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Politics & Policy

How the San Francisco Republican Party died

An illustration featuring a variety of archival photos of GOP faces including Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and the GOP elephant.
Illustration by Lu Chen; photos by Getty Images and Pexels

In San Francisco politics, identification with Republicans has become a regular canard: It seems like the fastest way to paint an electoral opponent as utterly out of touch with San Francisco voters is to imply they’re a Republican or supported by Republicans. 

But a battle is shaping up over the direction of San Francisco’s Republican Party in the March 2024 election—one that gives some members hope for a return to political relevance. 

Republicans currently comprise just 7% of the city’s registered voters. There hasn’t been a Republican-elected official from San Francisco since 2014.

There was a time when things were different. 

Between 1912 and 1964, Republicans had a lock on the San Francisco mayor’s office and state legislative seats. George Christopher, the city’s last Republican mayor, brought the Giants baseball team to the city from New York and was far less concerned with ideological and social litmus tests than with boosting business and development. 

The same could be said for Caspar Weinberger, who represented San Francisco in Sacramento through the 1950s and later became Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense. 

A large arena roughly half-filled has a large sign that reads "PEACE 1859 1956 PROSPERITY" during the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace.
Delegates begin to assemble in the Cow Palace on Aug. 20, 1957, before the opening of the Republican National Convention. | Source: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

For decades, Democrats had a strong presence in San Francisco’s down-ballot races, but seven out of eight state legislators representing San Francisco were Republican. The looser primary laws of the time allowed Republicans to run in Democratic primaries—and win. 

California Democratic Party boss Bill Malone, a San Franciscan who rose to power during the New Deal era, was more interested in consolidating his power statewide than rocking the boat at home. 

Six decades later, Republican activists on both sides of a schism in the local party see the city’s current troubles over homelessness, the drug overdose epidemic and persistent property crimes as an opportunity to return to the political stage despite their minuscule numbers. 

“If you’re going to address the complicated problems that municipalities face, you need to draw from all sides of the political spectrum,” Republican activist Jay Donde told The Standard. “There are good solutions that conservatives have, and there are good solutions that liberals have.”

How the GOP Lost Touch With San Francisco

Over the last six decades, San Francisco and the Republican Party grew apart. 

In a black and white photo, protestors gather outside the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in Daly City following the nomination of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
Protesters sit outside the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in Daly City following the nomination of right-wing presidential candidate Barry Goldwater on July 16, 1964. | Source: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Republicans gravitated toward a more divisive national political agenda in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the same time, San Franciscans demanded a politics of inclusion as the city became more diverse and social problems mounted, in part due to Republican-led development policy. Another factor was the rise of Phil Burton, a particularly canny Democrat. 

Republicans like Christopher and Weinberger championed a development agenda many saw as excessive. For example, plans to vector the Central Freeway through Hayes Valley and Golden Gate Park as a connector to Highway 1 garnered significant opposition in the neighborhoods through the late 1950s and early 1960s. “Urban renewal” was forcing Black families, many of whom migrated to San Francisco to work in shipyards during World War II, out of their homes. 

Christopher paid lip service to civil rights and offered his home to Willie Mays when all-too-common race covenants blocked the San Francisco Giants center fielder from buying a home on the west side. But he also condoned House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the city and presided over an “anti-vice” platform that chafed at the growing gay community. 

The time was ripe for change, and the agent of that change was Burton. 

A man, U.S. Congressman Philip Burton, wearing a suit looks off camera.
U.S. Congressman Philip Burton, who was pivotal to San Francisco's embrace of Democratic politics, represented the city for 20 years in Congress. | Source: National Park Service/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

He was an animated and driven man who punctuated his advocacy with profanity and a carefully controlled rage. He was a true believer in progressive ideals who was more than willing to be pragmatic—or ruthless—in achieving his goals. With his brother John and allies such as George Moscone and Willie Brown, he built a coalition of activists out of changing attitudes and demographics in the city, including people of color and the gay community. 

Burton moved to San Francisco with his family from Ohio in the 1940s as a teenager. While in law school, he became active in Democratic politics as a liberal in the mold of Adlai Stevenson and butted heads with Malone and his allies. In 1954, at age 27, he ran his first campaign for Assembly. He lost the primary in a landslide to aging incumbent and “darling of precinct bosses” Cliff Berry—who died during the campaign. Burton literally lost to a dead man. 

Two years later, Burton ran against Tommy Maloney, a powerful labor-backed Republican, embracing concerns of new voters, including the then-growing Black population and Chinese Americans. He won and became the youngest member of the Assembly. 

In 1963, Burton and his allies leveraged then-President John F. Kennedy’s desire to have a Democratic mayor in San Francisco in time for his 1964 reelection campaign. They threw their weight behind U.S. Rep. John Shelley, then representing San Francisco on Capitol Hill, and persuaded him to run for the job.

It was a counterintuitive move, given that Shelley was a Malone associate, but it was a means to an end. Shelley won the mayorship in 1963, and Burton was easily elected to replace Shelley in Washington. From there, he took over building a power base for San Francisco Democrats on the national stage. 

Burton would represent San Francisco in the U.S. House of Representatives for 20 years until he died. His record in Congress included the California Wilderness Act, the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and multiple protections and entitlements for the sick, poor and elderly.

In 1976, he lost a vote to become Speaker of the House to Texas Rep. Jim Wright by one vote—Ralph Nader dubbed the contest the most consequential leadership vote in 30 years. 

Nancy Pelosi walks out of a caucus meeting in Washington D.C.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi walks away from a House Democrat caucus meeting on May 31, 2023, in Washington, D.C. | Source: Anna Moneymaker

Burton’s wife, Sala, succeeded him when he died in office in 1983; when she died in 1987, Nancy Pelosi succeeded her. Pelosi became Democratic leader in 2000, keeping that post for 20 years. She was elected House Speaker twice, in 2007 and 2019, the first woman to hold the office. 

As Burton did in Washington, the flamboyant Willie Brown, a former criminal defense lawyer, would do the same in Sacramento, serving as Assembly speaker for 15 years and counting California’s Consenting Adult Sex Law, which decriminalized homosexuality, among his legislative achievements.

He would succeed Burton as the preeminent local political power broker and eventually return to the city as mayor in 1996.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed shares a laugh with Willie Brown after her 2019 state of the city speech.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, left, and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown share a laugh after Breed delivered the State of the City Address in San Francisco on Jan. 30, 2019. | Source: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Brown maintains that party dominance wasn’t a priority of the Burton machine: “I don’t know that there was a conscious effort by us to make the Republicans go away as much as there was a desire to represent the interests of the people at that time,” he told The Standard.

But as the Burton machine rose in San Francisco, nationally, Republicans embraced a “Southern Strategy” that exploited racial animus, shifting the party to the right and alienating many voters in increasingly diverse metropolitan areas. 

San Francisco Republicans: an Endangered Species

According to data from the California secretary of state and historical voter records kept at the San Francisco Public Library, between 1969 and 2023, Republicans in San Francisco plummeted from 32% of total registered voters to just 7%. 

That number is lower than other major metropolitan areas following a similar trend.  For example, today, 10% of registered voters in New York City are Republicans. In Los Angeles County, the figure is 17%.   

Republicans in San Francisco became anomalies by the 1970s. A rare exception was Lee Dolson, a gregarious academic, who got elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1978 and 1981 by taking advantage of voter-approved changes from at-large to district elections and back again. However, he served partial terms both times, beaten by Democrats for reelection. He lamented that the GOP “had pretty much written off this town.” 

Milton Marks, who succeeded Weinberger in the Assembly as a Republican, ran for state Senate in 1966, serving there for 30 years. He switched his affiliation to Democrat in 1986.

The city’s socially conservative enclaves moved toward supporting candidates like John Molinari, an insurance salesman and son of a prominent judge, who started as a Republican but would eventually become a Democrat by the time he ran unsuccessfully for mayor against progressive Democrat Art Agnos. 

Another example was former police officer and firefighter Dan White, a Democrat who identified as a “defender of the home, the family and religious life against homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics,” and who infamously assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. 

James Fang, the city’s last elected Republican, repeatedly won a seat on the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors from 1990 to 2014—with the reliable support of Burton Democrats. His father, newspaper publisher John Fang, was a major ally of the Burtons, bringing the city’s politically awakening Chinese American community to their table. 

Despite Republicans’ plunging voter registration numbers, the local Republican Party had a significant enough constituency into the 1990s that local Democrats would continue to seek out their support when they wanted to appear more fiscally responsible or concerned about crime and quality-of-life issues. Republicans even endorsed Willie Brown’s reelection as mayor in 1999, dubbing him “the lesser of two evils” in a race against progressive challenger Tom Ammiano. 

But in the Trump era, Republicanism has become an even more toxic label. Even moderate Democrats find it hard to see common ground with Republicans as the local party embraces culture-war issues like opposition to gender-affirming health care. A May Republican Party event in North Beach focused on “parental rights”  drew only about 100 people, primarily from out of town. 

“I’ve been around San Francisco politics for a long time. I’ve been chair of the Democratic Party, and until pretty recently, the San Francisco Republican Party was very middle-of-the-road, not engaging in any culture wars,” state Sen. Scott Wiener told The Standard at the time. “Recently, the leadership has gone full QAnon, MAGA, anti-trans, homophobic. … The things posted online align with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ron DeSantis, a real sea change, and it’s tragic.”

Local Republican Party chair John Dennis, who has run multiple unsuccessful campaigns for Congress against Pelosi and is also a state party official, disagrees. 

”We don’t have issues with [transgender people],” says Dennis, who noted that the San Francisco GOP supported Erin Smith, a transgender woman, in her run against Wiener in 2020. “It has to do with kids. It also concerns [the] need for legislation to protect women and girls in sports. We’re just not going to sit back when legislation is proposed that can be used against us to corner us as social buffoons. We’re going to speak up. It’s that simple.”

A Coming Fork in the Road?

Dennis credits the local party’s increased visibility on social issues with what he describes as stopping a six-decade decline in Republican registrations: Registration increased slightly from a low of 6.4% in 2019 to today’s 7%.

“We’re at five-year highs in registration, and we haven’t even been pushing,” he said. Democratic registrations climbed at a much higher rate during the same period; both parties took voters away from the city’s high number of “no party preference” voters.

But among the city’s Republicans, Dennis’ approach is still up for debate. That debate could well turn public in March 2024, when certain local elections are held.

The Briones Society, a group of centrist Republicans that advocates “a moderate politics that’s not just watered-down progressivism,” according to its website, is fielding a slate of candidates for the San Francisco Republican Party County Central Committee.

That’s a departure from past election years, when the body has often seen uncontested seats. Donde, a tech executive and one of the group’s founders, wants the party to shift focus away from culture wars and toward kitchen-table issues.

High on that list are the city’s most visible problems—homelessness, drug abuse and property crimes—that have been widely exploited by national conservative media and drag down approval ratings of most local Democrats.

“This is no longer a city that works for different types of people. The joke I make is that it only works for two types of people now: those who own Teslas and those who break into Teslas,” Donde told The Standard in an interview. 

As Donde sizes things up, he notes about 35,000 registered Republicans in San Francisco and about 130,000 voters not affiliated with any political party. Democrats have 318,000 registered voters. 

“I believe at least a third of those [unaffiliated voters] are conservative-leaning, and probably a 10th of the registered Democrats in the city are what used to be called Blue Dog Democrats—conservative Democrats, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema types,” he said. “You put those groups together, and you have a voting block that leans right of around 100,000 people. That’s a sizable constituency.”

Though Donde and other local Republicans see opportunity in 2024, close watchers of the political scene are skeptical of a significant electoral comeback. 

“It would take a sea change in the Republican Party nationally first and an economic recession that is really bad,” said Jason McDaniel, professor of political science at San Francisco State University. “If Trump loses again, we’ll see some changes. But it’s still not going to be a moderate party—you’ll get some energy [for change] at the state level, but not here.”

Candidates who once identified as Republicans, like Board of Supervisors hopeful Stephen Martin-Pinto, are at the very least disassociating themselves from the label. 

Martin-Pinto, a firefighter, Marine Corps reserve officer and former local Republican official running to unseat Supervisor Myrna Melgar, registered as a “no party preference” voter before his campaign. 

“There’s too much baggage associated with either party, Democratic or Republican, that interferes with conveying my message,” Martin-Pinto said. “The Jan. 6 attack has been a stain on the national reputation of the Republican Party. And then, with the Democratic Party, I see the failure of Democrats to govern here in San Francisco effectively. So I don’t want to be part of either.”