San Francisco mayoral vote a referendum on direction shift. November ballot leader Agnos still the favorite

San Franciscans choose a new mayor Tuesday - and the outcome is likely to determine whether the City by the Bay charts a new direction or continues its present course. The choice is between Art Agnos, a state assemblyman whose political views are rooted in a 1960s liberalism, and John Molinari, a city superviser who has been an avid supporter of Mayor Dianne Feinstein and her policies.

Early front-runner Molinari slipped dramatically in the days before the Nov. 3 general election and barely qualified for tomorrow's runoff with Mr. Agnos. He trailed Agnos by 38 points in the latest independent poll.

The new mayor will take the reins, in January, of a city beset by an unexpected budget deficit, a reputation for an antibusiness attitude, an acute housing shortage, and an ongoing AIDS crisis. Mayor Feinstein, who assumed office in 1978 after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone, has since been elected to two consecutive terms and is ineligible to run again.

Some political analysts have suggested that an Agnos victory could be seen as a repudiation of Feinstein's policies.

``Mayor Feinstein, a master politician, recognized there were a lot of tremors, if not outright seismic activity, in the body politic,'' says Mervin Field, director of the California Poll. ``But she was able to keep it all together by the sheer force of her acumen and personality.''

Agnos has emphasized the importance of the city's 21 distinct neighborhoods, saying his consensus-style administration would include community representatives at the decisionmaking table. His message apparently has played well in a city where resentment runs deep between neighborhoods and the downtown business interests.

While downtown development has filled the skyline with high-rises and the streets with cars, it has also brought jobs for San Franciscans - a point Molinari has stressed during the campaign. He has opposed a strict growth-control measure approved by voters, favors homeporting the USS Missouri here, and wants to help the San Francisco Giants build a new downtown ballpark to help boost the economy. On those three issues, Agnos takes diametrically opposite views.

Agnos's meteoric come-from-behind campaign stunned even his supporters. With a well-organized, grass-roots organization, his campaign is a primer on how to win a citywide election in San Francisco, they say. In the November election Agnos won two-thirds of the gay vote, 64 percent of the black vote, 62 percent of renters' votes, and 60 percent of the women's vote. He placed first in 20 of the city's 21 neighborhoods, but in a field of 11 candidates he was unable to capture the majority needed to win outright.

Molinari's early campaign was marked by radio and television ads, little street-level organizing, and a negative, direct-mail attack on his opponents that ``boomeranged,'' Mr. Field says. After ``misreading'' the tenor of the times in San Francisco, Field adds, Molinari has been trying to recoup his losses.

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