[Editor’s note: Bill Bagley was a liberal or at least moderate Republican Assemblymember in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when they used to exist. This article contains a history of California politics which is often forgotten these days.]
This is a story about how the late and extremely liberal Congressman Phil Burton saved the Republican Party, circa 1964-65. The story begins with the Republican debacle of 1958, which took shape because California’s incumbent Republican Senator, Bill Knowland, believed he could more easily ascend to the presidency from the governor’s seat than from the US Senate. Thus, he forced aside the moderate Republican incumbent, Goodwin Knight, and ran as the ‘Right to Work’ candidate, leaving an unfunded Knight to run for Knowlands old seat in the Senate.
That crassly forced switch to the right caused a massive upheaval. Democrat Pat
Brown was elected governor by a 20-point margin and the Assembly switched from 50-30 Republican to 45-35 Democrat. And after the reapportionment of 1961, masterminded by the aforementioned Burton, who was then in the Assembly, and Assemblyman Bob
Crown, it got even worse. Assembly Republicans went down to 27 seats, and in the
Senate they hit a nadir of 13.
Meanwhile, the right-wing movement led by the John Birch Society was making an effort to take over the party of Lincoln. Their idea was to capture Republican nominations in the many Democratic legislative and congressional districts that Burton and Crown had created. Since winning was impossible, no Republican in his or her right mind wanted to run.
But the goal of many new nominees was not an electoral victory but party control. The year was 1964 and in that period –long since changed– the State Party platform was, by Government Code Statute, drafted in August by all party nominees-Congressional, Senate, Assembly and Constitutional offices-meeting in the Assembly Chambers. Note: nominees outnumbered incumbents by a 2 to 1 ratio.
Thus, out of committee and on to the floor came a Civil Rights Resolution to ‘send negroes back to Africa.’ Literally, this was a direct quote from the 1878 National Republican (party of Lincoln) Party platform. Since at the hour of 6 PM most normal folks had left for drink and dinner, those few incumbents left on the floor were afraid this plank would pass.Then Asms. Alan Pattee, Don Mulford and myself called for a quorum. Then US Rep. Bill Maillard, presiding, ruled that a quorum was not present and adjourned the convention – without a platform. (That was also the year that Senator Barry Goldwater lost California to President Lyndon Johnson by 1.9 million votes, biggest margin to date.)
Some time later, a few of us told our convention story to Burton. We mused about upcoming Republican State Committee membership meetings and the future of the Republican Party. State statutes at that time specified that Republican legislative and congressional nominees (and state constitutional office nominees) could each appoint three members to the state committee. Incumbents and non-incumbent nominees had the same appointing power. Given the law, it seemed to us that the Republican Party of California was destined to be taken over by the crazies and their ability to out-vote incumbents.
But Phil offered to help. Asm. Tom Bane had a bill to amend the Government code affecting the Democratic Party. Phil offered to amend this bill to provide Republican incumbents with 8 appointments (rather than 3) to the Republican State Committee and he further said ‘I’ll get the Governor (Pat Brown) to sign it.’ The bill was amended at Phil’s request, and in its amended form went to the Governor for signature. But Pat Brown was opposed to the original Democratic Party provision, and informed Phil that the bill would be vetoed.
A stirring arose within Phil – he had promised me and other Republican incumbents that the Governor would sign the bill. To keep his promise, he then demanded that Pat Brown sign half a bill! And that is what happened. Though it is absolutely unauthorized by statute (Governors sign bills, can’t amend them), Phil Burton prevailed on Governor Brown to veto half a bill and to sign the other half! Thus half a bill was sent to the Secretary of State for final enrollment in state statutes.
In a typical ‘days work” fashion Phil Burton had kept his word (a commentary on Phil’s integrity) and, without challenge, the statute governing the membership make up of the Republican State Central Committee went into effect. Thereafter, the Republican State Committee was dominated by incumbents and their appointees. Relatively rational officers were elected in 1966, sound resolutions were passed, the kooks were contained, and political tranquility prevailed.
It is thus that the California Republican Party was saved from destructive and disastrous far-right, neo-fascist domination, for a while. And, not by coincidence, the Ronald Reagan forces began to rise from the ashes of 1964 – but without the Birch taint that had helped bury the Goldwater effort in California. The party and the Reagan for Governor Campaign could now claim to be constructively conservative. Reagan, too, shunned the crazies who now could not dominate the state party machinery.
Ronald Reagan, of course, was elected Governor of California in 1966. Phil Burton had left the Assembly for his new congressional seat in 1965. But Ronald and Phil were to meet again, in Washington. Though all of the above is factually reported and did occur, I cannot state that, years later, Ronald Reagan thanked Phil Burton for helping create a Republican atmosphere which allowed candidate Reagan to become the Governor of California and then President of the United States. But in the context of the above, it is clear that Phil Burton deserves that credit!
A Footnote from Tony Quinn, who had some problems with this piece:
Quinn said first that Bagley’s description of the 1958 election results, which figured in the tale, were wrong. The Assembly did not go from 50-30 Rep to 45-35 Dem, as Bagley said. “It went from 43-37 Rep to 48-32 Dem.” Quinn also challenged Bagley’s assertion that Burton, who was then in the Assembly, “masterminded” the 1961 reapportionment, which also figured in the story. “It was [former Assemblymen] Jess Unruh with Bob Crown doing the actual drawing. It is well known that Unruh used the 1961 redistricting to increase the number of Democratic congressmen in Washington, which made him a big player with the Kennedy administration, and also to roundup the votes to make himself Speaker,” said Quinn. Lastly, Bagley said the 1961 remap reduced Assembly Republicans to 27 seats. Not so, said Quinn. According to the Legislative Sourcebook by Don Allen, the number was 28.
Capitol veteran Bill Bagley has been in and around state and federal government since he was first elected to the Assembly in 1960. A Republican, he left in 1974 to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a federal agency. He returned to state government in the 1980s, serving terms on the CA Public Utilities Commission, the Transportation Commission and the UC Board of Regents. He currently serves as “counsel” to the Nossaman law firm’s San Francisco office.
Republished with the permission of the author and the Capitol Morning Report.
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