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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,497

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This is the grave of George Moscone.

Born in 1929 in San Francisco, Moscone grew up in that city’s large Italian community. He went to Catholic schools and then to the College of the Pacific (Go Tigers! Back when Oregon was horrific at football in the early 80s, they would schedule Pacific for easy wins and then lose to them. Pacific later just got rid of its football program entirely) to play basketball and baseball. He majored in Sociology and graduated in 1953. He then went to Hastings for his law degree. He got interested in politics in part because he was friend with the Burtons, who were a mini-dynasty in San Francisco politics in these years. Phil Burton, who later served a long time in Congress, recruited Moscone to run for a seat in the state legislature. He didn’t win, but he then ran for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco and won a seat in 1963.

On the Board, Moscone was a strong liberal, standing up for the rights of the poor and people of color. He also worked hard to stop a freeway that would have cut right through Golden Gate Park and destroyed several neighborhoods, most of which were also those of poor communities. This was the very first moment in which the postwar giant road construction mania could be stopped and lest we think this was just NIMBYISM to do so, as scholars have demonstrated over and over again, the freeway intentionally targeted Black neighborhoods to rip through. This is why you can go to the Martin Luther King Jr. birth home in Atlanta but not his later childhood one. The freeways in Atlanta just tore straight through Black communities. The birth home is on the devastated Auburn Avenue, once the center of Black Atlanta, but east of where I-75 destroyed it. Meanwhile, the childhood home is somewhere on the path of I-20 today. So part of what Moscone was doing here was fighting for neighborhoods of people who were struggling to keep them while rich people never had to deal with the consequences of the freeways.

In any case, Moscone won a state senate seat in 1966. By this time, both Phil and John Burton were big players and he was buddies with them. He also became a close ally of Willie Brown and we all know what a powerful force he was in San Francisco. Immediately upon his election, Moscone was elected Majority Leader, which is pretty impressive given he had no legislative experience to that time. Among the bills he sponsored was to create a school lunch program in California. He also sponsored a bill legalizing abortion in California. Ronald Reagan, wait for it…….. SIGNED that bill. Sigh, if only that had continued. Moscone and Brown also worked together to push a bill that repealed the state’s ban on sodomy. By this time, Jerry Brown was governor and he signed it. Moscone was also a major supporter of bilingual education. He was the co-sponsor, with Peter Chacón of the Chacón-Moscone Bilingual Bicultural Education Act, that made bilingual education mandatory in California. This was really the first major bilingual education bill in American history and it remains an important precedent today. So on policy, you weren’t really going to beat Moscone if you were a liberal. He had good priorities and he did the work to see them through.

In 1975, Moscone ran for mayor of San Francisco. He went up against a right-wing city supervisor and a rich moderate conservative named Dianne Feinstein. She was blown out and Moscone defeated the right-winger, but only narrowly. By this time, San Francisco was undergoing rapid change. It was a weird place and this campaign showed it. The old-line white immigrant populations that were a big part of San Francisco life and weren’t all that liberal were being shoved aside by the weirdos taking over the city, which was partly hippies, partly gays, partly the early techbros. So Moscone had some powerful allies in the race–Jim Jones’ People’s Temple. People forget that Jones was a major player in San Francisco politics and his organization was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement in that city. OK, well, that didn’t turn out real great! But this was San Francisco in the mid 70s. Makes you understand just how unhappy these white ethnics were at this moment in time. I mean, Jim Jones? Major player in politics? On the “good” side? Yep, welcome to the 1970s! Oh and then Moscone named Jones Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Commission!

Moscone won the campaign (thanks Jim!!) and then was a really active mayor. The Giants were talking about leaving San Francisco for Toronto and he played an active role in saving the team for the city. He supported the ballot initiative to move the voting for the Board of Supervisors to district-based, which is more democratic. He also really opened the doors of the San Francisco government to all the heads and hippies and minority groups. He appointed large numbers of people of color, gay activists, women, etc. He took on police violence, leading the San Francisco PD to basically declare war on him. He was an early activist for disabled rights, supporting disabled activists occupying the city’s federal building to demand their own rights. In 1977, Moscone’s opponents tried to recall him, but they failed to do so. Now, when the direct elections for supervisor took place, there was a large group, a slight majority, that was anti-Moscone. It was quite a group–Dan White, Dianne Feinstein, and Ron Pelosi (Nancy’s brother-in-law) were its leaders.

Things did start to go south for Moscone, partly because of his own behavior, which was very much the hard-partying, sexual predator politician of the 1970s that came back to bite so many of these guys. Jim Jones claimed to have bribed Moscone with sexual favors of young women, including underaged girls. This is probably true, at least the sex part of it. Then when Jones fled, Moscone announced he would not investigate the People’s Temple. The mass suicide would happen right about the same time as Moscone’s own death, so he didn’t really have to deal with what was coming if he lived.

And we all know how Moscone went out. He was allies with Harvey Milk. Dan White lost his mind over having the liberals and queers ruling the city. His mentor Dianne Feinstein was unhappy about all this too. But unlike Feinstein, awful as she was, White had resigned and that meant Moscone could pick his replacement. That would have tipped the board to the liberals. White was not a bright guy and so he had sort of forgotten this. So he went to beg for his job back, Moscone rightfully told him no. So White walked into City Hall and shot Moscone, Then he walked to Milk’s office and shot him too. Feinstein became mayor. Moscone was 49 years old.

George Moscone is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma, California.

If you would like this series to visit other mayors of the 1970s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Carl Stokes is in Cleveland and Moon Landrieu is in New Orleans. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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