Dan White's Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia

Political consultant Ray Sloan took a deep drink of white wine, returned his glass to the bar, and began to reminisce about the political campaign 30 years ago in which he engineered Dan White's election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“There's nothing like winning an election when you're an underdog,” Sloan says as excitedly as if the votes had just been counted. “It was a great victory, Dan was full of promise, and I had a big future here in town.”

Sloan doubles his chin to look down into the wineglass. His voice tapers off.

“But things didn't work out that way.”

White, a former cop and firefighter, shook San Francisco to its core on November 27, 1978, when he climbed through a basement window at City Hall and made his way to the second floor. Once there, he shot dead the city's mayor, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the country's first openly gay elected official and most important figure in the national gay movement.

In May 1979, a jury found White guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to a seven-year prison term. The punishment so poorly matched the brutal killings that most San Franciscans believed White got away with murder. Public outrage over the verdicts ignited the violent “White Night Riots,” which caused millions of dollars in damage to city property.

Some see the assassinations as the most significant events in San Francisco's history after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Others believe the killings, particularly Milk's, galvanized the burgeoning gay movement, which ultimately caused a greater seismic shift in the country's deeply ingrained intolerance toward gays and lesbians.

Sloan, who was White's chief political adviser, lead aide, and business partner, probably knew him better than anyone save his immediate family during the two years leading up to the murders. Sloan is now worried about how a new movie about Harvey Milk's life, which has just begun production in San Francisco, will depict his former boss.

Nearly 30 years after the murders, Sloan still works for White, performing the quixotic task of spin control for perhaps the most hated man in San Francisco's history. “I've always felt a responsibility to talk about the guy I knew,” he says. “I agreed to manage his campaign because I realized he wasn't just another hot-air politician. He was a real guy, a guy who really cared about people. His impact on me during that campaign in 1977 was a positive one.”

Sloan, who is gay, says no aspect of White's crimes can be put in a positive light. But he believes White has frequently been falsely portrayed.

In the book Gayslayer! by Warren Hinckle; the play Execution of Justice, by Emily Mann, which was made into a 1999 television movie; and in countless newspaper and magazine stories, White has been characterized as a religious zealot, a homophobe, and a hired assassin for the San Francisco Police Department, the Catholic Church, or both. These characterizations are ridiculous, Sloan says, but the one he believes is most unfair is that Dan White killed Harvey Milk because of his homosexuality.

Last week, filming began on Milk at various locations in the Castro and the Outer Mission. The movie stars Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as White, with a supporting cast that includes Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and James Franco. Acclaimed filmmaker Gus Van Sant is directing the project, and Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen are producing.

“There has been talk for the last 10 to 12 years about making a movie about Harvey, but it would always fall apart,” says Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a Milk supporter and former schoolteacher who plays himself in the film. “But we always kept our fingers crossed, and now it's really going to happen and I'm really delighted.”

The film's production company has kept Big Love writer Dustin Lance Black's script under tight wraps, but SF Weekly was able to obtain a recent draft. The story focuses primarily on Milk's life before his election and does an impressive job of capturing his compassion, charm, strength, and prodigious ability to inspire.

For the most part, the script is loyal to actual events, but there are a number of factual inaccuracies in the treatment of the story's villain. In one scene, Milk is challenged by one of his aides, who asks, “What does Dan White do for you? Really? Politically?”

Milk replies that he suspects White is “one of us” (meaning gay), and that he sympathizes with White for living “the daily lie.” While it's possible that White was confused about his sexuality or was secretly homosexual — though there is no evidence of either — Milk's scripted response does not answer the aide's question of what White did for Milk.

The real answer is surprising. According to voting records, newspaper stories, and anecdotal information, White supported Milk's agenda with his influence, vote, and pocketbook. More than that, Sloan says, White respected Milk and actively sought his friendship.

That is, until the two had a bitter falling-out over a land-use issue in White's district.

But instead of giving a historical nod to White's political support of Milk, the film's script advances the idea that White was struggling with his sexual identity. In fact, the scripted character of White bears some similarities to the confused and murderous Colonel Frank Fitts in the 1999 movie American Beauty, for which its producers, Jinks and Cohen, shared an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Black, Jinks, and Cohen insist any similarities between the fictional Fitts and the White character in Milk are purely coincidental. They say that making a biographical film is an interpretive art form. Historical facts are necessarily altered, condensed, or massaged to meet the demands of the medium's time constraints. In biographical films, historical shorthand is often used in an attempt to achieve a “greater truth” that eclipses mere facts.

But some fictionalized elements in the Milk script, such as a proposed police desegregation ordinance White refuses to vote for, seem designed less for cinematic expediency and more to paint White as something he wasn't. White's character in Milk seems to be a metaphor for a larger cultural and institutional bias against homosexuality that was prevalent in the 1970s.


Three days before filming began, Jinks, Cohen, Black, and Cleave Jones, a historical consultant on the film, discussed Dan White and the script's historical accuracy with SF Weekly. During the half-hour meeting in Jinks' modest office on Treasure Island, the filmmakers discussed the script's treatment of White, and the lengths to which they've gone to assure historical accuracy and period authenticity.

“First and foremost, this is the Harvey Milk story, so it's naturally going to take that perspective, that point of view,” Cohen says, adding that he thinks the White character in the script is accurate enough. “We didn't feel the need to portray Dan White in an overly fictionalized way. What he did stands for itself.”

It would be unfair to judge the historical accuracy of a film based on a draft of a script, Jinks says. A script is a fluid document that can go through many revisions, even after filming begins.

Jones, a veteran San Francisco gay activist, says the project is not a documentary and shouldn't be considered as one. “If we tried to explain exactly the politics of this city, the movie would be long, dull, and confusing,” he says.

Nonetheless, Sloan says he still feels it's important to tell his story of the Dan White who existed before his descent into bitterness, depression, and murderous rage.

The Cinch is a Western-themed gay saloon on Polk Street with the friendly atmosphere of a neighborhood watering hole, where queer and straight regulars shoot pool, watch football, and talk politics. Over the course of several interviews at the Cinch, Sloan recounted those heady days in 1977 when he organized White's campaign. During the first interview, the 58-year-old political consultant wore a Baywatch-yellow sweatshirt and tan baseball cap that partly covered his bald pate.

As Sloan delves into his recollections, he becomes more intense, and he punctuates important points by tapping the listener's forearm or wrist with two fingers. Sometimes he slips into the present tense, saying, “Dan doesn't like to drive, you know,” or “The big money guys downtown like Dan, but Dan does not like them.”

It is soon clear that White's 1977 electoral campaign was the most important of Sloan's political career. When he was 10, he became fascinated by the 1960 presidential election. “There was an adulation to politics that became everything to me,” he recalls. By his early 20s, Sloan was working for state Senator John Nejedly. But Nejedly was an established politician, and there was little excitement around the staid Walnut Creek office for the ambitious Sloan. He wanted a challenge.

Across the bay in San Francisco, voters had just approved a ballot measure that would enable supervisors to be elected by district instead of citywide vote. For the first time, neighborhood activists had a chance to unseat the well-moneyed, well-connected politicians who had run the city for decades.

Sloan's childhood friend Ray Shine, a San Francisco police officer, told Sloan he wanted him to meet Dan White, a cop-cum-firefighter friend who was running for supervisor of the newly formed District 8, which consisted of long-neglected working-class neighborhoods such as the Outer Mission, Portola, and Visitacion Valley.

“Ray Shine thought Dan White was the greatest thing,” Sloan says. “So I went to meet Dan out at the Moscow fire station, where he was working.”

Sloan was unimpressed at that first meeting. White handed him a list of 300 supporters with the names handwritten in block letters. The list, Sloan assumed, had been painstakingly compiled by White's wife, Mary Ann, who taught grammar school.

“He had no money, no political experience,” Sloan recalls. “It was very sophomoric. I was sure I wouldn't run the campaign, but I told him I'd write out a campaign plan.”

A few days later, the Chronicle ran a story about a firefighter who had rescued a woman and her baby from a seventh-floor apartment in the Geneva Towers, high-rise public housing in Visitacion Valley. The firefighter was Dan White.

Sloan began to hear other stories about White. He had been a star athlete at Woodrow Wilson High School, and was a Vietnam War veteran. More recently, White had quit his job with the police department after he stopped another cop from beating a handcuffed black prisoner. White filed a report naming the offending officer, something cops did not do at the time. “His commanding officer begged him not to file the report, but he did it anyway,” Sloan says. “Dan had a very strong sense of fairness.”

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.

Despite being a political neophyte, White scored an early victory before the swearing-in ceremony. Sloan figured a way to maneuver veteran Supervisor Quentin Kopp out of the race for board president alongside Supervisors Dianne Feinstein and Gordon Lau. Evaluating how the votes would play out, Sloan determined that White, who voted last, would have the deciding vote between Feinstein and Kopp.

The deal was that if Kopp dropped out, he could save face and be guaranteed appointment to the influential budget committee. White pitched the deal to Kopp, a lawyer and shrewd politician.

In a recent interview, Kopp says he was planning a run for mayor at the same time as Feinstein, so the political stakes were high. When White pitched the deal, Kopp was in the hospital recovering from appendicitis.

“Feinstein was already maneuvering for some kind of deal,” says Kopp, who is now a superior court judge. “She really wanted to be president and kept asking to come and see me in the hospital, but I didn't want her there with all that schoolgirl seriousness. So this Dan White comes over and tells me that I had to make a deal. It was peculiar: Here's this rookie telling me what to do.”

Kopp cut a separate deal with Feinstein in which she agreed not to oppose him in the next mayoral race if he didn't run against her for board president. (Kopp says she went back on the deal after Moscone's death, and became the next elected mayor.) “White was no kingmaker, but he played an important role in Feinstein becoming board president,” Kopp says.

DeSilva says Sloan's role in Feinstein's election as president established his reputation among city power brokers.

White had scored valuable political capital, and local politicos were calling Sloan the “it kid” for being the architect. Sloan recalls that Feinstein supporter Mo Bernstein, a wealthy fund-raiser and power broker, came up to him and said, “You're a Jew, aren't you? I know you're Jewish.” Sloan describes himself as a “dumb Methodist from Walnut Creek,” but he knew what Bernstein meant.


“I had impressed San Francisco's political power structure,” Sloan says. “I was a big thing. I was smarter than some very powerful people in the city, and that was a big deal for a 26-year-old kid. I was convinced I had a very bright future in this city.”

White used his political capital to help Harvey Milk. He persuaded Feinstein to appoint Milk chairman of the Streets and Transportation Committee, something Milk wanted. Feinstein was reluctant, Sloan says, but finally she told White she would do it “so you'll know who your friends are.” (Feinstein did not respond to an interview request by SF Weekly.)

Despite White's loose association with the board's six-member conservative faction, he supported gay-friendly issues. He voted with Milk to save the Pride Center, which served as a meeting place for gay veterans and seniors. He voted for a resolution honoring a lesbian couple on the occasion of their 25th anniversary and, at committee level, he voted for the Gay Rights Ordinance, Milk's premier legislation, which would protect San Franciscans from losing their jobs simply for being gay or lesbian.

White was such a reliable supporter of gay issues that Milk aide Dick Pabich was quoted as praising him in a gay newspaper. Weiss reprinted the quote in Double Play: “A really neat thing is how supportive some people around here have been, Dan White in particular. He's supported us on every position, and he goes out of his way to find out what gay people think about things.”

Sloan says White got flak from some of the board's conservative members, but the simple fact was that White admired Milk. “Dan had more in common with Harvey than he did with anyone else on the board,” Sloan says. “They were both proud of their military service, they both hated big money interests, and they both represented people on the political margins. And neither was afraid of a fight.”

White was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic grammar school, but that didn't stop him from taking on the Church over a proposed facility for juvenile offenders who had committed serious crimes like murder, arson, and rape. The Catholic Church wanted to build the facility, Youth Campus, on convent property in the Portola neighborhood, but needed to change a zoning ordinance to do so. The Portola was largely Catholic, and Sloan says the Church had bullied some parishioners by saying they would go to hell if they didn't support the facility.

Sloan saw White's “Irish toughness” one afternoon when they met with Father Howard Rasmussen, who was overseeing the project: “Rasmussen was treating Dan like an obedient little Catholic boy, and Dan finally told him, 'You cross me on this and I'll fuck you, Rasmussen!' He sat there dumbstruck in all his Catholic vestments. I was shaking, too, but I knew I was around someone who had an innate sense of how power worked. He had let Rasmussen know he was the supervisor.”

But Milk's gay-rights battles were more immediate and far more popular. He was taking on a cultural Goliath, and White respected that, Sloan says: “Dan really adored Harvey for standing up the way he did for his values. But the shit would hit the fan in April.”

On the Friday before the Youth Campus came before the board, White asked Milk if he had his vote. Sloan, who was taking a head count of likely votes, recalls Milk saying, “Dan, you've really earned your $9,600 on this one.” White and Sloan took that to mean Milk would side with White, Sloan says.

But on Monday, Milk voted for the Youth Campus. White had lost his most important issue, and he was embarrassed in front of a chamber full of Portola residents whom he had invited to witness their victory.

“I knew Harvey wasn't going to vote against the Youth Campus,” Kopp says. “For crying out loud, it was a liberal vote. White came up to me right afterward and says, 'I guess a leopard never changes its spots.' He was mad. Very mad.”

For Sloan, things around City Hall began to change. “That was it,” he says. “Harvey was no longer a friend, and it wasn't any fun anymore. It was all 'no' votes on the parades and anything else Harvey wanted.”

White didn't show up at City Hall again until the following Monday, when the board was scheduled to take the final vote on Milk's Gay Rights Ordinance. White was the only supervisor to vote against it. And, like a petulant child, he began to publicly denounce the gay parade to the media.

Milk was thriving as an elected official. He had an ability to appeal to a spectrum of interests that extended beyond the queer community. He was able to get the labor unions, probably the city's most homophobic organizations in the 1970s, to endorse his candidacy. He was also sponsoring a blizzard of substantial legislation and getting a lot of positive press attention. White, on the other hand, was struggling. Youth Campus was the one substantial thing he had put effort into, and after it failed, he began to lose interest in his political career.

White was also having money troubles. He and Mary Ann had had their first child, and to make ends meet, they had started a new snack-food business at Pier 39. The Whites and Sloan, who was a partner, were all putting in long hours.

Perhaps trying to mend fences with Milk, White cut a $100 check for the campaign against the Briggs Initiative, a statewide ballot measure that would have made it illegal for gays or lesbians to teach in public schools (Milk was successful in leading the effort to defeat the measure). And Milk was one of three people from City Hall invited by White to his son's baptism. “And you know how important Catholics take those baptisms,” Sloan says.


But White had begun to exhibit signs of depression. He rarely showed up at his City Hall office, and avoided his constituents. Then, without consulting anyone, White gave Mayor Moscone his resignation letter. By the time White arrived home that afternoon, upset constituents, friends, and police and fire union members were calling, and they were pissed.

White told them all that he had to quit because of financial worries, and that he was through with being a supervisor.

In Black's script for Milk, White holds a mysterious meeting with sheriffs and cops in a City Hall basement room and emerges wanting his job back.

But Sloan says he talked White into asking for his job back. “I told him he wasn't going to duck his responsibility, and I talked to him like he was a team captain,” he says. “I believe he absolutely recognized he had mental health problems, but finally he wasn't going to avoid his responsibilities.”

White asked Moscone for his job back, and at first the mayor was understanding. On November 14, he even gave White back his resignation letter. But there were legal questions, many raised by Milk, who was lobbying heavily against White's reappointment. Moscone decided to wait.

On the morning of November 27, White learned Moscone was not going to reappoint him. He went into his basement office, loaded his police-issue .38, put 10 extra hollow-point shells in his front pants pocket, and left for City Hall.

In 1985, just under two years after his release from prison, White went into the garage of his Excelsior District home and ran a hose from the exhaust pipe of the family car to the inside. He died clutching family photos and listening to a loop tape of the Irish ballad “Fields of Athenry.” He never publicly expressed regret for killing Moscone and Milk. (Mary Ann White, who still lives in the modest house, did not respond to a request for an interview.)

Film producer Dan Jinks says that Black has worked for years on the script to ensure its accuracy, and the public should withhold judgment about White's depiction in Milk until it is shown in theaters.

Perhaps accuracy really doesn't matter. Supervisor Ammiano says people will have their own take on that chapter in the city's history. “Everybody sees things through different lenses,” he says. “But the outpouring of grief over Milk's murder, which continues to this day, shows beyond a doubt how deep feelings were at that time.”

Brian Basinger, president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, says homophobia, racism, and sexism inform an individual's actions in society, but calling White a homophobe might be wrapping things up a little too neatly. “At least for me, I see him more now as a sad, tragic, and pathetic person,” he says. “Maybe that's because I've become stronger, and seeing him as a homophobe would taint me as a victim. And that would give him power.”

Sloan's life changed dramatically immediately after the killings. Mo Bernstein called and told him to leave town for good. Because of the public outrage against White, Sloan went into hiding for a time, and then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the John Anderson presidential campaign in 1980. But two high-ranking staffers flew to Washington to notify Anderson's campaign management that Sloan was a potential liability because of his association with White.

“That's when I understood how badly my career had been damaged,” Sloan says. “It was always going to follow me.”

DeSilva says Sloan was deeply affected by the killings and drank heavily for about a year afterward. Sloan scoffs at that, saying he was drinking pretty heavily before. He continues to work as a political consultant, though he has never fulfilled the promise he showed in 1977. Still, he says he has done well for himself. Some of his current clients, however, say he lives a nomadic life and can disappear for weeks at a time without explanation.

Sloan says he will withhold judgment on Milk, though he remains skeptical of how Dan White will be depicted.

“I don't go to many movies,” he says. “I don't have the patience. But I'll see this one.”

Dennis DeSilva was Dan White's official photographer during his 1977 campaign and his 11 months as a supervisor. Shortly after White murdered Moscone and Milk, DeSilva put hundreds of undeveloped negatives he had taken of White in a portable home safe. Over the years, DeSilva forgot the combination and the negatives were locked away until the SF Weekly paid to have the safe opened. Many of the photos that accompany this story have never been seen before.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories