Stephen L. Zetterberg, who ran against RN in 1948 to represent the 12th congressional district in the House of Representatives, died on Friday at his home in Claremont, California. He was 92.
His obituary appears in many papers today, among them The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Born in Galesburg, Ill., on Aug. 2, 1916, Zetterberg grew up in Newcastle, Ind., and moved to Claremont as a teenager. He graduated from Pomona College in 1938 with a degree in political science. After earning a law degree at Yale in 1942, he served in the Coast Guard during World War II.
In 1946 he worked on the staff of Sen. Scott Lucas, an Illinois Democrat, before returning to Claremont to open a law office. He later became known as a creative litigator who waged successful class-action lawsuits in the 1970s, according to his son Charles, also a lawyer.
Zetterberg never attained public office, despite a second run for Congress in 1950, but he remained active in Democratic politics and played an important part in reviving California’s Democratic Party in the 1950s.
“He and several other Democrats were founders of the Democratic club movement,” said Lee McDonald, a professor emeritus of government at Pomona College who knew Zetterberg for more than 50 years.
The clubs, which coalesced into the California Democratic Council, registered voters, helping Democratic numbers climb in the late 1950s. Cross-filing, which had weakened the party, ended in 1959 and the Democrats swept the 1962 elections, with Pat Brown winning the governorship over former Vice President Nixon.
In his last decades, Zetterberg served on the boards of the Pomona Valley YMCA and Casa Colina, a rehabilitation hospital in Pomona.
His wife of 67 years, Connie, died in 2007. In addition to his son Charles of Claremont, he is survived by sons Alan of Princeton, N.J., and Arvid Pierre of San Francisco; a daughter, Del, of Plains, Mont.; and nine grandchildren.
Some obituarists imply that the race was anything but a foregone conclusion. Douglas Martin in the New York Times devotes two paragraphs to Frank Mankiewicz’ interpretation:
Mr. Mankiewicz noted that 1948 was becoming a Democratic year, with President Harry S. Truman gaining strength through the fall and winning in California as he went on to defeat Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Democrats also picked up House seats in California, as they did in the rest of the country.
“Had Zetterberg won that primary and forced Nixon into a straight Republican-Democratic contest in November, it is likely Nixon’s career would have ended then,” Mr. Mankiewicz wrote.
Of course it’s impossible to say for sure what the outcome might have been if things had happened differently. But they didn’t, and the fact remains that RN won the election by a handy 4,000 votes.
Although ’48 was a decisively Democratic year, once the 12th District had found a congenial Republican congressman (much less one who had superb constituent service and who had just become a national hero as a result of the Hiss case), it would have taken a remarkable turn of events for him to be replaced. Jerry Voorhis had declined to challenge RN for his old seat, and the Democrats had to field a candidate. Mr. Zetterberg, a party stalwart and civic minded activist, offered himself; as he later described his role, it was that of “the sacrificial lamb.”
Even Fawn Brodie, who can be counted on to dredge the fever swamps for any anti-RN evidence or interpretation, is relatively objective about the ’48 election:
Zetterberg had little money; he reported that he spent exactly $1,123.21 in the campaign. Although of Swedish descent, his name suggested to many a Jewish origin, and this cost him votes among the numerous anti-Semites in this strongly conservative WASP district. Nixon won easily in both primaries.
Other obituaries indicate that RN won as a result of underhanded tactics. Thus, Elaine Woo in the LA Times: “Zetterberg…refused to cross-file because he thought it was unethical, but Nixon apparently had no such scruples.”
Mr. Zetterberg’s decision to stand on his principles and not cross file was consistent and admirable. But it hardly indicts RN that he availed himself of a legal and commonly used option. (Cross-filing had been instituted in 1915; by 1942, 50 percent of state candidates cross-filed; the practice continued for another decade until it was ended in 1959.)
Mr. Zetterberg sounds like a lively and engaging invididual: “He audited courses at Pomona College for 30 years, taking classes in music, astronomy, Asian history, geology and quantum physics well into his 80s. He practiced law until January 2008.” He was very active in the Trial Lawyers for Justice, a public interest law firm.