Why San Francisco Dominates California Politics

Politics from the Bay Area have come to dominate California politics.

The governor and a majority of the statewide elected officials are from San Francisco and its environs -- even though nearly two-thirds of the state's population is in southern California.

Why? Gray Brechin, a historical geographer based at UC Berkeley, offered a smart, provocative answer at an event in Los Angeles Tuesday night: San Francisco had a sophisticated political machine. Los Angeles did not.

Specifically, Brechin, in response to a question from NBC LA's Conan Nolan, the event moderator, noted that the machine of the late state legislator and Congressman Philip Burton was crucial in the development of a sophisticated, competitive political culture that produced -- or at least aided -- some of the state's most successful political candidates, including U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. 

Los Angeles -- and indeed, the rest of the state -- never developed similar political machines.


California communities are generally big and sprawling, so people didn't know and see each other the same way they do in San Francisco, a relatively small place surrounded on three sides by water.

And California's big institutions were designed in the early 20th century to deter patronage and the development of machines.

But San Francisco developed in the 19th century and along very different lines, making it more of an East Coast-style city, where political machines were part of life.

The result today is that politicians from the Bay Area, and particularly San Francisco, are tested in hotter fires than those in Southern California and other parts of the state.

The winners are tougher, and better prepared for difficult statewide races.

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