Heart of the City Archives

Bella la famiglia: Angela Alioto with three of her four children, Gian-Paolo, Angela Mia, and Joe.

Angela Alioto's Inferno (continued)


It's right about the time of day when there's just one ray of light that breaks through over the bay. It illuminates Alcatraz out of the gray. Covered in golden light, the prison nestled in the island is a giant, sparkling brick. At these times the place looks more suited to Fort Knox than to a penitentiary. Alioto and I admire the scene together and come back to our conversation. 

I'm inclined to be surprised by the bluntness of her comments, until I reflect on those in "Straight to the Heart," and on Alioto's history of searing remarks in newspaper columns and interviews, which made her a favorite source for City Hall reporters during her eight years on the Board of Supervisors. Her passion and her love for San Francisco are undisputed, even by people she publicly takes to task. I confide that my friends have a running joke that says Wendy Nelder could have been the next Angela Alioto, but Wendy couldn't handle the criticism Angela gets. Angela's been called everything from a crackpot to Evita. So how does someone who certainly knows how to dish it out handle the knocks? Her answer is surprising. 

"It's not easy. Someone said one time that I was riding in first class at the expense of old ladies. That one hurt. But I have my faith and my faith is very important to me. I count my blessings. I have a great family and a great life. 

"I'll tell you, living well is great revenge. A lot of people thought I would go away when my dad was gone. No one counted on me being successful and making money. My little law firm is the most successful discrimination firm in the country. My judgment against Wonder Bread was the biggest ever in the nation. ($153 million jury award for 15 African American workers who sued for racial discrimination against the nation's largest bakery.) We've been to the Supreme Court with my client who was discriminated against because he was gay (Adams vs. Circuit City.) We're kicking butt and I just love it."

The political future of the maverick attorney who drove a stake through the heart of Joe Camel with her legislation aimed at cigarette ads that target kids, this person in politics who criticizes people in politics without flinching, the daughter of the late mayor Joseph Alioto, depends a lot on reconciliation and political maturity. Angela admits in her book to being a novice at questioning people's motives. "It's scary," she says, "I have a fundamental belief that everybody is good. I don't want to have to wonder, 'What is he really doing here? What does he want?' But we have to all the time and it's insulting. On the other hand I have a responsibility to myself to knock off the naivete that results in huge stress and battles with people."

She cites her participation in the oversight of the new de Young Museum as an example of this commitment. Alioto was married at the de Young at the age of 19 in a ceremony that was famously crashed by San Francisco artist Beniamino Bufano. She believes the building can be retrofitted and doesn't need to be torn down, and she doesn't like the new design. "I'm never going to be in the stream, but if I'm involved maybe I can have an impact. You can't have an impact if you just decide to separate yourself."

I ask her if she could command the media for an entire day what would her message be and what would she say? Alioto laughs, "I would have a lot to say, that's the problem. But I guess if I had to narrow it down, I would say, corny as it sounds, 'Attempt to treat everybody the way you would treat yourself.' When we had the '89 Earthquake people loved each other, they we're hugging each other. With Sept. 11 people were hugging each other, people were relating. Why do we have to have a tragedy to have that? Americans don't know their neighbors like they do in Europe countries. Get to know your neighbor. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, which of course goes back to Jesus."

The outspoken progressive who doesn't like district elections and talks about Jesus says she would also use her media time to promote family. "Take care of your family. If you don't get along with your mother, try. I don't get along with my mother. My mother drives me nuts. But I try. If your family's not nice to you don't give up on them. A lot of our problems come from people we love rejecting us and Americans are very good at that. It's better here in San Francisco, of course. I'm scared to death of Contra Costa. San Mateo, forget about it. I'm fighting a discrimination case in Texas and I can't tell you how hard it is. San Francisco is like a beacon. It's very similar in Assisi, our sister City, where St. Francis came from in the first place and for whom the City is named."

In the final days of 2001, Angela earned a $3 million jury award for Alioto family members who sued the highly politicized Port Commission for neglecting to maintain Pier 45 then kicking out the 60 year-old Alioto-Lazio Fish Co. along with another company in a bad faith "emergency eviction." The second company, much larger California Shellfish, stayed under the radar during the public drama. Much smaller Alioto's was out front. The family business has been passed downĘthrough generations of women and is rich with the history of San Francisco's Italian immigrant fishermen. In a trial seemingly out of old San Francisco history, Angela's 97 year-old aunt Annetta Alioto Lazio took the stand on behalf of the neighborhood institution.

The lifeblood of the City of San Francisco, Alioto says, is its neighborhoods. "I don't think there's any other City where you can go three blocks and be in a totally different part of the world. That's the diversity here that you can go around the world in one City. I'm a very typical Libra. I love beautiful things and this is one of the most beautiful places in the world in spite of these other problems."

"Straight to the Heart" outlines Alioto's plan to provide for the homeless, arguably the City's biggest problem, but she says it doesn't matter what the plan is or whose, if no one cares. "You have to care, and that's it. Mario Cuomo said it to me. Joe Kennedy said it in many speeches, 'You've got to care.' Nobody gives a damn about the homeless. It's amazing. San Francisco looks like a Third World country if you look at our homeless. Why? I drove on Golden Gate near St. Boniface the other day and I can't get over the tents. I can't get over the children's toys and the children in sleeping bags out there. I'm meeting with the people who did the homeless plan for [Mayor] Rudy Guliani in New York. I realize a lot of people think that he's far right, but if you take what works from these plans that were successful in other places and add what works locally you can solve the problem and that's what I plan on doing."

Not bad for someone who isn't in public life.



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