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  •   Former San Francisco Mayor Joseph L. Alioto Dies

    From News Services
    Saturday, January 31, 1998; Page B06

    Joseph L. Alioto, 81, the son of a Sicilian-born fish merchant who became a prominent antitrust lawyer before serving two terms as mayor of San Francisco, from 1968 to 1976, died of pneumonia Jan. 29 at his home here. He had prostate cancer.

    One of his accomplishments as mayor was his success in largely "keeping the peace" in his city during a time of racial turbulence and often tumultuous anti-Vietnam war activism.

    While saying he wouldn't tolerate violence, Mr. Alioto urged young black militants to "come to me with your problems before you take them to the streets," and pushed unions to boost minority hiring.

    "Militants who seek change through nonviolence should be brought into the chain of decision-making, and not isolated and forced into alliance with the lawless," he said.

    As mayor, he gave jobs and a political voice to minorities and quelled and mediated student protests at San Francisco State College. Accused by detractors of "Manhattanizing" San Francisco, he pushed through construction of two of the "City by the Bay's" signature structures: the Transamerica Building and Embarcadaro Center.

    He quickly became one of the state's brightest political stars, and gave the speech nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey for president at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. At the time, Mr. Alioto was rumored to be in the running for the vice presidential nomination, and also was mentioned on most lists as a probable candidate for the California governorship.

    But his political star sagged after Look magazine ran a story in 1969 linking him to organized crime. Mr. Alioto responded with a $12.5 million libel suit that he eventually won, collecting $450,000.

    About the same time, the state of Washington and several other agencies sued Mr. Alioto for taking a share of $2.3 million in attorneys fees for a $16 million price-fixing case he had won. Later, the federal government indicted him on charges of bribery in the way the fees were collected.

    He eventually was cleared of all civil and criminal charges.

    While the bad publicity didn't hinder Mr. Alioto's reelection as mayor in 1972, he said it stymied his run for the statehouse in 1970 and played a part in his loss to Jerry Brown in the 1974 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

    He didn't let the difficulties slow him down, though.

    "I don't come from a wailing tradition," he told Time magazine in 1972. "We take life as it is. It is a tough life, and we know it is."

    Many observers recall his as an electric personality, whether on the political stump, in the staid chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court or in a coffee house reading his epic poem, "The Ballad of My San Francisco."

    "Joe Alioto was the first mayor that made San Francisco into a big city," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), herself a former mayor of San Francisco.

    The city's current mayor, Willie Brown, issued a statement hailing Mr. Alioto as "a champion of racial diversity long before it was fashionable."

    "His imprint on San Francisco is indelible -- from the city's downtown landscape to its cultural institutions to its public parks," Brown said.

    In its obituary of the former mayor, the San Francisco Chronicle said that "On so many levels, Joe Alioto was San Francisco -- often vain and parochial but unerringly charming and sophisticated, and always ready for a good fight."

    Mr. Alioto, who was born in San Francisco, was a 1937 magna cum laude graduate of St. Mary's College in California. After graduating from Catholic University law school, he worked for the Justice Department's antitrust division and then for a wartime agency before returning to San Francisco and starting his own law firm in 1946.

    He later became active in banking and agribusiness, as well as civic projects involving education and economic development.

    Mr. Alioto was fond of saying he got his political start by accident when the mayoral candidate he supported in 1967, Democratic State Sen. Eugene McAteer, died while playing handball two months before the election.

    Mr. Alioto jumped into the race and won in a landslide over 17 other candidates. He won with what he called "a kind of New Deal coalition of labor and minorities, plus flag-waving Italians."

    After retiring from politics in 1976, Mr. Alioto returned to his antitrust practice, once the biggest in the country with such well-known clients as Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn and Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders football team.

    Mr. Alioto was diagnosed with cancer in 1991, but remained active as a lawyer for the Oakland Raiders football team and around the city's Italian neighborhood, North Beach.

    His first marriage, to Angelina Alioto, ended in divorce.

    Survivors include his wife, the former Kathleen Sullivan, whom he married in 1978, and their two children, all of San Francisco; six children by his first marriage; and 11 grandchildren.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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