Gale Kaufman: California Campaign Trailblazer

Gale Kaufman, who started in politics as a volunteer registering voters at age 17, became one of California’s premier political consultants, rising at a time when few women were in the business.

In this oral history, Kaufman recalls working as an San Francisco City Hall on that horrible day, Nov. 27, 1978, when her friend, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, was assassinated, and she watched as Dianne Feinstein announced the death of Mayor George Moscone and Milk.

She counts as a mentor former Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr., perhaps the most talented political operator ever in California, and describes her surprising role helping him maintain his speakership against an attempt by five Democrats to unseat him.

She offers an insider perspective on the 1994 election in which Republicans gained a 41-39-seat majority in the Assembly, ultimately leading to Brown’s decision to leave the Assembly and become San Francisco mayor. Kaufman advised two major forces in organized labor, SEIU and the California Teachers Association, and was the lead consultant in defeating multiple California initiatives that were part of a national effort to weaken labor unions by restricting their ability to collect union dues.

Along the way, she competed with David Axelrod, who later became Barack Obama’s chief strategist, and bested one of the GOP’s top strategists, Mike Murphy. And for much of the time, she was a single mother, often bringing her son to strategy meetings. – Dan Morain

This oral history is part of the Open California Oral History Project and was made possible by a grant from the California State Library. It has been edited for clarity and continuity.


Transcript for Part I.


Transcript for Part II.

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