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Dan White's Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia 

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008
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"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.

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John Geluardi

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