Dianne Feinstein’s Not Stepping Down, She’s Stepping Out


City Charter may force her to quit her “bully pulpit” next month, but San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein is not going to let that stop her from continuing to deliver her political sermons.

When she leaves City Hall on Jan. 8 at age 54, San Francisco’s first woman mayor will hardly fade away. In addition to lecturing and writing, she is raising money for a possible 1990 gubernatorial election bid--and waiting to see if there is a job for her in any new Democratic presidential team.

“Obviously, my life has been (serving in the) government, and I think I’ve done my job well,” she said in an interview in her roomy, elegantly appointed office. “I would like to continue in government in some capacity.”


For now, however, she prefers discussing her city’s future to her own.

“I’ve really wanted to be mayor,” she said. “I haven’t done a lot of speaking and haven’t been out (campaigning for higher office). I’ve been here, doing my job.”

Doing her job has not been easy. After twice failing to be elected mayor, Feinstein, as president of the city’s Board of Supervisors, inherited the post after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone in November of 1978.

The simultaneous shootings of Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk by disgruntled former city Supervisor Dan White was not the only crisis that came with the job. At the time, the city still was grieving the mass-murder and suicide by 900 members of the Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple at their South American hideaway just 10 days earlier. Before fleeing to Guyana, the temple was based in San Francisco and most of its members were from the Bay Area.

In addition, Feinstein took the city’s helm as it was trying to cope with a $120-million deficit and the unknown portent of the Proposition 13 tax-cutting measure.

“The first year, by far, was the most difficult,” she said. “But we were able, I think, to pull the city together and bring people out of the shock and horror.”

Erased Deficit

At the same time, she said, she erased the deficit and built a surplus that at one point had swollen to more than $150 million. That eventually was eaten up by events she contended were beyond her control: revenue-sharing cuts at a time of new state-mandated spending--a particular problem for California’s only joint city-county, she said--as well as the AIDS crisis and homeless problem. These are the reasons why the city now continually faces deficits, she asserted.


Despite the financial troubles, she said, she has been able to hire 350 new police officers, cutting average response times to about two minutes from nine minutes, and contributing to a drop of more than 20% in the crime rate from 1980 to 1986.

Feinstein added that 15,000 residential units were put up in the first half of the 1980s--more than the number built in the entire previous decade--although this did not cool housing costs. A recent Labor Department study found that on average, San Franciscans paid 36% of their income on housing in 1985, compared to 30% in 1980.

Economic Transition

Feinstein also has led the city through a thorough economic transition, during which it lost many of its largest companies to mergers and relocations. By vigorously recruiting new companies, Feinstein shows a net increase in jobs during her tenure and leaves a jobless rate of 4.7%--about a full point under the statewide figure.

San Francisco also leads other major U.S. cities both in the rates of per-capita new-business start-ups and new-business successes, a Dun and Bradstreet report concluded earlier this year.

An opinion poll in the San Francisco Chronicle this fall found that 66% of the city’s voters believe that Feinstein has done an “excellent” or “good” job in office; 24% rated her performance “fair,” while 9% judged it “poor.”

Political moderation and an iron will have earned that support, she said.

“It’s a very diverse city and everybody walks to the sound of a different drummer,” she said. “And a mayor has to be strong.”


Hundreds of Goals

It also helps to set public goals for the city’s 23,000-member work force. Each year, she lists the number of museum exhibitions expected at the Academy of Sciences, the number of potholes to be fixed by the Public Works Department and hundreds of other goals for the city’s 41 departments. Most are met.

Still, San Francisco is not without problems. The biggest is a $77-million deficit projected for 1988-89. Feinstein, who handled a similar shortfall two years ago, has suggested $80 million in cuts.

“It can be dealt with,” she said simply.

Feinstein’s home town success, along with her interest in Pacific Rim trade and frequent overseas trade visits, have made her a sought-after speaker. When she leaves office, she said, much of her time will be spent lecturing in China and California. She also will finish an autobiography for Simon and Schuster.

In the meantime, she works with her gubernatorial “exploratory” committee and accepts accolades from supporters. A recent “Salute to the Mayor” dinner in Her Honor’s honor attracted 2,000 people, larger by far than any such event in city history. This political fund raiser reportedly made more than $100,000 for her gubernatorial committee.

If she is impressed by such things, she does not show it. She said she has not thought about how the future will view her.

“I hope I will be summed up as a mayor who cared and ran the city well,” she said after a long, thoughtful pause, and “as a mayor who came in at a very difficult time and restored a sense of equanimity, of looking forward.”