Stephen L. Zetterberg dies at 92; Democratic attorney’s early elective loss helped set Nixon on winning course

Stephen L. Zetterberg remained active in Democratic politics and played an important part in reviving California's Democratic Party in the 1950s, helping to found the Democratic club movement.
(John Lucas / Pomona College)

Stephen L. Zetterberg, an attorney and longtime Democratic activist whose unsuccessful 1948 bid for Congress bolstered Richard M. Nixon’s political ascent in the 1950s, died of natural causes Friday at his Claremont home, his son said. He was 92.

The Claremont attorney ran against Nixon, then a first-term congressman from Whittier, during a bizarre period in California electoral history when a practice called cross-filing was in wide use. It allowed Republicans to run in Democratic primaries and Democrats in Republican primaries without naming their party affiliation. The system favored incumbents, who were listed first on the ballot.

Zetterberg, pushed into his first bid for elected office when no other credible Democrat could be enlisted, refused to cross-file because he thought it was unethical, but Nixon apparently had no such scruples. Nixon, who already had gained national prominence for pressing the Alger Hiss spy case, was listed as the incumbent on both parties’ ballots.

As Zetterberg recalled in a 1972 article for The Times, “I encountered many voters who thought that Rep. Nixon was a Democrat, and some showed me their sample ballots to prove it.”

Nixon defeated Zetterberg by more than 4,000 votes and handily won reelection in the general election. He quickly progressed up the political ladder, winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1950, the vice presidency under Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and the White House in 1968.

Years later, Zetterberg recalled his role in the Nixon saga with good humor, calling himself “the sacrificial lamb” who was “dispatched so mercilessly” early in Nixon’s steady march toward the nation’s highest office.

If his early loss to Nixon bothered him, it wasn’t until much later, after the Watergate scandal caused the controversial Republican to become the first president to resign from the Oval Office.

“As soon as someone hears that I ran against Nixon in ’48 . . . they will say, ‘Why didn’t you win?’ ” he said in an oral history interview in 1976, after Nixon had left office. “And that says something about Nixon because these are people who don’t even know me.”

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.

He also was a longtime supporter of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a national public interest law firm with offices in Washington and Oakland.

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.

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.

Zetterberg was cremated. A memorial service is planned in about a month.