THE BLOG

George Moscone's Living Legacy

03/25/2015 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015

Forty years ago, San Francisco was transformed by a political event that -- more than any other -- laid the foundation for the modern City we know today. The robust diversity in local government, the respect for civil rights and an overriding sense that the City by the Bay is defined as much by its neighborhoods as its bustling downtown are all rooted in a 1975 civic upheaval that continues to impact the community decades later.

Confused? Don't blame yourself. Books and conventional wisdom about the City offer a sadly uneven account of the 1970s, and you'd have to do a fair amount of research before concluding that George R. Moscone's election as the City's 37th Mayor was the event in question. Even then, you'd find scant documents and source materials to validate such an opinion. Until now.

This week the University of the Pacific's San Francisco campus will host a VIP tribute to Moscone, a 1953 alumni who served as Mayor for a little less than three years, before he was assassinated at City Hall on November 27, 1978. U.S. Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein is Honorary Chair of the event, which also features former State Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown, Jr., California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, former TV anchor Belva Davis, Jonathan Moscone -- Artistic Director for the California Shakespeare Theater and the late Mayor's youngest son -- and California State Librarian Greg Lucas.

It will be a welcome moment in the sun for a man who has been largely forgotten, unlike Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was also killed that day at City Hall, and the man who murdered them both, former Supervisor Dan White. Since then, Milk's iconic status as a martyred gay leader has grown enormously. But the legacy of George Moscone -- one of the most progressive mayors who ever governed a big American city -- has faded from view. Indeed, if the UOP event was merely a respectful, one-day memorial, the historical blackout might well have continued.

But the significance of this week's event is the announcement that Moscone's mayoral papers -- long thought to have been lost, and only recently discovered -- will be conveyed by his family to the University. It is a splendid gift to San Francisco, and a giant step toward establishing the Mayor's rightful place in the history books.

Just as important, the University will receive a video archive of more than 100 San Franciscans reflecting on Moscone's career. These richly detailed interviews were commissioned by the George R. Moscone Institute for Public Service, a non-profit organization, as part of an eventual documentary film. They include recollections by Feinstein, Burton, Brown, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, former Rep. George Miller and many others.

Each video addresses the question: Who was George Moscone, and why does he matter? The answer unfolds in over 125 hours of commentary -- but the short version is that he was the first Mayor who assembled a broad coalition of neighborhood supporters, and wrested political power away from the labor and business interests that had dominated the city for decades. He was an inclusive leader ahead of his time, and he quickly got down to work.

During his first days in office, Moscone helped block the Giants from moving to Toronto, and kept the team in San Francisco. During his first weeks he turned the city's white and conservative power structure on its head, appointing gays (including Milk) blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women, environmentalists and activists in record numbers to San Francisco's powerful boards and commissions. The old boys club of Italian and Irish powerbrokers gave way to new voices, all clamoring for a seat at the table.

At the same time, Moscone helped engineer a political revolution, backing voter approval of a plan to elect Supervisors from individual neighborhoods instead of having them run citywide. The resulting shift empowered community organizations for years to come. A sunny, upbeat man, the Mayor brokered sweeping change in a turbulent era and San Francisco would never be the same. Cut down at 49, he left behind a wife and four children.

But that was just the final chapter in Moscone's political career. Prior to City Hall, he was Majority Leader in the State Senate for nine years, and a Supervisor before that. He won passage of landmark gay rights legislation in California, legalizing sex between consenting adults. Long before states scaled back marijuana laws, he passed a bill de-criminalizing simple possession. Moscone launched the state's school lunch program and bilingual education in public schools. As a Supervisor, he helped kill construction of a freeway through Golden Gate Park.

Now, with the UOP archives, the long-delayed work of telling his story can begin. Moscone's papers -- more than 90 boxes -- are a treasure trove of speeches, memos, press releases, correspondence, news clippings and schedules. But the video archives are the real prize, and much of the credit goes to Jon Rubin, a respected documentary filmmaker who directed Moscone's get-out-the-vote campaign in 1975, and to Corey Busch, Moscone's Press Secretary and later Executive Vice President of the San Francisco Giants.

They sat down with a Who's Who of San Francisco in the 1970s, interviewing cultural figures like Paul Kantner, a member of the Jefferson Airplane, along with politicians, neighborhood activists, journalists, business officials, labor organizers and religious leaders. The videos also include members of Moscone's family, friends and former staff members. (Full disclosure: I worked for the Mayor as a deputy press secretary, and was interviewed).

These oral histories offer a vivid portrait, covering Moscone's childhood, his emergence as an All-City basketball star, his years as a law student and his rise in politics. They end with the story of a deeply divided City and a Mayor who knew San Francisco had to change. Nothing symbolized this more than his struggle to integrate the San Francisco Police Department, which notoriously resisted pressures to hire blacks, Latinos, gays and women.

It was the last civil rights battle George Moscone would fight -- and it cost him his life. When Supervisor Dan White abruptly resigned from the 11-member Board in November, 1978, depriving the police of a key supporter, the Mayor prepared to replace him with an appointee whose vote would finally pass an integration plan.

But White, buckling under pressure from police union leaders and the Chamber of Commerce, demanded his job back. Learning that Moscone would appoint someone else, he came to City Hall, asked to meet privately with the Mayor and shot him to death. The department was finally integrated in the aftermath of the tragedy.

In less than three years George Moscone left an indelible imprint on San Francisco, and then he was gone. One of the most eloquent testimonials in the archives comes from Calvin Welch, a veteran community activist who knew and worked with the Mayor.

"George's mayoralty had the most enduring impact of any post-war administration in San Francisco," said Welch. "He had the courage to see a city in deep distress and transition, and he bet on the transition. That bet has been paying dividends ever since. It's a god-damned shame people don't understand this about George."

Perhaps now they will.