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New Post for Heir to S.F. Dynasty

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Special to The Times

Disability rights advocates were hopeful when they heard who would be serving the rest of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s term as county supervisor.

Not only is Michela Alioto-Pier a member of a powerful San Francisco political dynasty, she is also one of their own.

Paralyzed by a ski-lift accident 22 years ago, Alioto-Pier is the first supervisor in the city’s history to use a wheelchair. Some disability group leaders believe that distinction will help propel their issues into City Hall and are waiting for her to prove herself.

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But she’s not one to be told what to do.

“People with disabilities are smart, thinking, caring individuals who have a lot of other concerns,” Alioto-Pier said in a recent interview. “So it’s insulting to everybody to think our world revolves around our disability.”

Alioto-Pier, 35, who represents mostly affluent sections of San Francisco, said her job is to represent her entire district -- in which most of her constituents are not disabled.

The mother of two hails from a rich family line that has helped shape San Francisco’s political landscape. Her aunt, Angela Alioto, served on the city’s Board of Supervisors for two terms beginning in 1988. Her grandfather, Joseph Alioto, was a popular mayor who served from 1968 to 1976.

The family’s influence on the Bay Area dates to the beginning of the 20th century, when her forefathers -- immigrants from Sicily -- helped establish Fisherman’s Wharf. Alioto’s restaurant is still a landmark there.

Alioto-Pier has made headlines of her own. She was a port commissioner before her appointment to the board. She unsuccessfully sought office for California secretary of state twice, narrowly losing to Republican Bill Jones in 1998. Two years earlier, she also lost a bid for a congressional seat for a district that extended from Napa to the Oregon border.

In spite of her reluctance to be pigeon-holed, Alioto-Pier is a quiet advocate who doesn’t shy away from taking on causes on behalf of disabled people.

She was the disabilities constituency coordinator for the Clinton-Gore campaign, a participant in a United States-Japan summit on disability and was appointed by President Reagan to the National Council on Disabilities advisory board.

Alioto-Pier, who was appointed in January to complete Newsom’s term when he was elected mayor and who faces election in November, said she was no stranger to double standards and insensitivity, even at the highest levels.

As a domestic policy advisor to then-Vice President Al Gore, her visits to the White House brought on an unexpected legal rumble after she discovered that the West Wing was inaccessible by wheelchair.

Staff members told her the White House wasn’t legally required to make changes, so she had her lawyer prepare a lawsuit. Six months and $150,000 later, she got her way.

“That was unbelievably frustrating,” Alioto-Pier said. “There was not one accessible bathroom in the West Wing.”

Her aunt, who ran against Newsom last year, said no one in the family considers Alioto-Pier disabled. Her independence, Angela Alioto said, has overshadowed any perception that her niece is less capable.

“Michela wants to be treated like everybody who walks,” Angela Alioto said. “She won’t let anybody push her up or down a hill.”

It’s that fiery streak and her personal encounters with prejudice that some disability rights advocates point to as their best hope for progress. They say only someone bound by similar physical constraints can understand the urgent needs their community faces.

“What we want when an issue does come up is for her to bring her life experience,” said August Longo, president of FDR Democrats, a disability rights group in the city. “She’ll understand and speak to the other supervisors with clarity.”

Disability rights groups have approached Alioto-Pier with proposals ranging from the construction of low-vibration sidewalks for easier wheelchair movement to ensuring that the city’s paratransit services will survive budget cuts.

“They’re all good ideas,” Alioto-Pier said. She said she would place paratransit in particular as a priority for the next budget cycle.

Disability advocates are not the only ones looking to Alioto-Pier to be at the forefront of issues affecting them; the head of the mayor’s disability office also expects her to take a lead role. Alioto-Pier has been asked to present to her colleagues a city report evaluating how well the city’s programs and communications efforts meet the needs of the disabled, as well as a new Americans with Disabilities Act grievance procedure for city services, said Susan Mizner, director of the Mayor’s Office on Disability.

Alioto-Pier recently took her first stance on a city disability issue when she supported making elections accessible to the blind and voters with manual dexterity problems. The city, along with three other counties, was sued by disability rights groups in March for failing to provide touch-screen equipment for the disabled.

“Hopefully, my place on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco will bring that into everyday thought,” Alioto-Pier said. “It would be nice if the concerns of the disabled community weren’t separate but part of everything.”

Ed Evans, a member of the San Francisco Mayor’s Disability Council and chairman of the group’s physical access committee, met recently with the supervisor.

Evans, also a community organizer in the low-income Tenderloin neighborhood, said he wanted a city policy encouraging low-vibration sidewalks to avoid jarring people in wheelchairs with spinal injuries. He also wants quicker responses by city building inspectors to housing and business-access complaints.

But some activists don’t see Alioto-Pier as an ally. Francie Moeller, chairwoman of the Democrats with Disabilities Caucus, said her group didn’t endorse Alioto-Pier when she ran for secretary of state in 2002.

“Basically, we didn’t feel she had a grasp of disabled issues,” Moeller said. “She hadn’t been around. We didn’t know where she stood. It was just like she showed up all of the sudden and just wanted our support.”

Alioto-Pier directs critics to her resume. She has more pressing issues to worry about, such as filling in for the board president in his absence. The chambers are not fully accessible; a lift or a ramp must be installed before she can sit on the elevated dais.

“I hate lifts,” said Alioto-Pier. “They break. They make you feel like the Queen of Sheba.”


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