I will not see the movie Milk.
The assassination of Harvey Milk horrified me, but it did not touch me personally. Another killing, only moments earlier-that of Mayor George Moscone in the San Francisco City Hall-did. Even though it’s been 30 years since the killings, I simply do not have the stomach to relive that awful day. I worked closely with Moscone as a press aide during his unsuccessful race for governor, drafting detailed position papers for his progressive platform, and the brutal and public way he died shook me to the core.
At the time of the murders, Moscone was far better known than Milk. But in the intervening years, the mayor’s legacy and accomplishments have been almost totally eclipsed by the gay rights icon (which, I know, would not have bothered Moscone). The fact is that without Moscone’s push for neighborhood elections of supervisors and his vigorous support of gay rights, there would not have been a Supervisor Harvey Milk-at least not at that time.
Most people today associate Moscone with a convention center in downtown San Francisco. They know Moscone the building, not the man. But my memories of Moscone are vivid: He was a vibrant, handsome, intelligent, lovable, self-deprecating man who taught me, by example, how elected officials should conduct the people’s business.
Moscone ran for governor on a platform calling for “change” more than 30 years ago. Sound familiar? Whether he would have eventually been able to bring changes as governor or even as president, we will never know. But we do know that he called for changes that would give the poor, the disabled, racial minorities, and gays and lesbians a seat at the political table.
Once, before I knew him well, I asked if he realized that his opposition to the death penalty would cost him votes. To this day, I remember his response: “I’d rather lose the damn election than twist my views to fit popular opinion.” George always stayed on-message because he had only one: If government protected and served all the people-not just those who could afford a lobbyist or a hefty campaign contribution-our state would be better for it.
I remember one morning when an aide to farm labor leader Cesar Ch¡vez called us for help. They were striking, and the California Highway Patrol had not assigned enough officers to protect them from violent protests. George told me to get the (expletive deleted) commander of the CHP on the phone. “Commander? Hey, George Moscone here,” he said, his arms waving in the air. “Wanted to discuss with you a little problem my friend Cesar Ch¡vez is having down in the valley. If we can’t solve that, then we can spend some time discussing the Highway Patrol budget for next year.” He then winked at the gathered staff. “Okay, good,” he said, while hanging up the phone and smiling. “Glad you’ll take care of that for me.” The next day, Ch¡vez and company were surrounded by Highway Patrol officers.
That was George at his best, using political power not to line his or his friends’ pockets, but to help the little guy.
Any political operative worries about doing something stupid that shines poorly on his candidate. One day, I royally screwed up. Governor Ronald Reagan had vetoed a Moscone bill that would have extended aid to the aged, blind, and disabled. I knew George would be outraged. I thought I’d get the jump on the story, so I sent out a press release-without anyone’s approval-using quotes I made up for George, claiming that, among other things, Reagan was “committing genocide” against poor people. As I scanned the newspaper the next morning, it was clear I had badly misjudged press reaction. Most of the papers took George apart for his over-the-top statements about the popular governor. The San Francisco Chronicle, his hometown paper, used quotes from my press release to editorialize against George for acting like a “demigod.”
On my chair the next morning was the Chronicle’s editorial. On the top of the page, in George’s own handwriting, were the words: “MOSCONE YOU MUSH MOUTH.” While the staff kidded me, he never said a word about it. He was that kind of guy. The more time spent with him, the closer you got, the more you admired and respected and loved him.
Did he have his personal failings? Of course-but they did not affect his political judgment, his selflessness, and his keen sense of decency.
By 1978, George had moved from the state Senate to the mayor’s office in San Francisco. That fall, he had come to Santa Barbara to support a state senator at a fundraiser in Montecito. He asked that I introduce him. I told the gathering that George Moscone would be back in a few years to ask for our support in another race for governor.
He never did come back. He was murdered two months later.
Today, a photograph of George Moscone sits on my desk. It’s adorned with a quote that I read often: “Get involved. Give a damn about the quality of your life and about your neighbor’s life. Do something to make things better.” His life was a testament to that advice.