At least four current and former big city mayors are thought to be considering a bid for the White House when voters go to the polls in 2020. These candidates range from representatives of the progressive left like Bill de Blasio to more business-oriented mayors like Michael Bloomberg, who preceded de Blasio as mayor of New York City. Whether they know it or not, all of them owe some debt to a man who served as mayor of San Francisco for fewer than three years and who was killed 40 years ago this week.
George Moscone is now remembered outside of his hometown as the mayor assassinated along with Harvey Milk by a former colleague of Milk’s on the city’s Board of Supervisors on November 27, 1978. But Moscone’s impact and vision is much more significant than that.
In the mid-1970s, things were beginning to change in America. African-American candidates in cities like Newark, Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles had been recently elected, but in much of urban America the Democratic Party machine was still in control, via mayors like Abe Beame in New York and Richard Daley in Chicago. San Francisco was different. In 1975, Moscone, then the majority leader of California’s State Senate, won a very close election on a platform that was radical for the time, particularly for an ethnic white candidate like an Italian-American from a working-class corner of the city.
Moscone’s radical ideas in that campaign included creating a city government that was not dominated by white men but that looked more like the city. Once elected, he fulfilled this promise by appointing Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and gay people to important positions and commissions. One of those gay people was Milk, a Jewish New Yorker who had recently moved to San Francisco and who had already twice failed to be elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors.
Moscone always stressed the need for municipal government that focused on improving living conditions and giving neighborhood voices more power rather than pursuing blindly pro-growth policies aimed at keeping important labor and business constituencies happy. Today’s mayoral candidates don’t need to mention their focus on neighborhoods, because it is just assumed all viable politicians share that emphasis.
The issues and promises that Moscone campaigned upon now are taken for granted in most American cities, but in the 1970s they challenged powerful interests. Moscone’s effort to implement police reform of a kind that a decade or more later would be understood as something like community policing earned him tremendous rancor from the police, who saw that their mayor was seeking to end the days when they could beat up or harass gays, African- American and others with impunity. Powerful business interests that had run the city for a century were also not happy to see neighborhood activists involved in land use decisions, but this was Moscone’s vision.
During his truncated term as mayor, Moscone struggled to implement this progressive vision with many powerful interests lined up against him. The Board of Supervisors was led by a moderate who had her own vision for the city and who was able to craft a consistent 6-5 majority in her favor. That almost changed when the most conservative member of the Board resigned, leaving Moscone with the opportunity to replace him with a progressive and tip the balance of the Board towards him.
We will never know what George Moscone’s San Francisco would have looked like because hours before he was going to announce the appointment of Don Horanzy to replace the reactionary Dan White, giving the mayor a majority on the city’s legislature, White shot the mayor at point blank range and then walked down the hall and assassinated Supervisor Milk. In those few minutes, San Francisco was changed forever. Moscone’s replacement was Dianne Feinstein, a savvy centrist who was much more open to business and real estate interests than the man she replaced. But Feinstein, now the Democratic Party’s senior California senator, also understood that some of what Moscone had done should not be reversed and continued his policy of diverse appointments to the city government.
That kind of diversity has become standard policy for local legislatures, even the most conservative ones. Moscone’s relentless rhetoric about neighborhoods might now seem like shopworn platitudes, but they were genuinely new and important when he was saying and doing those things in 1975. While Milk’s name is much more widely known than Moscone, the legacy of the man who was briefly mayor of San Francisco is still very much with us.
Lincoln Mitchell is a writer and scholar based in New York and San Francisco. He teaches in Columbia University’s Political Science Department and is the author of the forthcoming “San Francisco Year Zero: Political Upheaval, Punk Rock and a Third Place Baseball Team” Rutgers University Press, 2019. @LincolnMitchell
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