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Dan White's Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia 

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008
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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.

About The Author

John Geluardi

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