For years, pols and activists have played a game of What If? with the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. What if Dan White had not killed the two liberal politicians? What if Milk and Moscone had gone on to higher office? Would we be talking about a certain Sen. Moscone instead of Sen. Feinstein?
It's a sad game, played mostly by those who dream of a progressive kingdom come unfrustrated by an assassin's bullets.
These days I'm focused on another What If? game, and another evil interloper said to have made the game necessary. Hardly anyone plays this game, now. Mostly, it was the game of one man, and he's been dead for four years. Only a daughter is left to ask, What If?
Until his dying day, March 19, 1994, former Supervisor John Barbagelata swore that Jim Jones and members of the People's Temple stole the 1975 mayoral election from him by double- and triple-voting under dead people's names, giving the coveted seat of chief executive to Moscone, who, along with Willie Brown and other members of the liberal elite, coddled Jones, assisted his rise to power, and failed to stop his descent into depravity and mass murder.
What if Barbagelata had been mayor? Was it too late by 1975, three years before White Night, for a clear-seeing Catholic conservative to slow a madman's awful trajectory?
Barbagelata asked these questions every day after his narrow loss in the 1975 race. Legal or not, that defeat haunted him until his death 19 years later. John Barbagelata passed this grievance on to the rest of his family. It was the inheritance, particularly, of his youngest daughter, Elena.
"He died frustrated that the majority of the city never will know that he really won that mayoral election, the closest mayoral election in San Francisco history," she says.
This summer, Elena did something she swore she never would do, something her mother long said she did not want to happen. Elena Barbagelata, a 35-year-old real estate broker, placed the family name back in the political mix, if ever so tangentially. She became a board member for state Sen. Quentin Kopp's San Francisco Taxpayers Association. And during the November election, Elena was on the campaign trail, arguing against local propositions she felt would add unnecessary cost to city government, which would inevitably, eventually create the need for higher taxes.
That was her father's line. And she would have made him proud, arguing against the police retirement benefit increases authorized by Proposition A. He would have understood when she lost her fight, too. Johnny B, as he called himself on campaign fliers that featured his head attached to a bee's body, lost most of the time.
He came close in '75, 4,400 votes close. But he never got that close again, and quit politics three years later.
"Can you imagine being that person, and knowing it should have been you?" Elena said in an interview in her father's old office, pictures of him as a supervisor on the wall behind her. "That you beat them, and you knew that, that it was yours, and you lost it?"
Elena Barbagelata hasn't become politically involved solely to win redemption for her father. She is jumping into politics for her own reasons and ideals. It's just that those reasons and ideals happen to coincide almost perfectly with her late father's. And Johnny B was, above all, a west-side guy.
In 1969, when he first ran for supervisor, the west side of San Francisco -- West of Twin Peaks, St. Francis Woods, the Sunset -- was a conservative, white-ethnic bastion. Italian, Irish, and German homeowners and churchgoers, Catholics mostly. Parish lines defined you. Your church defined you. Family and school and high school football defined you.
Poverty politics, tenant politics, gay and lesbian politics -- none of them resonated on the west side, circa 1969. And none of these things resonated with John Barbagelata, either.
He was a real estate broker and a stone conservative, social and fiscal. He took on unions, which he felt were a drain on the budget and the reason taxes were too high. He was a common-sense guy who thought business and development were good for the city. He was put off, to put it mildly, by hippies and radicals.
"That was a word I heard a lot around our house as a kid, radicals," Elena says with her father's characteristic growl.
Barbagelata was a devout Catholic who was fond of saying, "If the pope asked me to push a peanut with my nose down the middle of the street, I'd do it." Even in his last years, he reveled in telling how he would stride into gay political clubs and say no to their demands (though he often voted for their interests during his two terms on the Board of Supervisors).
His ideas about social welfare were personal. He would pick up homeless people and put them to work at his real estate office painting a back room. Some people thought he kept that room there just for that purpose.
He was also a fiery rhetorician, given to overstatement as a way of spurring intellectual debate. "There was no gray, it was all black and white. That's the way it was until the day he died," Elena remembers.