Angela Alioto in the belfry of the St. Francis Shrine on Vallejo Street.
Angela Alioto meets St. Clare of the Pumps
by Hank Donat
Angela Alioto is ten percent satire, sometimes more. I've often thought that if people listened to her through the filter of that knowledge, half her reputation as an eccentric would disappear. Likewise, her renown as a passionate advocate and litigator would increase commensurately.
When she says Gavin Newsom is "the biggest panhandler in town," Alioto may be using her sense of humor to get your attention, but her meaning is no joke.
"There are a lot of real ways of taking care of homelessness," Alioto says, "Newsom couldn't care less about homeless people. He put Care Not Cash on the ballot to run for mayor, not to take care of homelessness. You can't use the poor like that and really get away with it in the long run."
St. Francis was wed to poverty. If you gave him shoes he would give them away. On the morning of our visit to the St. Francis Shrine in North Beach, Alioto, whose espousal of Franciscan ideals is well known, was in peak condition.
Energized by favorable polling data, Alioto, one of the country's most successful anti-discrimination attorneys, was also awaiting the arrival - any day now - of her second grandchild.
Brother Bob Ouellette, a buoyant fellow, greets us at the door. Br. Bob is excited because the shrine has acquired a figure of Santa Chiara, aka St. Clare, after a long search for a suitable statue of this intrepid follower of Francis. "I had people looking all over the world," says Alioto.
"It was fashioned in Munich, but we're not sure when," says Br. Bob of the statue. "There's just one thing, though," he adds.
"I see it," Alioto says, "The Germans just couldn't have Santa Chiara barefoot or in sandals." Indeed, St. Clare is wearing shoes.
"Let's think about this," Alioto says, "before I call off my worldwide search."
I dub the figure "St. Clare of the Pumps" and announce that she'll protect the city against flood. Besides me, only Alioto is laughing.
Our tour of the church includes hidden character like the Jesus with six toes in "St. Francis at Fontecolombo (the Spring of the Dove)," an alter painting by a student of Luigi Brusatori.
Next is a trip to the bell tower. The inner space of the tower includes an intact beam, burned during the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.
The belfry affords a unique view of Nob Hill with the Zelig-like Fairmont Tower, and a Hitchcockian take on Molinari's Deli. Alioto points out the Filbert Street birthplace of her late father, Mayor Joe Alioto.
Among Angela Alioto's court victories is her suit against the Port Commission to protect Fish Alley and the pier used for more than five decades by the Alioto-Lazio Fish Co., operated by Alioto's cousins and her 98 year-old aunt.
Early the same morning, when Alioto introduced me to Angela Cincotta and Annette Traverso, who run the company with their sister, mother, and grandmother, it was clear that the case is one of the fiery attorney's proudest accomplishments in a career that she truly loves.
Alioto says, "One time I was in trial and the judge wasn't letting in evidence that I needed in so I asked him, 'Your honor, is this America?'"
The judge fined Alioto $100. Later, inspired by Sophia Loren in "L'oro di Napoli" (The Gold of Naples), Alioto took a wad of a hundred $1 bills from her bra and began counting them out in front of the judge. She didn't get past five before the court vacated the fine.
"He was a good judge," says Alioto.
Whenever I speak with Alioto, this is the tenor of our discussions. We also share a number of cultural interests including Lena Wertmuller films (high satire) and Italian Renaissance art. Alioto says she's been feeling "Romesick."
She's still not wild about having her picture taken. She loves Dr. Dean Edell because his reading glasses are inexpensive and she can leave pair after pair lying around everywhere.
That same sense of humor - a source for Alioto's charisma - also makes her vulnerable to those who would dismiss her as a political shock maestra.
During our conversation I said that since Board of Supervisors Budget Analyst Harvey Rose has determined that the care in Care Not Cash would cost more than the savings in welfare cuts, perhaps this suggests we should raise cash grants for homeless people until services are in place.
"You might be on to something," Alioto says. Obviously, she doesn't really want to raise cash welfare grants. However, she says, "If it's care, then let's care."
With time running short over cappuccino and campaign staff starting to circle, I ask Alioto for a pulse check in the heart of the city.
How do you reach people in order to recapture San Francisco as a cradle of fellowship and kindness?
"People don't even say hello to each other anymore," she says, "But you don't reach them in the heart in the sense that you're talking about.
"They've been hardened into, 'I've got mine and you can get whatever it is that you can get, but I've got mine.'
"I think that's a personal experience. Gavin Newsom doesn't have a clue how people suffer. If you see someone you can relate to having a hard time, then you can get it."
Alioto remains hopeful. "I am a very fortunate person in life. I'm a very optimistic person. My father was also an optimist, to the very end of his life.
"Endorsement committees ask me, 'What can you do realistically in your term as mayor?' The word 'realistic' is not in my vocabulary. There's nothing realistic about what I dream of for this city. Everything I want for San Francisco is outstanding! If I get excellent, I'm okay."
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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat