Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

Acrimony, recall elections and divisiveness marked Palo Alto politics

by Don Kazak

"Wasn't that a time?" goes a folk song from the the 1960s, "wasn't that a terrible time?" In the '60s, the political scene exploded over the issue of growth, giving way to divisive, turbulent, polarized City Councils. The era was marked by slate elections, personal acrimony on the part of many of the players and, in 1962, one of the closest elections in the city's history.

Five years later, what is regarded as the most bitter, hurtful election in the city's history took place, when the entire City Council was forced to stand for a recall election.

The first major election of the decade, in 1962, sought voter approval for construction of Oregon Expressway, turning two-lane Oregon Avenue into the four-lane thoroughfare that exists now. The election came at a time when the City Council still was dominated by pro-growth forces, known by their rivals as the "establishment." On the other side were the "residentialists," who favored no growth or slow growth and showed that they could put up a good fight.

Because traffic congestion made it difficult for workers to get to work, companies in Stanford Industrial Park supported the expressway, and were willing to go to some lengths to get it.

One of the men who helped engineer the pro-Oregon vote, Hewlett-Packard division manager Jack Beckett, recalled a publicity stunt designed to call attention to the traffic problem, using a Channel 5 news crew that Beckett invited down to check it out.

And just to make sure that congestion would be bad that day, industrial park workers lined Oregon Avenue with their cars, ensuring a big jam-up, good TV footage and support at the ballot box.

More than 18,000 voters went to the polls a few days later. The expressway won, but only by 350 votes.

Although the residentialists lost that round, they began winning seats on the City Council, which was whittled down slowly from 15 members to nine in the '60s.

One of the residentialists who came to the fore as a result of the Oregon Expressway debate was a young law professor at Stanford University named Byron Sher. In 1965, Sher was elected to the Council, joining newly elected residentialists Enid Pearson and Ed Worthington and incumbents Kirke Comstock, Philip Flint and Bob Debs.

As a result of that election, the establishment had only a 7-6 majority on the Council and was in danger of losing control of the city government. Acrimony ran so high that routine actions, such as approval of the Council's minutes, often bogged down on 7-6 votes. At times, Council members became so disgusted they would walk out of meetings, remembers then Palo Alto Times reporter Jay Thorwaldson.

Thorwaldson's editor, Alexander Bodi, became so fed up with the situation that he wrote an editorial saying the whole Council should be recalled, Thorwaldson said. That led to the 1967 recall election that stands out as the most bitterly fought in Palo Alto's history.

The recall saved the day for the establishment, delaying residentialist control of the Council until the early 1970s, thanks to some clever campaign tactics. "The establishment ran as residentialists and made the residentialists look like obstructionists," explained former Mayor Ed Arnold.

Residentialists Flint, Sher and Worthington were ousted as a result of the recall. It was the only election that Sher, now a California assemblyman, has ever lost.

In retrospect, suggests Arnold, "there's enough blame to go around. Both sides contributed to it. Both sides were unwilling to enter a zone of reasonableness. There was quibbling about procedures and minutiae--you couldn't believe it."

"Those were very lively times," Sher said. "We were at a crossroads."