San Francisco mayor wages a campaign against crime

Dianne Feinstein became acting mayor of San Francisco in 1978, she faced an enormous -- and immediate -- challenge: to stand at the helm of a city shocked by two assassinations.

Her unflinching assumption of what she calls the "emotional reconstruction" of the city impressed even some of her toughest critics. A year later she was elected to the job in her own right.

Now, midway through her first term, Mayor Feinstein is enjoying a period of relative prosperity and calm. In an era of budget cuts on all levels and a taxpayers' revolt, San Francisco has still managed to be one of only four major United States cities operating with its budget in the black. Violent crime, the sort that unwittingly propelled her into office, has taken a slight but encouraging drop in the city during the past year.

When one enters the mayor's richly paneled office in San Francisco's French Renaissance-style City Hall, the tragic events of 1978 seem a world away. The mayor herself, wearing a soft gray blouse and skirt and with luxuriant dark hair framing her face in perfect waves, is a serene and unruffled presence as she sits behind her long, elegant mahogany desk.

But during an interview, it is not long before crime and the prevention of it surface as the uppermost item on the mayoral agenda. "Crime," she says flatly, "is the most significant issue in the city and in the state. There is still a lot of fear in San Francisco, and justifiably so."

A high priority has been to beef up the city police force, adding 250 officers primarily to serve on beat patrols. Another 100 are expected to be added this year. Mayor Feinstein believes that San Francisco's tiny decrease in crime (five- tenths of 1 percent), occurring at a time when the rate in other large California cities has increased, can be attributed to the stepped-up protection.

Another side of her campaign against crime has been in urging the state Legislature to enact laws requiring stricter sentencing of those convicted of violent crimes. Citing statistics showing that 86 percent of the prosecuted felons in San Francisco last year had prior crimical records, she strongly believes that early parole and light sentencing are making crime prevention an uphill battle to fight.

"Criminals are simply not brought to justice," she insists. "The ones who are often the most dangerous to society are often let loose. With California's 1977 determinate sentencing law, criminals simply go into prison for a specified length of time and even come out, often regardless of their threat to society."

Not surprisingly, Mayor Feinstein considers the very crime she was closest to , the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, to be a prime example of the light sentencing she decries. When learning that Dan White , the man convicted of the murders, had been sentenced to just eight years in state prison, she receive some criticism of openly expressing her outrage at the verdict.

"I speak out when a particularly bad crime has taken place," she says. "Our society is so passive and there is often no recourse for the victim. The defendant gets all kinds of media attention, but, as the saying goes, the dead have no lobby."

Many of her strong opinions on crime prevention were honed during the early 1960s when she served on the California Women's Board for Terms and Paroles, which then determined sentences and parole for female inmates. "Because I sat in on about 5,000 cases during those years, I think I have a good idea of what works," she says. "the state should go back to system in which a board carefully considers the severity of each individual case."

Despite the hard line she has taken on local law enforcement and prison sentencing, she does not believe that either can get at the real root of crime. "Parents are the ones who can do the most," she says. "We as a society, need to give more care and guidance to our children, to know where they are and what they are doing. Too often kids are just left in front of a TV set, where they learn how seemingly easy and painless it is to kill."

She actively encourages citizens to take part in protecting themselves by registering their property with the police and by participating in neighborhood cooperative efforts against crime. "Pulling together is the most effective crime prevention package there is," she ssays. "The days of not getting involved, of not coming to each other's aid, have passed."

Where her own safety is concerned, she says simply, "Public figures are now vulnerable all over the world. But you don't change your schedule. You must never cater to potential killers."

Another of her great concerns has been the city's efforts to maintain its unique system of cable cars, which require much costly renovation. The outlook for the presevation of the vulnerable cars is currently quite favorable, she says, particularly since the US Department of Transportation has recently promised funding for their reconstruction.

Where other matters of public welfare are concerned, however, Ms. Feinstein, like many US mayors, is walking a thin line to keep her city economically afloat. Through a program of fiscal conservatism and the automation of some city administrative jobs, she has been able to increase the budget for city services by 10.4 percent this year.

California's Proposition 13, the measure which reduced property taxes in the state, has made maintaining city services expecially difficult, says Mayor Feinstein. She believes the public may come to regret the measure.

"One reason there has been a taxpayers' revolt is that people have found it easy to separate public services from their own costs," she says. "Once you have free parks, libraries, and a cheap transit system, it's very easy to take them for granted. It isn't until they are faced with losing these things that the connection is all too apparent."

Ms. Feinstein believes that Proposition 13 has created an unfair tax structure, since it is based on the most recent sales price of an individual home. "In this way you have people who have lived for a long time in wealthy neighborhoods who are paying very low property taxes. The most recent home buyers, usually young people moving to modest neighborhoods, end up paying a lot more for a lot less. My chief objection to 13 is that it's so unequal.

Although finding herself in the mayor's chair through tragic and unexpected circumstances, it is an office she had twice campaigned to win, in 1971 and 1975 . Since 1970 she had served on the Board of Supervisors, the city's governing body, during much of that time as president.

Prophetically, she has sat in on Board of Supervisors meetings as an adolescent, taken there by a favorite uncle encouraging her interest in local government. Following her graduation from Stanford University in 1955, where she served as vice-president of the student body, she used a foundation grant to do a study of criminal justice in California. Her work prompted Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr. to appoint her to the Women's Board of Terms and Paroles in 1962.

Ms. Feinstein lives with her third husband, financier Richard Blum, whom she married last year. Her first marriage ended in divorce, and her 16-year marriage to Dr. Bertram Feinstein in widowhood in 1978. She has one daughter, Katharine Anne, who is 24.

Her impressive career, much of it forged during a time when women were not encouraged to have careers, was not without moments of conflict and trial. "There are times when I still have conflicts about having a career," she says. "Women are basically different from men, they have different needs. Society has yet to answer to a lot of those needs.

"This is especially evident in the political arena, which is entirely tailored for men. Women in politics have a lot of adjusting to do. The accepted political style is a man's style; there is no real public image for woman in public roles. They are constanlty criticized for what they wear, how they speak, for being either too masculine or feminine. They are criticized for things a man doesn't have to face."

Still, she encourages other women to carve out niches for themselves in public life. "The only way for the special problems women face to diminish is for more of them to enter the political arena. We need to have choices other than to try and copy men -- a mistake, in my view."

What has she learned during the past 2 1/2 years as mayor? "To make decisions quickly and be strong," she says with a firmness that could lead one to believe that those choices for women in politics are not far off at all.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.