Cothran

Barbagelata's Return?
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.

Oh how the radical left hated her father.
To them, she recalls, he was an ogre, a functionary of the rich elites who wanted to crush progressive politics and liberation movements. One radical flier showed John Barbagelata not as a pleasant buzzy bee, but as a vulture.

When she was a little girl Elena and her whole family -- eight kids in all -- had FBI and SFPD bodyguards. Twice a bomb was delivered to the Barbagelata home. On one occasion, two of her sisters played with the package, a See's candy box, until their mother took it away and gave it to the police, who found enough dynamite inside to blow up half the house. On another occasion, a bomb was thrown at their home from Portola Boulevard. It blew a hole in a neighbor's yard, obliterating a swing set.

Elena remembers the 24-hour-a-day police surveillance at her home. She remembers the name of the radical courier, Jacques Rogier, who delivered the death threats against her family. She remembers the cop who was too shy to ask to pee in her house. She remembers that he went on later to marry Patty Hearst.

Growing up like that, in such times, with Johnny B as your father, has a way of shaping you.

"It was absolutely wild, exciting," she says. "We were kids, so we didn't see it as scary, but it was, now that I look back on it. I just thought every other kid dealt with it.

"It was a situation where your dad was a local Realtor and everyone got together and said, 'Hey, John, we need someone like you in City Hall.' You grow up in that lifestyle. You go to St. Brendan's in your little gray-and-red plaid uniform, and he comes down and throws you in the back room on the printing press, and you print out newsletters for the first supervisor's campaign. ... It just eased its way into our lives. We didn't think it was odd or strange.

"We thought that's just the way it is."

Elena probably represents the last chance the west side has at seeing the Barbagelata name and ideals back in politics. Of the eight Barbagelata kids, seven remain. (John Jr. died in 1980 in a car accident.) But only four, Elena included, live in San Francisco, and of them, only Elena is interested in politics.

Despite her mother's hope that her children would stay out of the political world, Elena joined her father, ever the rabble-rouser, and took on the Board of Supervisors in 1988. He proposed a ballot initiative imposing term limits on the supervisors and made his daughter campaign manager for the measure. It was her first taste of San Francisco politics. She was 24.

"He wanted to make it retroactive, and it would have kicked out a lot of supervisors," Elena remembers. "He loved that."

She counseled restraint. "But dramatic John Barbagelata, he just couldn't," she said. The measure lost, probably because it was too extreme. The next year, Elena and an old friend of her father's, Rich Bodisco, helped pass the measure that now limits supervisors to a maximum of two four-year terms.

The day after the election, with only $1,700 in her pocket, Elena flew to Italy. Although she had no connections or proficiency in Italian, within a year she was teaching English to fighter pilots. She returned to San Francisco just in time to see Frank Jordan, the police captain who provided her family with bodyguards during the crazy '70s, elected mayor. For a time, it seemed the city was swinging in the direction of her father's vision.

But three years later her father died, and the year after that, Jordan was trounced by the liberals and Willie Brown. Even her father's closest political ally, Kopp, was pronouncing "Conservatism in San Francisco is dead" in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Now, in 1998, Elena Barbagelata watches as Willie Brown implodes. She and other west-side conservatives are trying to talk Kopp into running for mayor. The other night, her mother put out a big Italian spread for the cranky senator and his wife and asked him if he would run.

Imitating Kopp's crazed-duck voice, Elena reveals his reply: "Ah, jeez, you ain't going to ask me that."

"But he didn't say no," Elena observes.
As for herself, Elena Barbagelata isn't sure where she's taking this politics thing. If she puts herself out there -- the most obvious choice would be as a candidate for supervisor -- she will only do it if the effort is serious and it feels right.

"Truthfully? I have thought about it. Because I get so frustrated nobody is the opposing voice. It almost smacks of communism a little bit. There is never a nay vote; when the supervisors vote, they all agree with each other. If Willie tells them, 'Jump,' they say, 'How high?' "

There's another, more personal reason. "It would be great if it gave my dad what he truly deserved -- a few extra victories that he truly did deserve."

If Elena gets those victories, it will be because she has been able to win votes with the issues her father cared about most. Though less fiery than he in her rhetoric, like her father Elena wants to control government spending, and won't care whether her target is a fat union contract or an overrun city construction project. She will also carry on her father's most important tradition: calling the left on its blind spots and excesses. Remember, this was a man who was labeling Jim Jones a devil while most everyone else on the liberal side of the city was kissing the madman's ass.

This is a woman clearly aware of the power her family name still holds in certain parts of the city. She is also fiercely protective of that name and how it is used.

"Don't think for a second there aren't people who want to use [me] to pick up the residual Barbagelata followers. These voices come out. Of course they are thinking, 'West of Twin Peaks, get the conservative vote with the Barbagelata name.' "

In 1995, as the mayoral race was winding up and Elena's candidate, Frank Jordan, was looking more and more like a loser, she was approached by the San Francisco Republican Party and offered support if she were to run for supervisor the following year.

She laughed at them.
"I said, 'Oh, the old sacrificial lamb, huh?' ... When was the last Republican elected to the board?"

She knows the answer. And she knows I know the answer. It was when her father won his last race for supervisor, in 1973.

Things were different back then. Then, a Republican could win in citywide elections.

But things are likely to be different all over again in San Francisco, and soon. Because of a change in the city charter, in the year 2000, supervisors will be elected by district, rather than citywide. One of those small districts will encompass the conservative enclave of St. Francis Woods, where Elena lives. If she plays her cards right, she could win a seat on the board from there.

Such a victory would be tinged with deep irony. One of the greatest opponents of district elections was John Barbagelata. But hey, not everything can remain the same.

George Cothran (gcothran@sfweekly.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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