There is a saying that voters get the politicians that they deserve. This may have been true in the case of Sheriff James J. McGrath. His name was connected with the corruption of San Mateo County in first half of the 20th century, but the voters kept returning him to office.
Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum
McGrath served for 24 years as San Mateo County sheriff.
McGrath was born in New York City to Irish immigrant parents who then moved to San Francisco and finally San Mateo. Young James, along with his brother and sister, attended local public schools and then he attended The University of Santa Clara.
After that, James worked at various jobs in mechanics and steam engineering. He eventually worked at the San Mateo post office. He ran for county auditor, but lost by seven votes.
James was a gregarious man, cultivating friendships wherever he went. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus, serving as grand knight. He also joined the Elks, where he became the exalted ruler of the San Mateo lodge. Among his more fortuitous friendships was with Emilio Georgetti, with whom he worked at a shipyard in South San Francisco and with Horace Amphlett, publisher of the San Mateo Times, who was a fellow Elk.
When Sheriff Brick McGovern died, McGrath’s friends saw to it that he was appointed to fill that vacancy, even though Jim had no law enforcement background at all. This was in 1927. McGrath was elected to the next term, and continually returned to office until 1951.
Prohibition was in full swing in 1927, offering plenty of activity in the “wet” county of San Mateo. Gambling was also a favorite pastime, especially in the north part of the county where San Franciscans could easily cross the line and participate in such illegal amusements. There was lots of opportunity for aggressive law enforcement. This was not McGrath’s style, however.
Emilio Georgetti, McGrath’s friend from South San Francisco in 1916, had by now become a gambling king in the area. He operated clubs in several towns in the county. In 1934 he was living in San Mateo. He had a ranch in Idaho that his friend McGovern visited, and James even invested in Georgetti’s Hollywood Turf Club. Oddly enough, it seemed that none of Georgetti’s gambling clubs were ever raided. On one occasion, after complaints made it impossible to ignore, a raid on Georgetti’s Willow Tree Club in Colma found the place empty.
In 1946, Santa Clara County attempted to clean up its problems of corruption and placed its sheriff on trial. Evidence came out involving San Mateo County, but no investigation was made and McGrath was re-elected the same year by a landslide.
McGrath was not the cause of corruption in the county during his term in office, but he seems to have represented the style of law enforcement that was preferred by the people in power at the time. Even if he had wanted to clean things up, the Board of Supervisors didn’t allocate money to curb corruption. In 1945, there was only one deputy assigned to patrol the north county.
Finally, in the election of 1950, Earl Whitmore won. The new influx of post-war suburbanites was dissatisfied with business as usual. Later investigations by the State Crime Commission indicate that the corruption had been more widespread than most people probably realized. McGrath, by then a man of more than 300 pounds, had died of a heart attack. His funeral was attended by hundreds of his friends.