The Life and Times of T.J. Anthony

Combative pol fights his last battle

Pacific Gas & Electric lobbyist Sam Lauter interrupted his workday July 2 to drop by the home of longtime political ally T.J. Anthony. Reminiscing with his old friend, Lauter noticed the lights going out. The utility man immediately dialed PG&E headquarters. To his chagrin, Lauter discovered that a partial blackout had hit all over the state; the solution was beyond his political influence. Anthony reached over and patted Lauter's arm weakly, his eyes saying, "Thanks anyway, Sammy."

The lights are dimming permanently for Anthony these days, and none of his many friends and well-connected colleagues has sufficient clout to stop the power drain. Anthony is dying of Hodgkin's disease. In scheduled shifts over the last two months, the 39-year-old former political consultant and City Hall aide has held court for farewells. But, his condition being as grave as it is, the comforted sometimes becomes the comforter.

"Look," Anthony says to local attorney Walter Parsley, "everyone was dealt a deck of cards; I just played mine quicker than most." The two men face each other, sitting cross-legged on Anthony's bedroom floor. Parsley's eyes well up. "There, there," Anthony says, lightly brushing a tear from Parsley's cheek. "It's all right."

Anthony's guests testify to his political impact. Lobbyists, consultants, elected officials, grass-roots activists, and fellow City Hall aides -- big names and small -- have all been dropping by his cottage off Ocean Avenue to pay respects. Rounding out the downtown contingent with Lauter has been Mark Mosher, the executive director of the Committee on JOBS, the political arm of corporate San Francisco. Supervisor Barbara Kaufman and School Board Commissioner Angie Fa, both of whom owe their political identities and elected offices in large part to Anthony, are frequent visitors.

Perhaps more lasting even than the friendships and alliances Anthony leaves, however, is the memorial that was unveiled at a strawberry and champagne reception in the mayor's office on July 1: the new city charter, which hands a greater share of power to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors, while encoding civil rights for all groups in the governing municipal document. Anthony, one of the charter's principal authors and perhaps its most passionate advocate, was too weak to attend the celebration. But Mayor Brown and the Board of Supervisors officially proclaimed July 1 "T.J. Anthony Day" in San Francisco, and the commemorative documents sit to the left of Anthony's bed on a night stand.

For the better part of the '90s, Anthony helped lead the movement to rewrite San Francisco's charter. He scripted mayoral candidate Dick Hongisto's "Framework for Change" during the 1991 mayor's race. Both man and proposal were defeated. In 1993, this time with Supervisor Kaufman as his champion, Anthony failed again after a torturous and protracted battle at the Board of Supervisors, who bowed to outrage from various community groups who said they had not been involved in the drafting process. Still, Anthony would not concede defeat. Finally last year, after stitching together a savvy coalition of progressives and corporate interests, he induced the supervisors to put the measure on the ballot, which the voters passed overwhelmingly.

Contained in the charter victory are Anthony's two greatest political strengths: uncommon persuasiveness and extraordinary perseverance. Although the strategic wisdom came with experience, the mulish approach to politics was his birthright.

Born in Michigan in 1959, Anthony was separated from his homeless single mother at an early age and had lived in some 19 foster homes by the time he became a legal adult. From the start, Anthony says, he had to fight for his rights, against unsympathetic family court judges and bad foster parents. As a teen-ager, Anthony began to forge his own identity. He came to terms with his homosexuality. And at 16, he finally reunited briefly with his mother. Her husband was running the only Holocaust museum in the state. "I immediately identified with the Jews' search for a homeland," Anthony says. (Indeed, what became a lifelong passion for Israeli culture and politics culminated in his conversion to Judaism four years ago.)

Inspired by his fights against the court system, Anthony dipped his toes into politics at age 17, working as a campaign volunteer and later as an aide to Sen. Don Riegle Jr., a Michigan Democrat, who called the young Anthony his "miracle worker." In Riegle's office, he fought without concern for propriety when he learned of another dispossessed group.

Anthony took up the cause of Idlewild, a largely black hamlet in Michigan that he had learned was one of the 10 poorest towns in the country. He wrote a bilious letter to the federal rural assistance agency, accusing it of racism. The letter led the agency's director to complain to Riegle. "But you know what?" Anthony recalls, lifting himself up from his bed and propping his back against a pillow. "It got the job done. Within six weeks, Idlewild got its first federal monies." He adds: "My approach may not seem genteel, but there are a lot of people out there who have been waiting for justice for a long time."

After the painful dissolution of a relationship, Anthony came to San Francisco in 1984. And his fervor was soon felt. "There was a time," says Assemblywoman Carole Migden, "when you couldn't leave the Women's Building [a cultural center in the Mission District] without finding T.J. there asking you to sign a petition for some worthy cause."

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