SAN FRANCISCO — Not long ago, John Molinari seemed sure to realize a lifelong ambition to be elected mayor of San Francisco. A gregarious City Hall veteran, he consistently outpolled others on the city Board of Supervisors and had both a $1 million campaign fund and Mayor Dianne Feinstein's support.
Recently, however, the politically moderate insurance salesman has seen his lead in the opinion polls not only erased but reversed by unexpectedly popular liberal and conservative challengers. Polls now indicate that when San Franciscans vote Tuesday, Molinari may actually finish a distant second and be forced into a Dec. 8 runoff against liberal Democratic Assemblyman Art Agnos.
It is the first seriously contested mayoral election in San Francisco since George Moscone won a bitter and divisive campaign in 1975, and some aspects of that campaign are echoed today. There is again a progressive state legislator, Agnos, coming home to form a liberal coalition to challenge the man favored by the city political Establishment and conservative homeowners, Molinari. Twelve years ago, Moscone was the liberal legislator challenging and narrowly beating conservative John Barbagelata.
In addition, San Francisco is once more at a turning point--the same turning point, some may say--over whether it wants to preserve its scenic neighborhoods by limiting growth and gentrification or compete in the international big leagues of commerce and trade by promoting more commercial development.
Feinstein, who is prevented by the City Charter from pursuing a third four-year term, generally tilted toward the latter option, traveling from China to the Ivory Coast to promote San Francisco business. The vote for or against her ally, Molinari, could reflect local sentiment toward her and her policies.
There is even a rerun of the 1975 debate on whether to elect supervisors by districts rather than at-large. Voters approved district elections in 1976 but repealed them in 1979 after political disputes prompted former Supervisor Dan White to assassinate Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. This new district elections proposal also is favored by voters, according to a poll for the San Francisco Examiner and television station KRON.
Also on the ballot is a plebiscite on permitting a developer to build a private baseball stadium near downtown. The Giants have threatened to quit the city if forced to stay in wind-swept, aging Candlestick Park. The Examiner-KRON poll by Teichner Associates shows voters about evenly split on this proposal.
By far, the main event for voters is the remarkably expensive mayor's race. Three candidates--Molinari, Agnos, and former city Chief Administrative Officer Roger Boas--have each raised $1 million or more, even though the bulk of the campaign has consisted of face-to-face meetings before political clubs and community groups.
Allen White, the spokesman for the Molinari campaign, said most of the $1.2 million raised by his candidate, the top money-raiser, has been spent in three areas--slick four-color mailers, radio advertisements and on raising even more money again. "It costs a lot of money to raise that much money," he noted.
It is all worth it, White said, to become not only the mayor of this city of 750,000 people, but also the political factotum of the Greater Bay Area, which at 5.5 million residents is the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan region.
Still, the money has raised howls of protest from other candidates, notably Warren Hinckle, a tough-talking veteran journalist on leave from the Examiner. At one debate, he asserted the "professional megabuck politics" practiced by the front-runners was reason enough for voters to reject them.
"It would take biblical prowess to withstand the pressures of those people--and their lobbyists--who put up a million dollars for your race," he barked.
Hinckle, in fact, has provided the race with much of its color by proposing such offbeat ideas as opening a casino on Alcatraz Island to raise revenue and taking over the Presidio Army base to make room for low-income housing and day-care centers. More practically, he suggests stripping the mayor of the ability to appoint large numbers of political supporters to city jobs.
Agnos and Molinari, however, lead the opinion polls by wide margins. Boas, in third place, hopes to capture enough of that 20% to 30% of undecided voters to edge into a runoff. Unless one candidate garners a majority Tuesday, the top two finishers will meet again Dec. 8.
Molinari, the 52-year-old son of a prominent judge, portrays himself as the centrist candidate, although his support for rent control and gay rights would paint him a liberal in most cities.