Remembering George Moscone, 'The People's Mayor' of San Francisco

9 min
Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in November 1978 at San Francisco's City Hall. (Photo courtesy of University of the Pacific)

George Moscone took office as mayor of San Francisco in 1976, but he served for less than three years before he was killed in his City Hall office by former Supervisor Dan White on Nov. 27, 1978. White also killed Supervisor Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay elected official and a celebrated gay rights advocate.

In many ways, Milk's memory and accomplishments have eclipsed those of Moscone, whose administration signaled the beginning of a new, more inclusive San Francisco.

Before Moscone was elected, city government was dominated mostly by wealthy white men, many with ties to the business community. When Moscone took over, he gave the keys to the city to people who had previously been locked out by the ruling elite: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, women and members of the LGBT community.

"My dad was the first one to open the door," said Moscone's son, Jonathan, in a new PBS documentary about his dad, "Moscone: A Legacy of Change." "He kept them open, and they never closed."

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'A Son of the City'

Moscone was raised by a single mom in a relatively poor family in San Francisco during the Great Depression.

"It was tough," said Steve Talbot, who wrote the new PBS documentary, of Moscone's childhood. "It was the Depression, but his mother was very loyal to him and really believed in him and really encouraged him."

He attended St. Ignatius, one of the city's elite Catholic schools, where Moscone was an all-city basketball player. San Francisco during Moscone's childhood was very segregated, and much of Moscone's world was white and Catholic, including his St. Ignatius basketball team. But he also played ball on playgrounds around the city, and that experience — playing outside his white and Catholic neighborhood against people who were different from him — had a profound impact on him.

"If you played basketball, you went from neighborhood to neighborhood in the playgrounds, and you had to get along with all sorts of different people," Talbot told KQED. "And he met a lot of black people that way, and I think some of his comfort level [with African-Americans] came from that."

A State Legislator Who Could Get Things Done

Moscone was a natural politician, according to Talbot.

"He was a charmer," Talbot said. "He was an extremely handsome guy. Everyone says that, especially women, but everybody said it. He had a movie star smile. He loved people."

Moscone spent three years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, before being elected to the California Senate in 1966, where he would serve until being elected mayor in 1975.

He spent much of his time in the state Senate as the majority leader for the Democrats, earning a reputation as someone who could get progressive legislation passed and, even more importantly, signed into law by Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Moscone was able to pass legislation reducing marijuana sentences, granting abortion rights, establishing a school meals program and overturning the state's anti-sodomy laws.

"Moscone, under the radar to most people in Sacramento, was a guy who could cross the aisle," Talbot said, citing Moscone's own conservative background as a useful tool. "As this guy who came from a conservative background — Italian-American neighborhood, old neighborhood, traditional in San Francisco — he knew those people. He was from that neighborhood. He could talk to the other side."

'The People's Mayor'

In 1975, Moscone was elected mayor of San Francisco in a close runoff election against conservative John Barbagelata.

"I think that was a watershed election in the history of San Francisco," Talbot said. "It really changed things because the old establishment in San Francisco, which was essentially white Italian and Irish guys, gave way to this new guy, who is also white Italian. But he wanted to open the city up to everybody, the full rainbow of San Francisco."

Moscone appointed diverse neighborhood activists to city commissions that had long been dominated by white wealthy men. One of those appointments was Harvey Milk, a gay rights advocate who had developed a political following as the owner of a camera shop in the Castro District.

And yet, many of Moscone's progressive goals were stymied by a 6-5 conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors. One of those six votes belonged to Dan White, a former San Francisco firefighter who strongly opposed Moscone and Milk, who was elected to the board in 1977.

In November 1978, White resigned from the Board of Supervisors, only to change his mind a few days later and ask for his job back. On Nov. 27, 1978, having found out that Moscone was not going to re-appoint him to his old seat, White sneaked into City Hall and fatally shot the mayor, before walking across the building and doing the same to Milk.

In the 40 years since the assassinations, Milk has been lionized as a hero and martyr of the gay rights movement, but Moscone has been remembered less widely.

"They were so close politically, and Milk owed a great deal of his career to Moscone," Talbot said. "But Moscone, in the state Senate in California and as mayor of San Francisco, was a pioneer himself. He left a fantastic progressive legislative legacy for the whole state."

Moscone also forever changed San Francisco. Every mayor who followed has continued his efforts to make city government more diverse.

"He is this guy that really opened up city politics in San Francisco in a way that made this a much better, more inclusive city," Talbot said.