From the Archives: Former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto Dies

Times Staff Writer

Joseph L. Alioto, the ebullient, impeccable, energetic and immensely popular two-term mayor of San Francisco once favored for governor and touted as a possible U.S. vice presidential candidate, died Thursday. He was 81.

Alioto, a nationally prominent antitrust lawyer, died in San Francisco of pneumonia. He had been suffering from prostate cancer since 1991 and had been in declining health for several months.

The charismatic Alioto always dazzled, whether on the political stump, in the staid chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court or in a North Beach coffeehouse reading his epic poem, “The Ballad of My San Francisco.”

When political and legal dirt fell, it tarnished his sterling public image, but never marred his irrepressible optimism or his style.

As mayor from 1968 to 1976, Alioto offered jobs and a political voice to minorities, and quelled and mediated student protests at San Francisco State during the turbulent Vietnam War era. Accused by detractors of “Manhattanizing” San Francisco, he pushed through construction of two of the city’s signature structures, the Transamerica Building and the Embarcadaro Center, and encouraged the construction of many other skyscrapers.


As lawyer, he almost single-handedly established the private antitrust suit to combat price-fixing, restraint of trade and other monopolistic practices. In the 1980s, he represented the Raiders in their landmark antitrust suit against the National Football League, which tried to prevent the team’s move from Oakland to Los Angeles.

In addition to the Raiders and owner Al Davis, Alioto represented clients such as Walt Disney. He won awards of won millions of dollars in courtrooms across the country, including $61 million between 1964 and 1966.

“My eight years as mayor was a sabbatical from the law,” Alioto said with customary humor in 1996.

The only son of the Sicilian immigrant founder of the International Fishing Co. and the nephew of the founders of Alioto Restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf, he raised his own strong branch of the family. In addition to leading his law firm, he was president of Alioto Enterprises and president of the Rice Growers Assn. of California.

Alioto believed that his finest legacy was his family. With his first wife, Angelina, he had five sons and one daughter. Four of the children became lawyers, including Angela, who served eight years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was its president. With Kathleen Sullivan, whom he married in 1978, he had a son and a daughter. Alioto is survived by 11 grandchildren, including Michela Alioto, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1996.

Alioto was considered a consummate and natural politician. As a devoted son of his native San Francisco, he served enthusiastically in the 1950s as member and president of its Board of Education, fighting for both educational reform and higher teacher salaries. He also chaired the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, promoting new development while discouraging reckless razing of homes.

In 1967, when Democratic Mayor John L. Shelley decided not to seek reelection because of failing health, Alioto backed the favored successor, Democratic state Sen. Eugene McAteer. But McAteer died two months before the election, and Alioto jumped in, thumbing his nose at Democratic Party rival Rep. Phillip Burton.

The little-known Alioto put together what he termed “a kind of New Deal coalition of labor and minorities, plus flag-waving Italians” to wage a breathless 54-day campaign. He won in a landslide over 17 other candidates.

Alioto’s administration was marked by a striving for law and order while improving social and economic conditions.

A violin player since age 8, Alioto promoted and helped develop the city’s opera, ballet, symphony and theater companies.

“The big-city mayor has the toughest job in the country next to the presidency,” Alioto told the Christian Science Monitor in 1968. “He walks on the edge of a volcano that may erupt any moment. . . . Not only must he act quickly, but he must create a climate that saps the bitterness and the frustrations from urban living.”

At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the popular new mayor was invited to make the nominating speech for Hubert Humphrey and was touted as a prospective Humphrey running mate.

But a year later, two allegations of scandal--an article by Look magazine purportedly linking Alioto to the Mafia and a Washington state indictment for fee-splitting and kickbacks--prompted the mayor to bow out of a bid to unseat Gov. Ronald Reagan.

He lost a second gubernatorial bid in the 1974 Democratic primary against Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. (who became governor) and Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti, who captured some of the labor support Alioto had counted upon. Alioto finished out his mayoral term and went back to the courtroom.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe, who considered the mayor brilliant, honest and completely overwhelming, once said:

“If there were two people in a room and Joe were one of them, he’d be making a speech. If there were 100 people in the room, it would be Joe and 99 spectators.”

The indefatigable mayor incurred repeated slurs as well as continuing adulation.

The most personally devastating brickbat, which probably did the most to short-circuit Alioto’s political career, was the Look article on July 23, 1969. It stated that Alioto “was enmeshed in a web of alliances with at least six members of La Cosa Nostra.”

“Thirty years from now, someone will say to my grandchildren of their grandfather, ‘He was a Mafioso,’ . . . and that hurts,” said an enraged Alioto.

He filed a $12.5-million libel suit. Eleven years and four trials later, Alioto accepted a settlement of $350,000.

The Washington indictment, charging that Alioto illegally split fees with two state officials in an antitrust case, was dismissed before it went to a jury.

Alioto twice went before the State Bar of California in disciplinary proceedings. A 1987 charge of fee-gouging (taking a $5.2-million fee out of a $9-million settlement) was dismissed. In 1996, a State Bar hearing judge recommended suspension of Alioto’s license for mishandling client funds and refusing to pay a court-ordered judgment. Alioto branded the accusations “phony” and retained his license while challenging the proceeding.

The multimillionaire also endured financial problems. A family venture in the shipping business failed. He was hit with a $3.2-million malpractice judgment, an acrimonious split with two lawyer sons, a demand for back rent on his law office and a suit by granddaughter Michela to recoup a $1.6-million trust fund she won for skiing injuries and which she said she had loaned the firm. In 1993, Alioto’s Pacific Heights mansion was close to foreclosure. The Internal Revenue Service demanded back taxes.

So instead of returning to politics, which he had dreamed of doing, Alioto continued to practice lucrative law.

Born Feb. 12, 1916, the articulate and sophisticated Alioto excelled from the beginning. At Sacred Heart High School, he was editor of the paper, president of the student body and a member of the basketball and debate teams. At St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., he was editor of the yearbook, president of the student body and class valedictorian.

He studied law on a scholarship at Catholic University of America in Washington and began his career with the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. He spent World War II working for the Board of Economic Welfare.

Alioto is survived by his wife, Kathleen; six sons, Lawrence, Joseph M., John, Thomas, Michael and Patrick; two daughters, Angela and Domenica; and 11 grandchildren.


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