With the new, overwhelmingly Democratic legislative class being sworn in today, we’ve seen multiple references in news reports since the election that the Democratic Party dominance in statewide, congressional and legislative races is the greatest since 1883. Anyone else curious to what was happening in California in 1882 to cause what we can call the first “blue wave” (even though color schemes had not yet been assigned)? Might it have something to do with issues that are still hot today: immigration and transportation.
There was no Donald Trump or Twitter around in 1882 to blame. The president was a Republican, Chester A. Arthur, but he hardly had been in office long enough to offend anyone. He took over the year before for the assassinated James Garfield.
In our most recent election, Democrats grabbed all the constitutional offices and gained massive majorities in both houses of the legislature, 60 members of the 80-member assembly, and 29 of the 40 in the senate. In addition, they turned seven Republican congressional seats bringing the total number of California Democrats in the House of Representatives to 46 out of 53.
In 1882, Democrats also carried all the statewide offices including some elected positions that do not exist anymore, Surveyor General and Clerk of the Supreme Court. They captured the assembly with 61 members, one more than now. Before the 1882 election, California had four representatives in Congress, two from each party. The 1880 census created two more seats for the state, which would be contested for the first time in 1882. The Democrats swept all six seats.
For one thing, a recession kicked in March of 1882. The party in power often suffers under such circumstances. This recession followed fairly closely after the Panic of 1873, a severe economic downturn that lasted five years.
1882 was the year that congress passed the first comprehensive immigration law. The Immigration Act of 1882 established categories of foreigners determined to be “undesirables” to enter the United States. That same year congress also passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, shelving immigration of Chinese laborers.
These actions were not unfamiliar to Californians. Just a few years before, in 1879, Californians approved a new state constitution that denied rights to Chinese residents.
It seems likely that the large incoming legislative class supported these policies.
Perhaps more dominate in the campaigns of 1882 was the issue of the railroads. According to Alex Vassar, California State Library Communications Manager and Legislative Historian, “The railroads had accumulated power through the 1860s and 1870s, and the second constitutional convention was held as a response to that. In 1882, Californians elected George Stoneman (D) as Governor on a platform of regulating controlling railroad prices and limiting the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad.”
But despite the Democratic dominance in that one election, things changed quickly. Vassar points out the turnover of legislators in those days was very volatile. He stated that 63 of 97 freshman legislators in the 1882 class served only two years or less. He also noted the “shifting of the legislature’s partisan make-up, with Assembly Democrats bouncing from 18 (in 1880) to 33 (in 1881), all the way up to 61 (in 1883) before falling back to 20 (in 1885).”
Of the six California house seats captured by the Democrats in 1882, five were lost to Republicans in 1884.
While Republicans hope for a similar change of heart with the voters it is certain not to happen as quickly in present day California.