EMBRACING A NEW DEAL FOR AMERICA’S CITIES: THE POLITICAL CONVERSION OF SAN FRANCISCO’S ANGELO J. ROSSI
By: Patricia E. Hill, PhD and Ronald R. Rossi, Esq.
Angelo J. Rossi (1878-1948) remains one of the understudied figures in San Francisco history despite his local singularity as a second-generation Italian American mayor and tenure during the Great Depression and World War II (1931-1944). Rossi, whose formal education ended after the sixth grade, left neither public nor private papers. Recently, Rossi’s granddaughter provided primary sources-approximately 20,000 newspaper articles gathered by a clipping service-that have enabled us to analyze his role as a bridge figure between the charismatic big-city mayors of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and the technocrats who increasingly took the helms of American cities after World War II.
Here, we trace Rossi’s evolution from conservative, business-oriented city supervisor to a new mayor who promised to lower taxes and advocated self sufficiency to a proponent of emergency programs designed to curb unemployment to staunch advocacy of permanent federal relief for cities. A Republican, Rossi served in leadership positions for the United States Conference of Mayors and developed close working relationships with New York City’s Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin Roosevelt, and top members of his administration. Unlike his predecessors who eschewed federal involvement in municipal affairs, LaGuardia, a Republican mayor elected in 1933 and again in 1937 and 1941, embraced the New Deal’s relief programs.1 He modeled a results-oriented rather than an ideological administration that eased Angelo Rossi’s political conversion and brought San Francisco to the forefront of New Deal politics. Rossi’s experiences in San Francisco and exposure to the limits of loosely-regulated capitalism in other American cities convinced him that alliances with Washington and other big-city mayors trumped those in Sacramento and that the rhetoric of laissez faire failed to serve the city.
In its infancy, the New Deal was not supported openly by San Francisco’s business leaders, most of whom were staunchly conservative Republicans. Their prevailing view was that any able-bodied man who was not able to gain employment was lazy and that relief provided by the federal government should not be used to foster local projects.2 Angelo Rossi was no exception.
Prior to the New Deal, cities had little leverage with the federal government. The United States Constitution makes no provisions whatsoever for cities, which were dependent on state governments. Until the creation of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1932, America’s cities lacked a vehicle through which to advocate beyond their respective state capitols.3
According to Richard M. Flanagan, “scholars of the city do not take mayoral politics as seriously as the newspapers, think tanks, and the public. In a search for the laws of behavior that shape the city, the social sciences typically bypass city halls and look toward more fundamental factors of urban life, like demography and economy.”4 Yet during the Great Depression, mayors were among a very few elected officials with “genuine, close, daily human contact with the voters of the big city.”5 In strong-mayor cities including San Francisco, the mayor served as chief of state, chief legislator, and chief executive.6
Angelo Rossi was a protégé of popular Mayor James Rolph, San Francisco’s longest-serving executive. Californians chose Rolph as their governor in 1931, and Rossi was picked by the board of supervisors to fill out the remainder of Rolph’s term.7 Rolph was an advocate of strong city government who promoted growth and non-partisan consensus among the building trades and business leaders. Although he shared his mentor’s values, Rossi’s political success was unlikely. Seen by many as a pawn of Rolph, one paper opined that Rolph had been elected five times, but “Rossi’s unfortunate introduction to office as a mere holding tenant is not calculated to picture official longevity.”8
In the early 1930s, many Italians in San Francisco lacked a strong desire to assimilate into American society and lived relatively insular lives in the North Beach area of the city. Some contended they were unaware of discrimination. Only 30 percent of the Italians in San Francisco had become citizens by 1920–compared with 70 percent of the Germans and 76 percent of the Irish. By 1930, 44 percent of Italian men in San Francisco had become citizens, while only 31 percent of Italian women obtained citizenship.9 Few Italian Americans were elected to public office until long after the 1930s. For example, in election years 1909 through 1971, thirty-eight people of Irish descent were elected to San Francisco’s board of supervisors compared with only eleven of Italian descent. Rossi’s political fortunes were aided by 1932 charter revisions that increased the mayor’s authority by reducing the number of supervisors and curtailing their executive authority.10 Still, he lacked his predecessor’s charisma and ability as an orator and possessed only basic skills as a writer.
Rossi’s father, Angelo Rossi, Sr., immigrated to California from Italy in December of 1849 on a ship loaded with marble headed for America via Spain, eventually settling in the gold town of Volcano in the Sierra foothills of Amador County.11 In 1868, an Amador County poll listed Angelo Rossi, Sr. at the age of thirty-five as a hotelkeeper and his younger brother, Antonio Rossi, as a miner. Both were naturalized citizens.12 The poll contains very few Italian names. By the 1870s, Rossi, Sr. operated a general store. Angelo Jr. was born in Volcano in 1878, the sixth of seven children.13
When Angelo, Jr. was six years old, his father died. When he was twelve, the family home was destroyed by fire. Angelo’s mother moved her seven children to San Francisco.14 She spoke little English so Angelo spoke Italian at home and depended on his elementary school education in the city. He began work as a cash boy for a department store and an errand boy for a local florist.
Angelo Rossi married Grace Mabel Allen on April 16, 1902, in Old St. Mary’s Church in San Francisco. The couple lived with Rossi’s mother in North Beach before moving to their own flat in the Fillmore district. Later, they settled in a spacious home in the city’s Cow Hollow district. The couple had three children, one of whom, Eleanor, joined Rossi on many of his trips as mayor since his wife preferred to stay out of public life. Rossi established his own florist shop on Kearny Street, which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. During the rebuilding of the city’s downtown, his first significant foray into civic affairs, he opened another store on Kearny Street just two years after the earthquake and fire. His final florist store was in an Art Deco building at 45 Grant Avenue.15
Rossi’s civic-mindedness and desire to assimilate into San Francisco society is noteworthy. In 1914, he was appointed a member of the San Francisco Playground Commission. Rossi was elected to the board of supervisors in 1921. He served as the chairman of the finance committee and foreman of the San Francisco Grand Jury in 1928. He served as president of a local hospital and as director of the Florists’ Telegraph Delivery Association. From 1920 to 1921, he was the organizing director and president of the Downtown Business Association. In 1922, as a supervisor, he promoted legislation providing for a municipal organization to buy office supplies in a centralized manner.16
In some ways, Rossi was typical of many Italians/Italian Americans attracted to San Francisco. The city represented an emerging economy in California, both before and after the earthquake, with a harbor and railroad connections to the East. Most of San Francisco’s immigrants were Irish, German, Chinese, or Italian. Generally, the Italians were the last to arrive, with a major influx between 1900 and 1924. By 1920, Italians represented the largest group of foreign-born residents with 16 percent of the total.17 Few among the city’s first generation of Italian American children completed school, and most continued to speak Italian at home. In other respects, Rossi was atypical: he married a woman of English-Irish descent and made great efforts to assimilate, forming connections with non-Italian friends and business associates. After his first term as supervisor, Rossi ran for reelection and was supported by the major San Francisco newspapers. In 1925, the San Francisco Herald praised his “outstanding service,” and he counted then-mayor James Rolph and former U.S. senator and former mayor James Phelan among his backers. Few supporters listed in the article possessed Italian surnames.18 The San Francisco Chronicle also recommended Rossi’s reelection, contending that he was supported by business, fraternal, social, and labor ranks.19 The San Francisco Retailers and Protective Association urged Rossi’s reelection.20 The San Francisco Tribune, an independent weekly publication, noted that Rossi’s support was not limited to the Italian community. Despite this backing, all the incumbent supervisors save one were cleaned out of office.21
As a strong business advocate, Rossi was again elected supervisor in 1930. He mediated disputes and broke an impasse between the City of San Francisco and Ogden Mills over the purchase of what was then Mills Field (now the site of San Francisco International Airport).22 Rossi’s conservative business philosophy was demonstrated in his oft-repeated pledge to reduce taxes and balance the budget. When supervisors chose Rossi to serve the remainder of Rolph’s term as mayor later that year, few in San Francisco’s business community perceived the extent of the Depression (the failure rate of California banks was 8 percent compared with the national average of 36 percent).23
Despite local optimism, fiscal problems began to surface almost immediately. An alarming San Francisco News headline stated, “$1,000,000 Deficit Faces City for 1931-Mayor-Elect Rossi Issues Warning to Slash Municipal Expenses-$150,000 Job Aid Lost-Appropriation of $450,000 for Water Department Cuts Funds.”24 The early Depression approach to welfare and unemployment in San Francisco was to emphasize self sufficiency. Rossi named twenty-five prominent business leaders, both men and women, to sponsor an aggressive campaign for a $2.5 million bond. Rossi and the business community supported this program for both public improvements and for “the welfare of the unemployed.”25 A Chronicle headline announced, “Rossi Foresees Early Return to Prosperity.” In February of 1931, the relief bond passed, and it was hailed as a vote to stop the jobless problem. Rossi asserted, “We have demonstrated to the rest of the country a practical and humanitarian way of dealing with the serious unemployment crisis.”26
By August though, San Francisco faced acute unemployment. Rossi and other civic leaders including Colbert Coldwell, president of the San Francisco Real Estate Board, contended that $2 million in taxes was required to provide for public work during the coming winter. The August 12 San Francisco News reprinted a letter Rossi penned to President Hoover supporting a special session of Congress to provide emergency relief. Rossi noted that “San Francisco has performed its duty during the past eighteen months towards helping the needy, and in the honor of our city, it could be stated that no one has gone hungry here.” His support for Hoover’s special session was unexpected. The San Francisco Examiner quite emphatically stated, “Even Mayor Rossi Joins the Crusade for Extra Session of Congress.” Neither the mayor nor his conservative allies contemplated long-term or permanent federal assistance. Editorials before the election continued to opine that Rossi was conservative, dignified, and reliable.27 Even the New York Times praised Rossi for being a diligent and conscientious public servant and a more effective mayor than believed possible under the old “feeble” charter.28
Throughout his tenure as mayor, Angelo Rossi remained somewhat enigmatic. The son of immigrants without a formal education, he was identified with business owners and professionals more so than with labor. Described as earnest and modest, he became what historians William Issel and Robert Cherney characterized as “a carbon copy of his predecessor-always nattily dressed, with a fresh Boutonnière, an inveterate booster of San Francisco, but more constitutional monarch than a prime minister” once in office.29 Union membership in San Francisco almost doubled between 1933 and 1940, and the city’s electorate became overwhelmingly Democratic.30 Still, San Franciscans elected and reelected a conservative Republican businessman with few union ties, even after 1934-1935 strikes that resulted in the declaration of martial law.
By 1932, Rossi cut the city’s expenses $1.5 million and reduced salaries of city employees in an effort to avoid budget deficits. Reluctantly, Rossi came to the conclusion that the federal government must step in with a “definite and tangible program of relief.”31 At a local conference of city officials, he stated, “In this peacetime crisis, the nation must organize its men with picks and shovels as it does in time of war with guns and bayonets.” He advocated for “an enormous program of public works such as highway construction and reforestation to provide jobs.”32
As unemployment increased throughout the nation, Mayor Frank Murphy of Detroit called for a Conference of Mayors in June of 1932. Most attendees would be Democrats, and Rossi declined “because of urgent City business.”33 Rossi remained “pledged to the re-nomination of President Hoover” and attended the Republican convention that month.34
Twenty-nine mayors attended Murphy’s conference. The first United States Conference of Mayors played a significant role in passing the Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932. The Act did not provide direct relief for the unemployed but required self-liquidating projects that were financially solvent. It also required construction costs be returned by various fees and tolls.35 In San Francisco, Rossi continued to seek local funds for relief. For instance, in November of 1932, he supported the community chest’s solicitation of pledges from the business community to help the unemployed.36Rossi continued to articulate fiscal conservatism, stating that the tax burden must be lessened and that the budget must be balanced.37 In fact, city workers, after meeting with Rossi in early 1933, agreed to another pay reduction so that 12 percent of their salaries could go to the unemployed.38 Still, the fiscal crisis required closure of public facilities including the War Memorial Opera House and various libraries.39 An editorial in the Chronicle opined that there were 13,000 families on relief with 60,000 persons in need of help. San Francisco, however, continued to be one of the few large cities living on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Rossi declined an invitation to attend the Conference of Mayors again in early 1933, with the Chronicle opining that, since the city was solvent, the mayor did not need to go.40 Rossi’s letter to the mayors described San Francisco’s “most fortunate position” and asserted the city “faces no emergency.” But unemployment loomed, and Franklin Roosevelt’s political magic had begun to affect Angelo Rossi. He wrote the President complimenting his “inspirational inaugural message” and “submerging your party politics.”41 Rossi was beginning to understand both the limits of belt tightening and the potential of New Deal policies.
A majority of mayors who attended the second conference wanted the federal government to act quickly to help the unemployed in America’s cities. Detroit’s Murphy outlined four root causes of the urban emergency: the growth of municipal debt, tax delinquencies, the relief burden, and the inability of cities to raise taxes. The mayors in attendance agreed that due to the gravity of the situation, the United States Conference of Mayors should be established as a permanent legal body.42
The day after Roosevelt’s inaugural address, Rossi asked Governor Rolph and then the federal government for unemployment relief. Available cash had run out because of the failure to sell bonds.43 Almost apologetically, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the board of supervisors authorized an appeal for a $3 million federal loan to help with San Francisco’s unemployment.44
The New Deal received early approval from San Francisco’s newspapers. Editorials praised Roosevelt’s first steps as president, including his direct federal financial aid to cities.45 Rossi echoed the sentiment of the local press when he proclaimed that “our people owe a debt of deep gratitude to President Roosevelt for his extraordinary accomplishment for our welfare as a nation.”46 But Secretary Harold Ickes’ management style created a Public Works Administration (PWA) bureaucracy mired in red tape. Historian Bonnie Fox Schwartz notes that “PWA projects took months to get off the drawing boards,” which resulted in a lack of immediate relief for the unemployed.47
By mid-1933, San Francisco’s political and business leaders agreed to a $16 million program for self-liquidating improvements through the use of the PWA. Roosevelt telegrammed Rossi to tell him to start spending money.48 The PWA functioned in what at the time was an extraordinary manner-the federal government would purchase city bonds at a low interest rate and further advance 30 percent of the costs of all non-self-liquidating projects and 100 percent to projects that were self-liquidating.49 Rossi appointed a committee of twenty-five citizens to decide how the federal money would be spent, even though a bond issue had not yet passed.50 Not everyone in the city had abandoned the business-civic elite’s traditional commitment to self sufficiency, however. A San Francisco News editorial on July 6, 1933, asked, “Will San Francisco Play Ball?” The paper questioned whether or not Rossi’s appointees could provide sound advice.51 On July 24, 1933, the citizens’ committee approved the use of funds for the completion of the Hetch Hetchy water project.52
Rossi was again invited to attend the Conference of Mayors, which was to take place in Chicago on September 22, 1933. At this third conference, he was asked to provide a major address. Still, Rossi did not immediately accept the invitation. The San Francisco News urged the mayor to attend, as his address would be broadcast nationwide and would provide publicity for San Francisco.53 Rossi attended the conference and delivered his speech–the other speakers being no less than President Roosevelt, Secretary of the Interior Ickes, and Harry Hopkins. According to John J. Gunther, mayors who attended the September 1933 conference “could rightfully consider themselves in the center of a virtual revolution by law that had opened with the bank holiday of 5 March 1933 and now with the march of the army of alphabet soup agencies out into the hinterland was entering a time of testing and trial.”54 Hopkins argued that those on relief were not “tramps, hoboes, or the unemployables” but hardworking, upstanding people who had “gone overboard and got caught in this relief structure of ours.” He observed candidly that work relief had “a bad name in a number of cities.”55 The conference was a watershed moment for Rossi, who came away agreeing that it was the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that unemployed Americans made it through the upcoming winter. His speech reflected the fiscal conservatism on which he had built his career though and emphasized city-county consolidation in San Francisco and how the city had maintained municipal solvency. He discussed the new municipal charter and the fact that the board of supervisors could not dictate or interfere with his appointments. He noted with pride that San Francisco’s tax delinquency-only 5.3 percent as of 1932-1933-was among the nation’s lowest.56 Importantly though, the third Conference of Mayors changed Rossi’s view of federal-city relationships and provided an opportunity for him to observe firsthand partnerships between mayors and the New Deal administrators.
Rossi now realized that Roosevelt’s emerging New Deal could work, and he was “willing to engage in pragmatic experimentation.”57The conservative Republican business culture and laissez faire practices of the twenties had not snapped the country out of its economic catastrophe. Even Ickes declared that relief was a “bloodless revolution.”58 The Chicago Herald Examiner and the Chicago Tribune praised Rossi, and the San Francisco Chronicle welcomed him home
with appreciation for the excellent impression he made at the national convention of mayors held in Chicago. . . it was a compliment to San Francisco as well as to the merits of its mayor that Mr. Rossi was singled out for the program of speakers at the nationwide gathering. Mr. Rossi’s return deserves gracious public expression.59
Almost immediately, Rossi recommended that the board of supervisors prepare and submit $35 million in recovery construction programs for a bond election.60 Capitalizing on his prominence, Rossi reported that Ickes assured him that San Francisco’s plans for public works would be approved.61 The San Francisco News captured the political ramifications of this third Conference of Mayors. The paper noted Rossi’s past conservatism and that he was influenced by and responsible to business groups. Then it asserted that Rossi “plays square with the people” commending him “for his recognition that the people of San Francisco should be given the opportunity to pass on the NIRA program.”62
As the nation faced the winter of 1933-1934, Roosevelt created another new agency, the Civil Works Administration (CWA). He diverted $400 million of PWA funds to the CWA to provide work and wages without delay and put Harry Hopkins in charge. In contrast to the PWA, which had been “bogged down in technicalities, leaving most men with no immediate prospect for jobs until 1935,” the CWA employed workers directly on public projects. It was “a stop-gap measure to merely create jobs.” Hopkins had complete authority to pick projects as well as their directors. Incredibly, in approximately sixty days’ time, four million Americans were at work on CWA projects.63
Almost immediately after the formation of the CWA, Rossi left for Washington at Hopkins’ invitation seeking money to provide for 15,000 unemployed San Franciscans. The San Francisco Examiner called it “a journey which is hoped will transform the winter of discontent into a season of security for San Francisco’s unemployment.”64 The program was to provide five dollars a day-the prevailing wage for laborers-and was expected to put people to work within two weeks. For the first time, the city’s newspapers candidly acknowledged that this was indeed true relief.65
The depths of the Depression were well-illustrated when on Thanksgiving Day, 3,200 showed up to work on the Lake Merced Road project, and the San Francisco Chronicle displayed an almost full-page picture showing workers standing in long lines to enter the construction zone with picks and shovels.66 Shortly afterward, the San Francisco Examiner pictured two men looking at their paychecks, relating that those were the first received by either of them in three years. Rossi continued to praise the CWA and stated somewhat awkwardly, “Yesterday marked the taking off relief lists and the placing in employment of thousands of our fellow San Franciscans. None who remarked the enthusiasm with which these thousands so long deprived of proper morale joyously took to the arduous tasks on our day of national holiday, Thanksgiving.”67
Rossi wrote a New Year’s article for the Call Bulletin in which he asserted, “The various recovery measures adopted by the President. . . are beginning to show real results.”68 Despite its popularity, the CWA generated criticism. Complaints came from contractors who found themselves shut out by CWA projects. Corporate agriculture also opposed the CWA because of its relatively higher wages. Traditional conservatives attacked make-work as contrary to the American ideal. Roosevelt decided to disband the CWA in January 1934.69
Undaunted, Rossi and Governor Rolph promoted a birthday party for Roosevelt on President’s Day 1934-two California Republicans supporting a Democratic President and using the opportunity to lobby for additional federal funds. The Call Bulletin reported that $36.7 million had been spent on relief in San Francisco in 1933.70 One editorial contended brazenly that San Francisco would have no problems with further federal relief because Rossi had befriended and won the confidence of Secretary Ickes and asserted that not even the powerful Democratic lobby would attack San Francisco’s Republican mayor.71 In the summer of 1934, the first PWA money was released for federal projects, including a pipeline crossing San Francisco Bay and the general hospital.72 Still, the ethic of self sufficiency remained powerful enough to persuade supervisors to cut the payroll of city employees by 60 percent.73
By November of 1934, midterm elections strengthened New Dealers in Congress.74 That same month, the United States Conference of Mayors met in Chicago and continued to advocate federal works and relief programs. Rossi formed an alliance with Mayor LaGuardia through which they lobbied for public housing, slum clearance, and direct loans to municipalities. In a notable departure, Rossi joined LaGuardia and other big-city mayors who advocated a permanent federal public works program. No longer an outsider courted by the Conference of Mayors with speaking opportunities and a position on the executive committee, delegates reelected Rossi to his leadership position as a key contributor. The mayors named LaGuardia their president-elect.75 The Call Bulletin illustrated the Italian American mayors’ alliance with a photo of Rossi and LaGuardia captioned “East Meets West.”76
America’s mayors received much of what they wanted when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7034 in April of 1935, creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The program was simple: one had to be at least eighteen years old, unemployed, not on relief, physically fit, and possess work skills. Only one family member could take part in the program. Preferences were given to veterans, then widows, and then wives of unemployed veterans. The city supplied the labor, and the federal government paid for most project expenses. The WPA made available $4.88 billion dollars for relief in an effort to increase employment by replacing projects abruptly ended by the demise of the CWA.77 The mayors were back in business with federal funding for city projects-not simply for federal projects. The WPA “ushered in a new period of public works unrivalled even by the salad days of the CWA.”78 It reinforced strong ties between cities and the federal government that allowed mayors including Angelo Rossi to realize continued support from the electorate without significant support from the states.
Rossi’s 1935 candidacy statement emphasized fiscal responsibility but also his dealings with the federal government to obtain relief.79 In September, the city received $3 million in funding for the Yerba Buena projects and an additional $5 million of WPA money. The Call Bulletin ran extensive coverage: “Our fair [the 1939 World’s Fair] is assured thanks to the individuals who worked for their San Francisco.” Rossi received a good deal of the credit.80 The October 1935 issue of Coast and Pacific Banker heartily endorsed Rossi for reelection. The editorial stressed his understanding of both businessmen and the working man and praised his “absence of hullaballoo.” The paper asserted that city government “has moved along as it should, like well-oiled clockworks, no trouble, no excitement, everything as it should be” while pointing out that Rossi’s life was marked by a very modest beginning, poor in dollars, rich in ambition.81 The San Jose Mercury News noted that business and civic leaders as well as labor supported Rossi.82 The San Francisco Examiner endorsed Rossi with the headline “Reelection of Rossi Urged to Stabilize City.” The press praised Rossi’s modesty and his safeguarding of city benefits. Much of the coverage gave Rossi credit for WPA wages in San Francisco. He was reelected in a landslide.83
Unlike his previous public statements, Rossi’s annual message in January of 1936 was a reassertion of his relationship with the federal government. He stated, “I am happy to announce that nearly all citizens of San Francisco eligible under the Works Progress Administration are now engaged in gainful occupation of a character commensurate with their ability and previous business and professional training.” He emphasized his influence with Washington and New Deal administrators when he claimed that San Francisco was the only Pacific coast city able to comply with federal programs.84 In fact, the city went on to sponsor an additional $8 million in WPA projects.85
Some western mayors attacked the WPA-the mayor of Santa Barbara, for example, contended that “a man must register as a Democrat to obtain work relief”-but LaGuardia and Rossi continued to support the Roosevelt administration and WPA programs.86 In April of 1936, the New York Times showed the Italian-American mayors jumping onto a pier from a San Francisco tugboat. Hopkins and Rossi co-sponsored a radio program on the WPA, which aired on June 19, 1936.87 The following week, Rossi waved to reporters as he re-entered San Francisco under a headline that read, “Home with the Bacon: Mayor Returns with Promises.”88 At the November 1937 Conference of Mayors in Washington, Rossi firmly rejected any notion of urban self sufficiency stating:
“I agree that the cost of government should be cut wherever possible, but it’s all too easy to get up on a platform and shout ‘Reduce spending!’ What would happen if we turned 22,000 on relief in San Francisco out into the street? Unemployment is not a temporary local problem. It’s a national problem and must be addressed by the federal government.”89
Attendees made Rossi chairman of the Conference’s executive committee, further cementing his status as an advocate of New Deal programs.90 The mayors’ group, now led by two Republicans, warned against allowing politics to determine federal aid to cities. LaGuardia claimed, “This is too serious a problem to be used as a political bludgeon for any person’s party but cries out to every red-blooded American for solutions to predicting increased demands for federal funds unless the business recession ends.”91
Federal programs spent more than $8 million on parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities in San Francisco by the end of 1937.92 Rossi was especially pleased when Roosevelt decided to visit San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy water project near the Yosemite Valley.93 In July of 1938, the President arrived in San Francisco to see the new Treasure Island, being built for the upcoming fair-a visit marked by tumultuous crowds and celebratory editorials.94 Newspapers showed pictures of Roosevelt with Rossi, at lunch, going to the site of the Golden Gate Exposition, and dedicating numerous monuments.95
Despite these connections, PWA grants to San Francisco were rescinded a month later and the WPA cut back by the end of the year. More than 20,000 WPA workers protested in San Francisco.96 Still, Congress and perhaps even the president remained unconvinced that federal relief to cities was more than an emergency requirement. The Conference of Mayors continued to advocate for permanent federal relief, and asked for another $150 million WPA deficiency appropriation.97 But with increased employment and war imminent, public relief was no longer of primary importance to the federal government, and mayors had to present new projects such as those related to national defense to assure continued aid. Rossi’s reelection to the Conference of Mayors’ board of trustees was confirmed at the May 1939 meeting.98 LaGuardia’s reelection as president was unanimous. But the headlines were not as large, and the press devoted much less attention to the proceedings.
Rossi ran for mayor again beginning in June of 1939. A San Francisco Examiner article noted that Rossi at 61 “had been closely identified with public affairs since 1914 when the late James Rolph, then mayor, placed him on the playground commission.”99 In November, San Francisco voters rewarded Rossi with a third term largely on the basis of his national prominence and success securing New Deal funding for local projects that soothed the economic pain of the Depression. Soon afterward, federal relief programs all but came to an end; war would present new challenges for America’s cities. Rossi ran again in 1943. He was defeated by Roger Dearborn Lapham, a political newcomer who promised to serve only a single term. Rossi died in 1948 at the age of 70. His estate was valued at a relatively modest $40,000 plus two parcels of real property.100 The funeral cortège stretched for blocks.
Angelo Rossi lacked the mass appeal of LaGuardia, the flair of Rolph, or the cosmopolitan nature of Roosevelt, but he led the city through trying times by downplaying fiscal conservatism and self sufficiency in order to embrace New Deal pragmatism. Most notable was his conviction by the end of 1934 that the federal government should play a permanent role in urban relief efforts. Mayors knew the political benefits one could derive from obtaining federally sponsored public-improvement projects.101 But Rossi’s transformation was too slow to be attributed solely to political self interest. His conversion was gradual-initially accepting the need for emergency federal intervention and only later accepting the position of his big-city colleagues that an increasingly urban nation’s maladies required national redress. It has been said that big-city mayors “have little in common but the lack of a political future.”102 During the Depression, however, San Francisco’s Angelo Rossi discovered that he had much in common with those in his own party and with Democrats who understood the new reality of urban-federal relationships.
1 Melvin G. Holli, The American Mayor: The Best & the Worst Big-City Leaders (University Park, Penn., 1999), 155, 119. See also Mason B. Williams, City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York (New York, 2013).
2 Roger W. Lotchin, ed., The Way We Really Were: The Golden State in the Second Great War (Urbana, 2000), 71. See the following on San Francisco in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Philip J. Ethington, The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco, 1850-1900 (Berkeley, 2001), Jeffrey Haydu, Citizen Employers: Business Communities and Labor in Cincinnati and San Francisco, 1870-1916 (Ithaca, 2008), and Michael Kazin, Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era (Urbana, 1987).
29 William Issel and Robert W. Cherny, San Francisco 1865-1932: Politics, Power, and Urban Development (Berkeley, 1986), 198. In two recent works, Issel argues that San Francisco Catholics nurtured relationships with the business community, unions, and city government to shape civic life. He sees Rossi’s political success as an example of Catholic leaders’ power and prestige. See For Both Cross and Flag: Catholic Action, Anti-Catholicism, and National Security Politics in World War II San Francisco (Philadelphia, 2010), 168-169 and Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in Twentieth-Century San Francisco (Philadelphia, 2012).