Thomas F. Finn was one of the most extraordinary politicians in San Francisco history. During his 27-year public career he was elected to municipal and state offices ten times, lost another two elections, and served on local police and fire commissions.
Thomas Finn in 1915. He was born on November 23, 1873, the son of Irish immigrants James T. Finn and Ellen Kelly Finn. Finn was raised in the South of Market area at a time when the neighborhood between Market Street, Mission Bay and the Embarcadero was lower middle class residential with a number of emerging businesses on 2nd and 3rd Streets. The mansions of the wealthy dotted Rincon Hill and South Park became the center of one of San Francisco's largest Japanese American communities.
By the turn of the century, a flood of European immigrants and the burgeoning waterfront turned the neighborhood into a working-class enclave crowded with new industries, factories, sweatshops, and stables.
His bare-knuckles prowess as a politician was so great that he was commonly referred to as "Boss" Finn. But when he took on San Francisco Mayor, and future Governor of California, Sunny Jim Rolph, Boss Finn would finally meet his match.
A South of the Slot Son of the City
Thomas Finn was born South of Market in 1873, one of 11 children fathered by James Finn, an Irish immigrant. James came to America with his wife Maryanne, who died at a young age; James then took a second wife, Ellen Kelly. As a young man Tom worked at the Lindauer stables at 552 Bryant Street (later on Howard Street) as a stable man and became an organizer of the fledgling Stablemen’s Union.
At the turn of the century San Francisco’s Mayor was James Phelan, a Democrat elected with the support of organized labor. A bitter sixty-six-day waterfront strike in 1901 that turned violent resulted in Phelan’s loss of labor’s support and the creation of the Union Labor Party.
The strike originated with Teamsters protesting non-union workers on the City’s wharf. When the strike failed to get resolved early on, other unions joined in attracting over 13,000 striking workers from a wide variety of employee sectors to join the cause.
Mayor Phelan was unable to settle the strike and was pressured by the business community to allow the Police Department to provide protection for the non-union workers, or, in other words, to break up the strike. Violent confrontations followed with several laborers killed and many others assaulted and arrested. For several days, gun battles between striking workers and hired strikebreakers raged on Market Street from 3rd Street to 6th Street.
Eventually California Governor Henry Gage came to San Francisco and negotiated a resolution, allowing the union laborers to go back to work. Neither labor nor the employer associations gained a “win” as a result of the strike and its resolution, but union activists felt Mayor Phelan had abandoned them.
The damage to Phelan’s relationship with organized labor was fatal. During the early days of the strike representatives from some of the smaller and more radical unions met to form a new political movement, the Union Labor Party (ULP). The goal was to create a new political party for the benefit of laborers, affiliated with neither the Democrats nor the Republicans.
Among the group was a representative of the Stablemen’s Union, a young Thomas Finn.
San Francisco's Union Labor Party Takes Control
Abe Ruef in 1907. Born in San Francisco on September 2, 1864, Ruef graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and the Hastings College of Law. A lifelong Republican, Ruef's drive for power and influence led him to help found San Francisco's Union Labor Party in 1901.
Ruef built a corrupt political machine that took control of elective offices and funneled money to him and his cronies. During the 1906 earthquake, Abe Ruef lost some $750,000 in real estate and bank savings (over $18 million today).
Abe Ruef was born in San Francisco in 1864 and graduated from the University of California in 1883. Three years later he graduated from Hastings Law School and was admitted to the bar. He had a passionate interest in politics from his days in college and looked for political opportunities as a young lawyer. He quickly became a key figure in the San Francisco Republican party, but could never attain the stature he sought.
His big opportunity came in 1901 when both the Republican and Democratic parties failed to support San Francisco’s labor unions during the bitter and deadly waterfront strike. Ruef seized the opportunity to guide a small group of disaffected union officials in fashioning a new political party, the Union Labor Party.
Thomas Finn’s life as an elected official began in 1901, one result of the 66-day labor strike in San Francisco. The strike was generally based on Labor’s desire to have “union shop” employment requirements on the wharf while employers were demanding “open hiring.” Organizing efforts started small, but spread rapidly to include most unions with members working on the waterfront.
When the strike ended on September 3, 1901 with minor union gains, the Union Labor Party was created to increase labor’s future political clout. Many of San Francisco’s entrenched labor unions, particularly the powerful Building Trades Council, were not on board but Ruef and his allies cobbled together enough supporters to create a viable movement.
Significantly, one of lawyer Abe Ruef’s group of labor clients was the Musician’s Union whose President was a charismatic 37-year-old violinist named Eugene Schmitz who conducted the orchestra at the Columbia Theatre on Powell Street.
When the waterfront strike ended on September 3rd the new Union Labor Party, now about two months old, scheduled its first “nominating convention” later that month. Two months later San Francisco voters elected the Union Labor Party’s candidate for Mayor, Eugene Schmitz. They also elected Tom Finn to the State Assembly, beginning a political career that lasted for three decades.
The ten-year life and death of the Union Labor Party is a colorful one. It is a story of bribery, criminal convictions, and of course the 1906 earthquake and fire. It was the dominant political party in San Francisco for ten years, but ended with criminal indictments of most of the members of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Schmitz.
Mayor Eugene Schmitz and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors 1903-04. The ULP did not do as well as Abe Ruef had hoped in the 1902 election, although Schmitz was reelected Mayor. Tom Finn joined Fred Eggers on the Board; they would run against each other in two separate elections for the office of San Francisco Sheriff.
Tom Finn, whose political career during the life of the Union Labor Party and beyond was a crazy quilt of offices and appointments, became an influential power in the Union Labor Party, but was never charged with or accused of any criminal conduct. He did, however, gain the reputation as the City’s top political power broker and the epithet, “Boss Finn.”
When the Union Labor Party looked for its first slate of candidates to run in the November 1901 municipal election, Tom Finn was actively organizing the Stablemen’s Union. At the time horses were still widely in use for personal and commercial transportation in San Francisco and dozens of thriving public stables were located throughout the City.
The Party selected Tom Finn to run for State Assembly from the South of Market district where he grew up and was widely known and liked. Finn unseated an incumbent in the November 1901 election and began a long and controversial political career.
For a number of years, Finn’s political success rose and fell with that of the ULP. But Finn also kept one political foot in the “progressive” wing of the Republican Party, so when the ULP met its demise in 1912, Finn managed to live on as the standard bearer of the progressive (pro-labor) wing of the local Republicans.
After two years in the Assembly, Finn was asked by the Labor Party to resign from the Legislature to run for the Board of Supervisors. Labor Party Mayor Eugene Schmitz needed votes on the eighteen-member Board to move his agenda.
Eugene Schmitz, San Francisco's 26th Mayor. He was elected as the ULP's standard bearer for three two-year terms (1902-03, 1904-05, and 1906-07). Schmitz, born the son of an Irish mother and German father, was an accomplished musician and a fledgling composer.
When Schmitz became the president of the local Musicians Union he was noticed by political fixer and ULP leader Abe Ruef, who immediately sized him up as a perfect candidate for Mayor. When Ruef's political empire crumbled, Schmitz was arrested and went through an extortion trial in 1907 and a bribery trial in 1912; for a variety of reasons he beat both cases.
Amazingly, after his criminal trials Eugene Schmitz carved out a second life. In 1915 he mounted a failed election run for Mayor against incumbent James Rolph. Then he wrote an operetta, "The Maid of San Joaquin", that had a failed run in New York City. In 1921 he ran for the SF Board of Supervisors and won, serving a single four-year term from 1922-1925. On Novemeber 20, 1928 Schmitz died in his sleep of heart failure at his home at 3127 Franklin Street. He was 64.
Ironically, one of Finn’s fellow members on the Board was Fred Eggers, who would later be the first man to defeat Finn in elective office.
After a brief stint on the Board, Schmitz realized that Finn’s isolated votes could not do much for Labor’s agenda on the Board. As a result, Schmidtz asked Finn to resign and be appointed as a member of the SF Fire Commission. Finn quickly became the President of the Commission and further expanded his ability to dole out jobs to his supporters.
A short time later, Sheriff Thomas O’Neil, a Union Labor man elected in November 1905, appointed Finn Undersheriff. Finn was serving as Undersheriff when the April 18, 1906 earthquake struck the City. He was operationally responsible for moving all county jail prisoners to safer housing when the Broadway Jail and the Hall of Justice jail were destroyed by fire.
Mayor Schmitz seemed to be continually positioning Finn for his own political needs of the moment and not long after the earthquake, Schmitz appointed Finn to the Police Commission.
While on the Police Commission Finn made a controversial statement that was used against him for the rest of his career. The temperance movement was an active in San Francisco and saloons were viewed by many as a source of vice and corruption.
Finn was asked his opinion about temperance and unwisely responded, “I do not look to every saloon keeper as a rogue. The liquor business is a legitimate one, meriting the same support and interest as any other.” For years thereafter, Finn’s opponents charged that he was “aligned with liquor, gambling and other antisocial interests.”
His statement was particularly harmful considering the national move toward Prohibition and its eventual implementation from 1920 until its repeal in 1933.
The immediate years after the earthquake were not only consumed with rebuilding San Francisco, but also with bombshell political “graft” allegations and criminal trials. Mayor Schmitz, his famous fixer Abe Ruef, and most of the Board of Supervisors were indicted for accepting bribes in return for granting city contracts among many other misdeeds.
Finn was probably fortunate to have departed from the Board before this all developed, although there is no indication that he was involved in any criminal activity.
After Schmitz was charged with various felonies, he was removed from office. Edward Robeson Taylor was appointed Mayor. One of Taylor’s first acts in office was to remove all of Mayor Schmitz’ appointed commissioners, including Police Commissioner Tom Finn.
Finn immediately filed to run for the State Senate and was elected on November 3, 1908. Only a year later (November 2, 1909) Finn also ran for and was elected Sheriff of San Francisco. In spite of the graft scandals in 1907, the Union Labor Party was still a political power and managed to elect its second candidate for mayor, P.H. McCarthy, who was President of the powerful Building and Trades Council.
Amazingly, Finn remained a State Senator during his term as Sheriff and was re-elected to the Senate three more times: November 1910, November 1912 and November 1914, serving in the 38th through 41st Sessions of the California Senate.
During his various terms in Sacramento, Finn was an advocate on a variety of labor issues such as the eight-hour work day, abolishing child labor, improving working conditions for women, creating a minimum wage law, and workers’ compensation laws. He also took an active interest in reforming California’s prison system, becoming the first representative of labor to serve on a state prison investigative committee.
On November 7, 1911, Finn was defeated in his re-election bid as Sheriff. Fred Eggers, Finn’s former colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, became the new San Francisco Sheriff.
How exactly did "Boss" Tom Finn not win re-election as Sheriff? The essential reason is that Finn was swept in with the ULP in 1909, then swept out with it in 1911. Finn was clearly associated with Eugene Schmitz, P.H. McCarthy and the union movement, and in 1911 he had not yet become the powerhouse politican he later became.
Finn's first stint as Sheriff was only two years (the term of office at the time), so he didn't have the time he needed to fully establish himself. His election to the State Senate was by district, so he didn't have to appeal to the entire City, just the voters in his district.
In 1911, the Union Labor Party fielded a full slate for the Board of Supervisors, but only one candidate was successful. It was the residual impact of the graft scandals - and trials- that badly tarnished the ULP's brand in San Francisco and Republican rising star "Sunny" Jim Rolph represented a new direction. Fred Eggers was a Rolph man; but Eggers' problems in office would give Finn an opening for a big comeback four years later.
Another major issue in 1911 was that the incumbent ULP administration, led by Mayor P.H. McCarthy (aka “Pin Head” McCarthy" to his detractors), had not delivered on the many post 1906 Earthquake infrastructure promises made over the previous four years. Voters tend to remember things like that.
Union issues in the 1911 election were virtually non-existent because Republican mayoral candidate Sunny Jim Rolph did not have an anti-union history, so the election for Mayor was not viewed as a union versus anti-union choice.
So as the ULP "disappeared" from the ballot, it also disappeared from the public consciousness. Finn lost the advantage (if there was one in 1911) of being a ULP candidate, and he faced competition from a candidate for Sheriff (Fred Eggers) who was supported by the very popular candidate for Mayor, Jim Rolph.
The 1911 election was significant for a number of reasons, one of which is that the term of the office of Sheriff was changed from two years to four years. It was also the beginning of the legendary mayoralty of Sunny Jim Rolph who dominated San Francisco politics as Mayor for the next 19 years. Rolph remains the longest tenured Mayor in San Francisco history.
After losing his re-election bid as Sheriff in 1911, Finn remained in the State Senate and later was appointed Deputy Tax Collector by an old friend, Tax Collector Edward Bryant. Finn and Bryant had both been elected to the State Senate in 1910, but Bryant left the Senate and was elected San Francisco Tax Collector in November 1913.
1914 was an interesting time for San Francisco Sheriffs.
Fred Eggers was the incumbent Sheriff; former Sheriff Finn was both San Francisco's Deputy Tax Collector and a State Senator; former Sheriff Lawrence Dolan (1908-1910) was Sealer of Weights and Measures; former Sheriff Charles Laumeister (1888-1892) was on the Board of Public Works; and the son of former Sheriff P.J. White (1868-1871), David White, was the Chief of the San Francisco Police Department.
Four years after Tom Finn lost his 1911 re-election bid to Fred Eggers, Finn again ran for Sheriff and defeated Eggers in the September 28, 1915 municipal election. This was a September election because the City experimented with having a “Primary” election prior to the General Election in November.
Finn won outright in the September Primary.
With his second election as Sheriff in 1915, Finn became firmly established in the role of Sheriff which further solidified his political power and ability to reward those loyal to him. He was returned to office twice more, in 1919 and 1923, and then faced the battle of his political life in the Sheriffs election race of November 1927.
SF newspaper political cartoon showing "Boss" Finn about to fill his patronage buckets from the San Francisco cow. Running just behind Finn is his mini-me, Abe Ruef, with a convenient milking stool.
His detractors particularly played up the “Boss” aspect of Finn’s influence as a way to undermine his popularity with voters. San Franciscans were painfully aware of the graft scandals associated with Boss Abe Ruef after the earthquake and the resulting criminal indictments of Ruef, Mayor Eugene Schmitz and most of the members of the Board of Supervisors.
While there was no indication of criminal conduct by Finn, it was enough to tarnish his reputation with the appellation of being a political Boss.
But even among his political peers, Finn was “Boss Finn” out of respect for not only his impressive political resume but his ability to acquire and effectively use power and people along the way.
During the period from 1900 to 1930 no San Franciscan held more elective offices for as long a time as Finn. He was elected to the State Assembly, the State Senate, the Board of Supervisors, served as the President of the Fire Commission and even simultaneously held two elective offices – State Senate and Sheriff.
To other elected officials and those wanting similar political power, Finn was the king of the hill.
He had a lifelong reputation of finding jobs for those in his favor. The jobs might be in government – there were many opportunities for appointments before the days of Civil Service – or they might be political positions aided by the endorsement of a Senator or Sheriff. It was said of him that he was “ ...recognized as the most powerful vote dictator in the State who had made and unmade United State Senators, Congressmen, elevated humble men to high office, and smashed the dreams of those would be mighty . . .” (SF Chronicle 1-14-1938.)
Abe Ruef walking from the San Francisco courthouse during his 1906-07 trial for corruption and bribery, with his entourage of attorneys and yes-men. Ruef was convicted in 1910 and sentenced to 14 years at San Quentin State Prison. He was released after only 4 1/2 years.
“See the Sheriff!
How many times have the members of the San Francisco delegation to the State Legislature given that answer to the inquirers about bills pending around the Capital at Sacramento? Just ask anyone who has been around the Legislature for an answer."
”See the Sheriff!
How many job-holders have been told that? Just ask any person who has tried to get a job under the State administration or in Federal offices lately." (Chronicle 10-30-1927)
But probably just as important are two other words: Boss Ruef.
Abe Ruef was the notorious political manipulator who, along with Tom Finn and others, founded the Union Labor Party and who eventually spent almost five years in State Prison after being convicted of bribing members of the Board of Supervisors. The charges against Ruef were so scandalous and the downfall of the Union Labor Party so dramatic, it was natural to look for the next political figure to label as “Boss” when defining the political battles between business and labor in the 1920’s. Tom Finn was the perfect candidate.
From his very early days Finn had always been “a labor man.” First as a Republican, then as a Union Labor Party candidate, and then again as a Republican, but he was always “with labor.”
James Rolph was born in San Francisco on August 23, 1869 at 535 Minna Street. He became wealthy first working in the insurance business then as a shipping executive; for years he and his family resided in an ornate mansion at 288 San Jose Avenue. Rolph was the president of two San Francisco banks when his political career began at the age of 43. Nicknamed "Sunny Jim" for his exuberant demenanor, his theme song quickly became "There Are Smiles that Make You Happy".
Rolph was sworn in as San Francisco's 30th Mayor on January 8, 1912 and would serve over 18 years-- the longest tenured Mayor in the City's history. In 1930 he ran for Governor of California and was overwhelmingly elected. He resigned as mayor to serve as California's 27th Governor until his death on June 2, 1934 at the age of 64. A lifetime of serious drinking (one of his many overindulgences) led to a series of heart attacks. He often recuperated at the Riverside Farm in Agnew, Santa Clara County, which is where he died surrounded by doctors.
One of James Rolph's accomplishments was the building of the Bay Bridge. After his death, the California Toll Bridge Authority planned to name the bridge after Rolph, but the move was blocked by Joseph Knowland, the politically powerful editor of the Oakland Tribune. Knowland then proceeded to force the State into changing the bridge's original official designation from "The San Francisco Bay Bridge" to "The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge."
At first there was an attempt at peaceful coexistence between the two powerhouse politicians.
For example, in October 1918, when Rolph made his first attempt to become Governor, Sheriff Finn wrote a letter published in the Sacramento Bee proclaiming, “I am for James Rolph Jr on the write-in campaign for Governor for the reasons as given in the primary. That he was the people’s choice was proven then, and I am sincerely hoping that it will be repeated at the November election by the write-in method.” (Sacramento Bee, 10-18-1918).
But by 1927 the relationship between Tom Finn and Rolph had changed considerably.
Finn announced his support of James Power for Mayor against Rolph. Power was a boyhood friend of Finn, a fellow labor activist and holder of the post of United States Postmaster for San Francisco, a position that Finn had helped him attain. This was a precarious position for Finn to take since he was seeking re-election as Sheriff at the same time Rolph was running for re-election as Mayor.
The 1927 campaign was a particularly bitter one with Rolph running more against Boss Tom Finn than against Rolph’s main opponent for Mayor, James Power. Challenging Finn for the office of Sheriff was attorney William Fitzgerald.
A former Assistant City Engineer, Fitzgerald was noticed and hand-picked by Mayor Rolph to join his 1923 re-election team. Essentially Rolph politically mentored Fitzgerald as a potential future piece of his political machine.
At an October 1927 meeting of the Portrero District Rolph Club, the Mayor proclaimed, “The issue in this campaign is whether or not the people are determined to continue with the independent government which we have had during my administration, free from graft and scandal, or whether you want to turn the city government over to Boss Tom Finn.” (Chronicle 11-1-1927)
Earlier that same evening, Finn addressed the issue: “I am not any boss. It is true I’ve taken some part in Republican politics, and I do try to help good candidates for office. The day of the bosses is gone. Just forget bossism; that is just a smoke screen.”
The Chronicle reporter noted that the crowd managed a good laugh at Finn’s insincere attempt to make self-deprecating comments.
But Rolph and the Chronicle pressed the “Boss” issue hard. There were ads calling Finn a Boss; there were editorial cartoons depicting Finn as a greedy and controlling boss; and the Chronicle ran front page editorials for several days prior to the election, with headlines like, “Shall City and State Be Forced to Bow the Knee Before Czar Tom Finn?”
Rolph’s popularity and Finn’s portrayal as a political boss were too much for Tom Finn to overcome. The Rolph voters (90,344) were Fitzgerald voters (91,135) and the Finn voters (62,474) were Power voters (59,442).
During the last 10 years of his life, Tom Finn entered into the insurance business but remained active in San Francisco’s political life and, from time to time, became a campaign issue for those he supported.
After Sunny Jim Rolph became Governor in 1931, Angelo Rossi was appointed to fill out the last year of Rolph’s term. Rossi had to seek election in November of 1931 and Finn was one of his supporters.
A paid political advertisement that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle just before the November election exploited a negative perception of Tom Finn’s continuing political influence:
“Rossi has ALWAYS been a Finn man,” the ad proclaimed. “The political power of Boss Finn has always been used toward reprehensible ends. As far back as October 30, 1911, the San Francisco CALL said of him, editorially: “FROM THE INCEPTION OF HIS POLITICAL CAREER, TOM FINN HAS BEEN ARRAYED WITH THE FORCES OF INDECENCY.” But INDECENT, or otherwise, the political power of Finn and his “Machine” has kept right on growing, until today, with one or two exceptions, “BOSS” Finn controls EVERY office in our San Francisco City Hall.” (San Francisco Chronicle, p. 26, October 26, 1931.)
Angelo Rossi won the election easily and went on to serve as Mayor of San Francisco for 13 years, until his support of Italian facist dictator Benito Mussolini effectively ended his political career.
After a brief illness, Thomas Finn died on January 5, 1938, at his home at 384 Parnassus Avenue. He was sitting in his living room talking with his wife Elizabeth and his two brothers when he collapsed and died from a heart attack. He was 62 years of age. After a funeral at St. Agnes Church on Masonic Avenue, Finn was buried at Holy Cross Cemetary in Colma, CA.
After his death, Tom Finn was publicly praised and mourned by many. The San Francisco Chronicle, which had excoriated him so viciously in 1927, ran a glowing biography of Finn that was serialized over six days. At his funeral he had 200 political, business and professional leaders as honorary pall-bearers. All City flags were ordered to half-mast by Mayor Angelo Rossi.
Sources: Boss Ruef’s San Francisco, Walton Bean, UC Press, 1952; Barons of Labor, Michael Kazin, U. of Illinois Press, 1987; San Francisco 1865-1932, William Issel, Robert Cherny, UC Press 1986; “The Life Story of Tom Finn,” Harry S. Peters, San Francisco Chronicle, January 9-14, 1938; “Where unionism holds undisputed sway,” Jules Tygiel, California History, Fall 1983; “Fountainhead of Corruption,” Merrit Barnes, California History, Summer 1979; SF Main Library: "NewsBank" San Francisco Chronicle archives; SF Main Library: SF Examiner and SF News Call-Bulletin archives.