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Monday, September 28, 2009

With Death of Donald Fisher, Progressives Lose Their Favorite Bogeyman, Moderates and Rightists Lose Stalwart Leader, Funder -- And There's No One to Fill That Void

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 11:59 AM

In death, Bay Area newspapers and other media outlets changed Donald Fisher's name -- back to Donald Fisher. Previously, the Gap founder was invariably referred to as "Republican billionaire Donald Fisher." Once Fisher died, we started to hear more about his improbable rise to fashion titan, virtual creation of "casual Friday," and generous philanthropy.

Given little attention in obituaries was that Fisher really was among the last of a dying breed -- a San Francisco-born and -bred CEO with deep roots in this city and the ability to lead and fund-raise among the city's moneyed, business class on political issues. In short, he was the center-right's go-to financial guy. And it looks like that role dies with him.

A handful of longtime Fisher associates and city politicos told SF Weekly that the moderate-to-rightist movement in this city has lost its white knight. While Fisher is survived by his wife and three sons, friends and observers say that Fisher was the political one in the family. His sons, SF Weekly is told, are far less conservative chips than the old block. They've continued the Fisher family tradition of philanthropy, but, barring a Prince Hal moment, it seems unrealistic to expect them to suddenly become political, conservative, and start throwing their efforts and money into causes the elder Fisher would have.  

"I think Don Fisher was so big, in a sense, nobody in the family could get in his way or be a shadow to him in the public arena," said Don Solem, of the city public affairs firm Solem & Associates, who worked with Fisher for more than 20 years. "So they did other things." 

Tangibly, Fisher was the guiding force behind the 2008 pro-downtown parking initiative Proposition H (which lost), founded the center-right political action committee SF SOS earlier this decade, and also co-founded the pro-business Committee on Jobs back in the 1980s. For any moderate to rightist candidate or proposition, Fisher was the "get." The Gap founder was "a real stalwart against the progressive business purge," said moderate political consultant David Latterman. "Many people in this city said 'Fuck the downtown,' and Fisher was a huge buttress against that."

For a polarizing figure such as Fisher, it's impossible to assess his legacy so soon after his death -- though it seems a safe bet that he and his wife's donation of their art collection to the Museum of Modern Art will endear him to posterity.

Yet Fisher's legacy may well be tied in to the future deeds of City Hall's current resident, Gavin Newsom, and Newsom's ideological successors. As noted before, Fisher was able to lead and influence the city's business-society-moneyed set. That segment of society is fading and now its most capable organizer has died.

"San Francisco always tends to break down into tribes of politics. With the more society group of folks, Don really pushed them and helped elect Gavin Newsom," said Jim Ross, the consultant who ran Newsom's first mayoral campaign. "The ability to organize the big business community, the social community -- that is one of Don Fisher's legacies."

Without Fisher's presence, it stands to reason that politicians and ballot measures amenable to that aforementioned San Francisco political class will suffer. In fact, not only is it a good question if Fisher's family will give as generously to right-leaning local political causes as he did -- will anyone?

"Clearly Don was very active, much more than the average CEO of a corporation might be. Of course, he was born here and lived here his whole life. Now you don't find that -- CEOs and presidents move all around," said Jim Lazarus, the senior vice president of the chamber of commerce. "He was always available, out front, and he'd lend his name to the cause. He was much more willing to be involved politically than the average business leader might be today."

Progressive political consultant Jim Stearns, meanwhile, notes that the Fishers were tough customers when it came to politics. At Don Fisher's behest, he notes, several members of the family could be counted on financially to "max out to a cause."

When asked if, in Fisher's absence, he foresaw anyone stepping up to shower funding upon center-right causes in the city, Stearns gave a nervous laugh.

"Well," he said, "I hope not!"

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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