Joseph L. Alioto, a masterful attorney who as mayor presided over San Francisco with exuberance and style during one of the city's most turbulent periods, died Thursday at his home after a long battle with cancer. He was 81.
Many members of Alioto's family, including his wife, Kathleen, and his daughter, former San Francisco Supervisor Angela Alioto, were at his bedside when he died, according to friends of the family.Alioto was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991 and last year was told that the cancer had spread. He was in and out of the hospital but returned to his Pacific Heights home late last year, determined to fight as long as he could, optimistic to the end that he could beat the disease.
The news of Alioto's death reached San Francisco's City Hall just before closing time. Supervisor Mabel Teng, who is acting mayor while Mayor Willie Brown is out of town, ordered flags over city buildings lowered to half-staff.
From the day he burst onto the political scene in the 1960s, Alioto was seldom far from controversy, evoking admiration and distrust in equal measure.
Friends and political supporters found Alioto bold, tireless and articulate, combining a boundless self-confidence with a buoyant charm and erudition that enabled him to dominate any gathering.
His enemies conceded Alioto these extravagant gifts but said he had a darker side that was devious, vindictive and grasping and said he was not above using public office to promote his own private interests.
Yet few could dispute his legacy as mayor - an explosion of downtown growth that changed the city's skyline, helped cement San Francisco as a player on the Pacific Rim and stirred up the neighborhoods in a way that has altered the city's political landscape to this day.
Alioto was elected to the first of his two four-year terms as mayor in 1967. For a time in 1968 he was considered by Democrat Hubert Humphrey as a vice presidential running mate, and he ran unsuccessfully for governor of California in 1974.
In addition to his political career, he was one of the country's most brilliant antitrust lawyers, founded a bank, headed the world's largest agricultural milling organization, had shipping, ranching and real estate interests, and was a philanthropist and patron of the arts.
But the peaks were matched by valleys.
A magazine accused Alioto of having Mafia ties, starting a bitter 11-year legal battle. He was tried in civil and criminal court in a fee-kickback case, suffered through a divorce, and was found guilty of conflict of interest in the final days of his administration as mayor.
In recent years, he was plagued by debts, a major legal malpractice judgment and threats of foreclosure on his Pacific Heights home that forced him to continue working almost to his death.