The Milk Issue: Guardian memories of the long-haired young hopeful
Toward the end of the supervisorial campaign in 1973, I got an intercom call from Nancy Destefanis, our advertising representative handling political ads. Hey, she said, I got a guy here by the name of Harvey Milk who is running for supervisor and I think you ought to talk to him.
Milk? I replied. How can anybody run for supervisor with the name of Milk?
Nancy laughed and said that wasn't his big problem, it was that he was running as an openly gay candidate, but he had strong progressive positions and potential. Nancy, a former organizer for Cesar Chavez' farm workers, was tough and savvy, and I always took her advice seriously. "Send him in," I said.
And so Harvey Milk came into my office, at the start of his political career, looking like a well-meaning amateur. He had a ponytail and mustache, wore Levi's and a T-shirt, and talked breathlessly about his issues without a word about how he intended to win. His arguments were impressive, but he clearly was not ready for prime time. We gave him our "romantic" endorsement. He got 17,000 votes.
I also advised him, as diplomatically as I could, that if he wanted to be a serious candidate, he needed to clean up his act.
Two years later, Milk strode into the Guardian in a suit and tie as a serious candidate ready to win and lead. As our strong endorsement put it, "Now he's playing politics for real: he's shaved his mustache, is running hard in the voting areas of the Sunset, and has picked up a flock of seemingly disparate endorsements from SF Tomorrow, the Building and Trades Council, Teamsters (for his work on the Coors beer boycott) and the National Women's Caucus." On policy, we said he "would put his business acumen to work dissecting the budget" and "would fight for higher parking taxes, no new downtown garages, a graduated real estate transfer tax, an end to tax exemptions for banks and insurance companies, dropping the vice squad from the police budget, and improved mental health care facilities." He couldn't get enough votes citywide to win, but he came closer.
In 1976, Milk decided to run for a state Assembly seat against Art Agnos. We decided to go with Agnos, largely because he was familiar with Sacramento as an aide to former assemblyman Leo McCarthy and also because our political reporter covering the race, Jerry Roberts, said that Agnos was much better on Sacramento issues during the campaign. We decided that Agnos was right for Sacramento and that we needed Milk in San Francisco. I have often wondered if we had endorsed Milk, and he had won, if he would still be alive.
The next year, when the city shifted to district supervisorial elections, Milk won and became the first openly gay elected official in the country. He would always say, "I am not a gay supervisor, I am a supervisor who happens to be gay."
On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 24, 1978, Milk dropped by to see me at the Guardian. He was a bit dejected. Things were getting tougher for him on the board. He was getting hassled by his friends and allies who were telling him, as he put it, "if you don't vote for me on this one, I'm going to stop supporting you." He said he was going to press on, but from then on he was going to work more closely with the Guardian on legislation and on giving us information.
Then he smiled the famous Harvey Milk smile and said as he left my room, "I want to be your Deep Throat at City Hall."
Those were the last words I ever heard from Harvey Milk. He was assassinated three days later.