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In 1974, when White was accepted into the fire academy, the San Francisco Fire Department was under a federal consent decree to hire more minorities. But it was common for the department to circumvent the requirement by allowing African Americans into the academy and then finding reasons to flunk them, usually for failing written examinations.
White, who would graduate valedictorian of his class, stuck up for three black trainees who were about to be flunked out. He circulated a petition asking that they be allowed to stay, and tutored the men after classes to help them pass their exams. "I was won over by Dan White from this story," Sloan says. "To me, this guy is a genuine working-class hero."
Sloan brought in Dennis DeSilva, a professional photographer, and White's campaign was off and running.
District 8's modest two-story homes were built shoulder to shoulder, and few have front yards. The small stores and shops in the business districts were mostly family owned. For years, the residents of that corner of the city had little or no influence at City Hall.
Dan White was one of 13 candidates vying for the District 8 board seat. Like the others, he was a political novice, but he had certain advantages. He and Mary Ann were attractive in a wholesome way, and it didn't hurt that he was a former cop because there was a rising crime problem in the district. And he had Sloan, who proved effective at organizing a political campaign on a shoestring budget.
White was already well known in District 8, where he had been raised in a large Irish brood of nine brothers and sisters. "He seemed to know everybody's name," DeSilva recalls. "He would walk up and down San Bruno Avenue and people would come out of the shops, 'Hey Danny, Danny boy, Danny!' Jeez, it made me want to be Irish."
White was the only candidate to campaign in the Sunnydale projects on the western edge of Visitacion Valley. There has been little change at Sunnydale in the last 30 years; it is still one of the most crime-ridden housing projects in the city.
White, who grew up on Hahn Street across from the projects, regularly visited them during his campaign. On weekends, he played tackle football with a street gang called the Sons of Sunnydale. The Sons later campaigned for him, distributing literature and attending his functions. Other candidates criticized White because the Sons were often boisterous at rallies, and asked him to discourage them from taking part in his campaign. Sloan says White refused: "These guys were part of his district and they had every right to participate, and they were dedicated to Dan."
In both Hinckle's Gayslayer! and Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings, by former Chronicle reporter Mike Weiss, White is accused of promising jobs to the Sons and then backing out after he was elected. Sloan says those are just cheap shots and that White got many of them construction jobs at Pier 39, which was being built at the time.
"Other politicians gave that part of town lip service, but it was White who actually spent time out there" in Sunnydale, DeSilva says. "You sure wouldn't see Quentin Kopp or Dianne Feinstein going out there."
White, who was a tireless campaigner, had only a high school education and wasn't much of a public speaker. But he knew what was important to his District 8 constituents, and he knew how to communicate it. "They wanted to not have to live behind bars in their own homes," DeSilva says. "And they wanted to have a little voice downtown. Representation, that's what everybody wants — and they had none."
The fact that Sloan was homosexual was not a problem for White. "It was never discussed, even though he had to have known about it," Sloan says. "It just wasn't an issue."
DeSilva says Sloan developed an efficient campaign machine. Firefighters at the Moscow fire station worked many of White's shifts so he could walk precincts. They also stuffed mailboxes and handed out brochures. With the help of the firefighters and the Sons of Sunnydale, White could respond to daily new events faster than any other campaign in the city. "We could write, print, and deliver within 24 hours," Sloan says with pride. "It's a huge advantage when you can do that and nobody else could."
White handily won his election. He would have to give up his job in the fire department to earn $9,600 a year as a player in a city where politics was considered a blood sport. The job required cunning in a cutthroat environment of hidden motives and deception. It was a world for which he was not prepared.
Following the election, Sloan introduced White to his parents. Afterwards, Sloan's father, a school principal, warned his son to "watch out for that guy. He never smiles."
Sloan brushed off the warning.
District elections had transformed the Board of Supervisors. Instead of wealthy lawyers, the 11-member board now had five new members with more allegiance to their neighborhoods than to downtown interests.
The board was also more racially and culturally mixed. Western Addition activist Ella Hill Hutch was the first African American to take a seat on the board; Gordon Lau was the first Asian American; Carol Ruth Silver was the first feminist (which was a distinct designation in 1978, like gender or ethnicity); and Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man.