SAN FRANCISCO — It was wall-to-wall Democrats crushed together in the grand ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel here. They were listening to a Republican and they were applauding.
U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson was telling them why he supported their cause, the home-porting of the U.S. battleship Missouri in San Francisco. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, opposes basing the battleship in the city.
Wilson was reveling in the occasion--a chance for a Republican to reach out to a room full of influential Democrats during an election year.
"When I walked into this room tonight and looked around . . . I felt so good I said I feel like the Avon lady who rang the bell and found it was Tammy Bakker answering the door," Wilson said, calling to mind the lady evangelist's copious application of cosmetics.
Before the evening was over, Wilson had stood for a smiling group portrait with several of the city's most prominent Democrats, including former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, four city supervisors and a clutch of labor leaders.
This is not an unfamiliar role for Wilson, who has been playing fox in the henhouse with Democrats all over the state, hoping to snag votes among environmentalists, Latino and Jewish groups.
Wilson, at one point in the evening, described himself as a \o7 "shadchen" \f7 or matchmaker, showing off his command of Hebrew while speaking of himself as one who brings Republicans and Democrats together over the great issues.
The event at the Fairmont, promoting the Missouri, was especially enjoyable for Wilson because it put him deep in the home port of his Democratic rival. The Missouri is a ticklish issue for McCarthy, who opposes the Navy's policy of home-porting warships but who is counting on heavy support from labor unions in San Francisco.
McCarthy is, by no means, alone among Democrats in opposing the Missouri. One ally on the issue is San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos. But Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and former Mayor Dianne Feinstein are well-known San Francisco Democrats who have come out in favor of bringing the Missouri to the city. Proponents of home-porting say it will revive the Hunters Point Navy shipyard, moribund since the 1940s, create 7,000 jobs and generate $200 million a year in new business.
Foes of home-porting include peace activists and environmentalists, who argue that the huge warship is likely to dislodge tons of toxic waste buried years ago in the harbor. McCarthy has said he is against the whole notion of home-porting because it allows Navy ships to become political footballs, serving parochial interests rather than strategic ones.
But McCarthy is also a critic of the nation's defense buildup under a Republican Administration, leading Wilson to charge that McCarthy's opposition to the Missouri reflects an overall softness on defense.
There were Republicans among the 1,200 people present at the event here Wednesday. But by and large, those who paid $150 a plate to attend the "Don't Give Up the Ship" dinner, were old-fashioned San Francisco Democrats, the sort who mingle unabashedly with men in uniform and hold their hands over their hearts when the national anthem is played. And their ardent support of the Missouri could have repercussions in the Senate race.
Former Mayor Feinstein has pointedly withheld an endorsement of McCarthy because of his opposition to the Missouri.
"McCarthy could be hurt among segments of labor that have traditionally been part of his base. How deep it's going to cut is hard to say. Right now, Wilson is gaining on him among working people," said Clarence E. Briggs, secretary-treasurer of the Pacific Coast Metal Trades District Councils, an organization representing about 5,000 shipyard workers.
Briggs said he is a lifelong Democrat who plans to vote for Wilson.
Doubts Harm to McCarthy
On the other hand, former Mayor Alioto said he does not believe that McCarthy's opposition to the Missouri will hurt him in the November election.
"I don't think it will have any effect on Leo McCarthy's campaign. People recognize Leo as a lifelong friend of labor and as someone who has shown a great interest in alleviating the problems of the poor. They're not going to hold one issue against him," Alioto said.