The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1999, Volume 45, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Morning Glories: Municipal Reform in the Southwest.

By Amy Bridges. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Bibliography, notes, tables. xiv + 224 pages. $35.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Gregg R. Hennessey, who has written about San Diego and reform and about George W. Marston, one of the many Southwest “Morning Glories.”

San Diego, with typical municipal pride, likes to recall fondly its emergence from town to city about a century ago when the forces of business and “good” government came together to move us towards a promised life of nearly endless growth and prosperity. These businessmen-reformers said government should be run with efficiency, honesty, and attention to the bottom line. Using as bogey men eastern cities with their strong political parties that controlled elections and city government, small city southwestern reformers wailed about “Trouble” with a capital T right here in their towns, including San Diego. One east coast political boss called all urban reformers “Morning Glories,” referring to the flower that blooms brightly in the morning but quickly withers in the heat of the day. The people, which is to say the business leaders, rose in righteous, non-partisan fury and swept away the old system. In its place they installed a “city manager” to run the town according to the business establishment’s agenda. The new and weakened city council elected-at-large shifted their loyalties from the voters to the city. What the east coast boss did not know about morning glories was that they are tenacious, invasive plants that drive other plants out, especially in the Southwest.

San Diego’s experience, as much as we may like to think otherwise, was not heroic or even unusual. Professor Amy Bridges, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego, has studied eight southwestern cities from Texas to California which went through comparable political reform experiences over the same time period. Local conditions made for some local variations but in the main these eight cities followed similar paths and methods and experienced similar problems and outcomes. To know San Diego is to know them all, in a manner of speaking.

When the Progressive Movement began to preach urban reform at the beginning of this century San Diego, like these other southwestern towns, was small and weak. It had negligible financial resources, ineffectual political leadership, and was at the mercy of larger outside forces that provided essential services such as water, power, and transportation. (In San Diego’s case the major outside force, John D. Spreckels, moved into town in 1906, making for one of those interesting local variations in Professor Bridges’s study.) Substituting “business for politics” was the reformer’s rallying cry heard across the Southwest, including San Diego. It neatly captured the supposed merits of the new system (commission or city manager government) and the purported vices of the old ways (political mayors and councils). The fight was not an easy one. In San Diego it took nearly thirty years before an acceptable city manager form of government was approved by the voters. It only came after the inflated prosperity of the 1920s — fueled almost entirely by the U. S. Navy — and the passing of J. D. Spreckels.

One of the major results of the new reforms was, in essence, to disenfranchise working class and minority voters. The effect was not unintended. The much vaunted idea of non-partisanship removed from the process political parties and their traditional role of organizing local voters and also replaced district elections for city council seats with city-wide at-large-elections. Texas cities and Phoenix used more direct disenfranchisement methods such as poll taxes and literacy tests. As these traditional voting groups were shut out of the political process, smaller more elite groups of voters came to dominate election results as did the winning candidates.

The early groups of reformers were not very successful at advancing their growth agenda, hampered as they were by the Depression. Following World War II a new group of business elites came in and reinvigorated the reform/growth coalitions. In San Diego, as elsewhere, the post-war boom proved to be the apogee for these groups. Fueled by massive federal spending in both military and social programs, San Diego and its fellow Southwest cities grew rapidly and massively into important metropolises. The growth they had so long sought was happening but with the built-in irony that would prove their undoing. Growth brought new taxes and new citizens. Each in their turn would challenge the reform/growth ruling federation. Minority citizens began demanding equal treatment in education, city services and jobs, and access to city decision making. Tied in intimately with the federal government, as cities now were, the Civil Rights movement proved an opening wedge to the dominate and exclusive political structure. As cities expanded through annexation, the local tax burden for city services grew apace. The tax revolt of the late 1970s coupled with rising anti-growth sentiments split apart the old coalition for good. New reformers across the Southwest began demanding a return to district elections as a way of regaining more citizen control over local decision-making. By 1988 San Diego became the last of the cities under study here to adopt the new/old method of democratic representation.

Professor Bridges has filled an important gap in America’s urban and political reform history. She shows us the uniqueness of the southwestern experience and offers it as counter balance to prevailing interpretations that focus only on the East and Midwest. The book also does good service to San Diego. It anchors our history into a regional context and gives us a wider field for understanding our roots. To this historian’s eye this political science study offers more breath than depth but there is no doubting the strength of her evidence and the validity of her conclusions.