To many, he was “Mr. Politics.” To others, he was known by the less flattering “Pink Bean Charlie.” By whatever name, there was no ignoring Charles Leo Preisker. For 27 years, this controversial, powerful potentate of county politics wheedled, cajoled, and confronted in an untiring effort to ensure that area government operated in accordance with his vision.
Preisker was born in Visalia in 1885. His family moved to Santa Maria in 1894 after the oldest child, Nora, was stricken with malaria. Preisker’s father, Thomas, earned a law degree while in his forties, and eventually became Santa Maria’s first city attorney.
Charles was taught early on about the value of a dollar; he opened a savings account in 1891 at age six and maintained it for more than 60 years. He graduated from Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 1907 and entered into partnership with his father the following year. In order to become better known in the community and solicit business for the firm, he took a job collecting monthly water bills door-to-door.
He also launched a political career, joined the area Republican Central Committee, and ran the successful campaign of the area’s State Assembly candidate. In 1909, he was off to Sacramento, where he became the reading and roll-call clerk for the legislature. In 1910, he won election to the State Assembly and was soon appointed chair of both the public utilities and the rules committees. He remained a fixture in California Republican politics for more than 50 years.
Preisker stepped upon the Santa Barbara County political stage in 1915 when Governor Hiram Johnson appointed him to fill Fremont C. Twitchell’s vacated 5th District supervisor post. This began his long tenure as county supervisor, during which, at one time, he boasted, “I made the headlines daily.”
His special targets during these 27 years as supervisor were inefficiency and red tape. Preisker rarely allowed the niceties of proper procedure and going through channels to concern him. As one observer noted, “Pity the poor person who should raise an objection,” because Preisker’s method was to “attack, never defend.” Department heads who were not operating up to Preisker’s standards might find themselves without a job. His power increased when he became chair of the county Board of Supervisors in 1925.
Preisker was instrumental in the construction of the county courthouse after the 1925 earthquake, a project many thought too expensive. He was good friends with the courthouse architect, William Mooser, who jokingly said he would include a throne room for Preisker in the new building. Opponents sarcastically called him “Caesar Preisker, imperial monarch of Santa Barbara.”
Preisker found himself embroiled in yet another controversy in the mid 1930s, facing charges of pushing the county to buy beans from a company in which he had an interest. Efforts to recall him failed, and grand jury indictments went nowhere. “Pink Bean Charlie” had dodged the bullet.
For years, one of Preisker’s primary opponents was Thomas M. Storke, publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press and a powerhouse in the area’s Democratic Party. These two imperious figures finally joined forces in 1941 when they met in Washington, D.C., and convinced the head of the federal Bureau of Reclamation to give high priority to the water needs of the county. This was an all-important link in the chain of events that ultimately led to the construction of Twitchell and Bradbury dams and the formation of Lake Cachuma.
Preisker retired as supervisor in 1943 and could look back on an accomplished record in the fields of transportation, health care, and agriculture, to name just a few. He died in 1966, bringing to a close the story of one of the most influential figures in the political history of Santa Barbara County.