of registered voters. smartboy10/Getty Images
The Bay Area wasn't always as solidly Democratic as it is today. Republicans once made up a larger portion of registered voters. (smartboy10/Getty Images)

When and Why Did the Bay Area Become So Liberal?

When and Why Did the Bay Area Become So Liberal?

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This article first published on August 20, 2020. It has been updated to reflect recent events, including the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti on February 22, 2021. You can find a transcript of this Bay Curious episode here.

It’s a little hard to believe today, but the GOP nominated perhaps their most conservative presidential candidate in modern history right here in the Bay Area — at the Cow Palace in Daly City.

There’s no question that today, the nine-county Bay Area is solidly blue. But the first thing you notice when you ask people when that happened, is that you get a lot of different answers.

“San Francisco is the center of that progressive liberal ethos. And I think it begins with the origins of the city in the Gold Rush,” said former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos.

That would be like, 1850. But maybe it was more like the 1950s with the Beat Generation writers, like Allen Ginsburg.


“It was a sort of seminal moment, a turning point for the whole generation in the same way that Woodstock was for the hippies in that they basically saw that they existed, that there was this whole subculture of pot smoking, jazz loving, poetry, writing, painting-making people,” says writer Steve Silberman who came to San Francisco in 1979 and was friends with Ginsburg.

Or maybe it was 10 years later.

“I think if you had to look at the one seminal event that changed things, it was the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964,” said former Republican Party chair Duf Sundheim.

There’s truth in all that.

New Arrivals Have Long Shaped Local Politics

The seeds of San Francisco’s liberal leanings were planted early and those seeds have one thing in common, says a guy who was part of the Bay Area’s liberal arc — Art Agnos.

“Over the years, what I call a cultural ideology has evolved in San Francisco from that time where people come to this city seeking opportunity and freedom,” he said recently.

Agnos was one of those people. Born in Springfield, Mass., he eventually got on a Greyhound bus and headed west.

“And then 10 years after I got off that bus, I was elected to the state Legislature. In 20 years. I’m the mayor of this magnificent city,” Agnos said. “Nowhere else in American could that happen. And so they want to change things. And San Francisco encourages that change.”

Mayor Art Agnos fields questions during a news conference in 1989 announcing the city’s master plan on homelessness. (Sam Forencich/SF Chronicle)

That story — leaving the place you were born and coming to San Francisco — has been repeated for 150 years.

“We see people who are not happy, not satisfied, express some kind of discomfort with the status quo from wherever they came from,” Agnos said.

Whether that status quo is poverty, political oppression, homophobia or racism, San Francisco became a beacon for people who wanted something different.

And a lot of those people — like Agnos — became very active in politics.

“Some of the brilliant politicians we see today, whether it’s Nancy Pelosi, whether it is Kamala Harris, Willie Brown, Leo McCarthy, Phil Burton, all of them came to this city,” Agnos said.

Phil Burton is a key part of that. It was Burton’s brother, John, who pushed another newcomer to San Francisco toward politics: Willie Brown.

Assemblyman Leo T. McCarthy, Assemblyman Willie L. Brown, Congressman Phil Burton, and Art Agnos in the early 1980’s. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Brown came to have a huge influence on California and Bay Area politics — some say he still does — as Assembly Speaker and later as mayor. But when he got here in 1951?

“I was not an observer of what was going on politically in San Francisco, although I instantly became a member of the youth group of the NAACP,” Brown said. “They talked about things like Black people becoming police officers, Black people driving busses, Black people becoming deputy sheriffs, Black people becoming firemen. I heard all those things in the NAACP.”

Brown enrolled at what is now San Francisco State University. That’s where he met a guy named John Burton. He was Phillip Burton’s brother.

“And I heard things about politics from Burton. As a matter of fact, I joined the Young Democrats because Burton encouraged me and invited me to join,” Brown says.

Willie Brown addresses guests at the dedication to the Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge (better known as the Bay Bridge) in 2014, (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Brown says then, the political division wasn’t left or right, red or blue.

“There was a separation of newcomers and old timers. We didn’t call them liberals and we didn’t call them conservatives. But there were newcomers and old timers.”

Newcomers like him — and the Burtons.

Cultural Changes Drive Politics

That was in the mid-50s. San Francisco still had a pretty vibrant Republican party. In 1955 the city elected a Republican, George Christopher, as the city’s mayor in a landslide. He was reelected four years later.

But there was an alternate cultural movement underway.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading poetry at The Coffee Gallery on Grant Avenue in 1959. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

“There was a lot of poetry and cultural ferment going on in the city at the time, in part because rents were still pretty low in neighborhoods like North Beach. City Lights Bookstore was already here, owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” said author Steve Silberman.

That ferment was a stew of alternate voices, writing and thinking in the Bay Area — a generation known as the Beats. They had art shows and readings, studied Buddhism and took a lot of drugs.

Thinking back on the 1950s, Silberman says, “It was a sort of seminal moment, a turning point for the whole generation … in that they basically saw that they existed, that there was this whole subculture of pot smoking, jazz loving, poetry, writing, painting-making people.”

Poet Allen Ginsberg marching with a group of pickets protesting U.S. policies in Vietnam in 1963. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

While that whole countercultural thing is happening, discrimination in the South created a great migration of Black Americans to the Bay Area and other parts of California.

“They were not run of the mill. These were the talented tenth, the best of the best. They came to the West Coast and it liberalized the Bay Area because it diversified it,” said USF political science professor James Taylor.

Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie with Republican Mayor George Christopher. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Taylor says you can’t talk about the Bay Area’s changing politics without mentioning the jazz scene that developed in the city’s Fillmore District. And the conductor of that cacophony of liberalization — that guy named Phillip Burton.

Burton Builds a Liberal Movement as Republicans Migrate Right

In the 1960s Phillip Burton, a gruff, plain spoken and passionate political strategist, begins pulling together a liberal movement involving a wide range of groups — including labor unions, Black people and gay folks.

“Although Burton’s name does not get mentioned as regularly as it used to. It hangs over the city because it set the foundation for what the power establishment in the city is right now, which is mainstream liberalism,” Taylor says.

Phil Burton helped Willie Brown, a young defense lawyer whose clients included prostitutes and pimps, get elected to the State Assembly in 1964.

That same year Republicans held their national convention at the Cow Palace.

Civil rights demonstrators blocked the an exit at the Cow Palace during the Republican National Convention in 1964. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

There was a split between two wings of the party, with the more liberal segment supporting civil rights, while Sen. Barry Goldwater’s camp opposing it. Goldwater won out.

He ultimately lost California and the nation to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide.

By that time Democrats had almost 60% of registered voters in the nine-county Bay Area, compared to 40% for Republicans. There were still plenty of Republicans representing the Bay Area in Congress and the state legislature. But as Willie Brown notes, they were a different kind of Republican than the ones we think of today, especially in places like Marin County.

“And it was not conservative, but it was Republican, period. It was traditional Republicans rather than the kind that Goldwater advocated,” Brown says, adding that at that point there weren’t huge partisan differences on the major issues.

“Things like education, infrastructure or pollution — all those things were merged,” Brown says, meaning the two parties largely agreed or had modest disagreements.

But social issues that would come to divide Democrats and Republicans more sharply were becoming more evident.

Hippies Come to Town as Burton’s Influence Grows

In 1967, thousands of young people from all over the country — hippies they were called — converged on Golden Gate Park and the Haight Ashbury neighborhood.

The music, sex and drugs attracted a lot of free-spirited young people to San Francisco, and some stuck to channel their energy into causes like the environment and the women’s movement.

“It wasn’t any political party … It was activists creating the opportunity. And many of the people who embraced that early just happened have already been registered as Democrats,” said Willie Brown.

When San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto went to the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 to introduced the party’s nominee, there was a lot of booing from Democrats opposed to the war. And representing the party’s anti-war faction? Congressman Phillip Burton.

That progressive strain in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco and Oakland, was became known as the Burton Machine.

“The Burton machine was an assembly of people who shared what I’m calling in our discussion here, the cultural ideology of San Francisco, which they turned into politics,” said Agnos, who was part of that machine. “They brought together an assembly of people, activist volunteers, Civil Rights Act, all of that. And they hung together with a loyalty because of their common commitment to the issues that they all believed in.”

In 1974, the Burton Machine helped elect State Senator George Moscone as mayor of San Francisco. It ushered in a progressive era in the city which included the election of the first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. It all came crashing down in 1978 when Moscone and Milk were murdered at City Hall.

A crowd gathers at City Hall after the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

The Birth of “San Francisco Democrats”

After the assassinations, Dianne Feinstein set out to boost the city’s image by hosting the Democratic National Convention in 1984.

Feinstein was on the cover of Time Magazine as one of two women being considered to be former Vice President Walter Mondale’s running mate. As it turned out the other woman on the cover — Geraldine Ferraro — was picked.

Besides Ferraro, the first woman on a major party ticket, the talk of the convention was the keynote speech of New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who belittled President Reagan’s vision of America.

Out of that convention came a phrase that came to symbolize liberals: “San Francisco Democrats.” It was used by Republicans as shorthand for extreme and liberal … anti-war, pro-gay rights and supporting a woman’s access to an abortion.

By then, the Bay Area had moved solidly to the left. The last Bay Area county carried by a Republican presidential candidate was Napa, carried by George Bush in 1988. Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992 and since then, it’s been sea of blue.

National GOP Moves Further Right

Duf Sundheim was chair of the California GOP when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. He says the 1990s were when Republicans fell off the cliff. Polling showed when California voters were asked who they thought of when they thought of Republican, most said GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich.

“And we asked them what their view was of a California Democrat. It was Bill Clinton. And it was very clear that people identified much more closely with Bill Clinton than they did with Newt Gingrich,” Sundheim said.

Soon the national Republican party realized California was a lost cause.

“Once there was a sense that we couldn’t hold on to California, we couldn’t hold on to New England, then those more conservative views came to dominate the Republican Party. And more liberal areas like the Bay Area really went heavily Democratic,” Sundheim said.

By then issues like immigration, gun control, gay rights and abortion were front and center. Sundheim remembers how hard it became to raise money from Bay Area corporations.

“The CEO would say, look, Duf, I’d love to write a check to the Republican Party, but if my wife ever sees that I write a check to the anti-abortion party, I’m gonna get divorced.”

By 2001 there was just one Republican congressman from the Bay Area, moderate Tom Campbell. And the number of Bay Area Republicans in Sacramento was shrinking fast.

The last Republican to represent the region in Sacramento was Catharine Baker, who won an Assembly seat in the East Bay in 2014.

“When I was in the legislature, I had a 100% score from Howard Jarvis and the California Taxpayers Association for my fiscal discipline,” Baker said recently. “The same year I had a 100% rating from Equality California and Planned Parenthood. That’s just the kind of Republican I was and continue to be.”

Baker sided with Democrats on issues like housing, LGBT rights and the environment. But by 2018, having that “R” next to her name was a scarlet letter. And she lost.

“I would say 80% of the feedback we receive is ‘I know who you are. I like what you do and how you vote. But I cannot vote for a Republican.’”

Today the entire Bay Area delegations to Sacramento and Washington are all Democrats. Registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans — who are essentially a third party now — there are now more voters registered no party preference than Republican. To Democrats, that’s a complete victory. Catharine Baker sees it differently.

“I think all the challenges that face our communities and California are best solved by both parties being in the room, even when you don’t have to have the votes of both parties,” Baker said. “You have longer lasting, better solutions. And that’s what we really need, not just now, but in the future.”

It’s hard to see Republicans making a comeback in California, let alone the liberal Bay Area any time soon, especially after four years of Donald Trump and his enduring impact on the Republican party nationwide.


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