Warren Hinckle Cartoon
Cartoon by Alfred Twu

The following is an excerpt from the new book: Ransoming Pagan Babies: The Selected Writings of Warren Hinckle by Heyday Books. We are proud to present the work of Warren Hinckle, one of San Francisco’s most legendary and larger-than-life personalities. For decades, Warren Hinckle provided unique insight into San Francisco’s turbulent political scene and changed the face of American journalism.

For the next several Wednesdays, we’ll be running different excerpts from the book. The following excerpt has been edited for publication in the Bay City Beacon.

We encourage you to purchase a copy of Ransoming Pagan Babies directly from Heyday Books, a local Bay Area publisher. As an exclusive Bay City Beacon offer, our Supporting Members get a coupon code for 30% off and free shipping. Email contact@baycitybeacon.com to receive the coupon code!

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On the afternoon of November 6, 1987, the Friday after the election, a crisp and cool San Francisco day without a sunbeam of hope piercing the dark electoral cloud gathered over his head, Supervisor John Molinari was secluded in his second floor City Hall office, receiving no visitors but the intimate and the anointed. Molinari’s new campaign manager, Jack Davis, knocked on the door and went in without waiting, as was his custom. He stopped short at the scene inside. John Molinari was seated behind his desk in what seemed to be a state of shock. In a supplicant pose before the supervisor was the Reverend Cecil Williams with his arms outstretched in prayerful entreaty. The black pastor gave Davis the annoyed glance of one who is interrupted during a sacramental process. Molinari waved the campaign manager off. Davis closed the door softly. The moment had the sanctity of the confessional. Indeed, it was a bizarre religious tableau of the type not seen in American politics since the conniving Kissinger knelt with the besotted Nixon in the bunker hours of Watergate.

The Reverend Williams, playing the rat to Molinari’s mole—even his friends call Molinari the “Mole”—told him that he was jumping ship to join Art Agnos, who had just come within a few thousand votes of burying the Mole, the former front-runner, in his own campaign mistakes. And Williams had the chutzpah to urge the Mole to quit the race while Agnos was soaring ahead. Molinari, who had just slam-dunked $1.4 million of his friends’ money down the political sewer, was stupefied; the smiling clergyman wanted to turn the election into a coronation. Williams is the boss of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, the Notre Dame of the Tenderloin. He is also one of the face cards of San Francisco politics.

A savvy ecclesiastic who receives $800,000 a year from the city to feed the hungry in his Tenderloin tabernacle, Williams was a premature supporter of Molinari. That was back in the good old days when Jack took an early lead in the polls after raising over a million dollars from garbagemen (the supervisor’s grandfather was a pioneer San Francisco scavenger), real estate developers and others doing business with the city and county of San Francisco. When Molinari came in a distant second in the November 3 primary, Williams was quick to apprehend an apparent change in divine will; God, after all, is on the side of the winners. The mercurial minister was the first of many longtime Molinari supporters to jump ship, citing what he saw as the candidate’s move to the right; many of the others deserting were men of capital who simply could not afford to back a loser.

The shock effect of Agnos’s dramatic showing against the previously heavily favored Molinari affected many in the city, not the least Agnos himself. “Feinstein is going to go to pieces,” he said. “She won’t be able to handle re-entering ordinary life without the policemen and the limos on hand. You can’t imagine the incredible power it gives you being mayor but you’ve got to be able to handle the power. I’m tough. I’ll be able to handle it. I’ll stand on the steps of City Hall like Feinstein never did and let the ordinary people come up to me and ask me questions, call me an ass----. The power won’t get to me.” Agnos told me that the night Williams did his routine in Molinari’s office. Agnos seemed adrenalated and his eyes were glistening with the otherworldly look of a messiah. He was in the state of political rapture that once moved his fellow Democrat Lyndon Johnson, high from peacemaking, to boast, “I’ve got doves coming out my armpits.”

I know these things because I was a candidate for mayor; not a journalistic observer, but a participant. I crossed the line dividing citizen and politician and entered the twisted world of San Francisco electoral politics, analogous in every way to the Twilight Zone. It is a world closer to the double dealing of the Middle East than to the values of middle America—a world where money is regent and the commitments that count are the ones that ring the cash register. And yet it’s an amazingly personal world where the loyalties and hatreds that shape the campaign come from real, or imagined, hurts of years past. Just say no, I reply, when people ask me why anyone would run for mayor.

My decision to run had a lot to do with being born and raised in this town and thinking that the vision of the old city was being dirtied and chiseled by the politicians. There was a pervasive feeling, shared by many, that San Francisco deserved better than it was being offered in this election, or, perversely, that it was getting just what it deserved. I thought the city was getting short-sheeted, and that in the last free-for-all election we will see in many a year, some idiot had better jump in there and give the politicians what for. As it turned out, I was that idiot.

Yet this mayoral race, for all of its nightmarish big-bucks elements, has brought a few real changes. Who would have imagined a year ago that the election of 1987 would see:

  • The nationally-hyped Feinstein regnant go out with a whimper, the city busted financially and Madame Mayor unable to deliver for either Molinari or the Giants stadium, her two final lost causes.

  • Herb Caen losing it by putting his healthy cynicism aside and his 50 years of power on the line for a dice-playing buddy named Jack “Millionari” Molinari. Meantime, the young columnist for the afternoon paper went for Agnos, making Mr. San Francisco look like Mr. Milpitas.

  • Political control of San Francisco shifting from the Feinstein/Molinari lazy bucks, let-’em-build-skyrises clique to the Sacramento moneybags machine headed by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, the new power behind the Agnos throne.

  • The entrance fee for any serious run for mayor of San Francisco becoming a cool million bucks.

Running for mayor of San Francisco was an exhilarating, exhausting, dreadful, extremely informative and sometimes hilarious experience. At a party thrown by a left-wing Valencia Street bookstore, a worker at McAuley Neuropsychiatric Institute came up to me and said he had great news. He had polled six people at the hospital and all six had said they were going to vote for me as the candidate who cared most for the poor and the homeless. That was encouraging, I said. Were these six of his co-workers? No, he said, crestfallen, they were inmates.

When you don’t have a million bucks like your rivals, you have to think up gimmicks to draw attention to your candidacy. That’s why we developed the official “Hinckle for Mayor” condoms. They were produced in faraway Thailand and packaged in Tempe, Arizona (sorry, no union bug), in covers cleverly resembling traditional campaign matchbooks. We gave away thousands for educational purposes here in the AIDS capital of the country. 

Good news travels. During a stuffy black-tie fundraiser at the Players Club in New York, I gave one of the campaign matchbook/condoms to Tom Wolfe, the writer. Tom used to live in San Francisco and thought this great sport. He bounded across the room to former New York Mayor John Lindsay and handed him the little package, saying this was from his candidate for mayor. Lindsay began to slip it politely into his pocket, as one would with matches. Wolfe said, “Wait a minute, Your Honor, these aren’t regular matches, these are from San Francisco.” Lindsay looked down and opened the cover. His tanned chin dropped in horror.

We encourage you to purchase a copy of Ransoming Pagan Babies directly from Heyday Books, a local Bay Area publisher. As an exclusive Bay City Beacon offer, our Supporting Members get a coupon code for 30% off and free shipping. Email contact@baycitybeacon.com to receive the coupon code!

Join the community of those who care - become a Beacon Supporting Member.

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