Harvey Milk and Proposition T: Milk’s Success and Populist Movements in San Fransisco During the 1970s

Harvey Milk is a martyr of gay rights, and has, in many liberal circles, transcended to the level of an idol. Harvey Milk as a politician has a sublunary, mixed career.  In 1973, Harvey Milk garnered 16,911 votes throughout the city. He came in 10th out of 30 candidates.In 1975, he garnered 52,996 votes throughout the city.  This time, he came in 7th .  In 1977, with voting by district, he won 5,925 votes, but that was 30.5% of the votes cast; he became the Supervisor for the newly created District 5.  He won by a 12-point margin, in a supervisorial race of 17 candidates. Behind Dianne Feinstein and Quentin Kopp, Milk garnered the most votes out of any other supervisorial candidate.  The data alone cannot explain why Harvey Milk, after losing twice, suddenly became such a political stand out. There are three possible reasons that rocketed Milk to victory in 1977: ethnic and political demographic shifts, Milk’s campaign strategy and rhetoric, and, finally, the move to district elections with the passing of Proposition T. In 1960s through the 1970s in San Francisco, Irish and catholic political influence was eroding, while liberal and gay political influence was growing. Throughout his three campaigns, Harvey Milk’s rhetoric was anti-establishment and his campaign strategy exploited existing political groups.  Proposition T, however, was decisive in winning Milk a seat at the board of Supervisors in 1977: Proposition T, a populist initiative, drove Milk’s large victory because it created District 5 out of three liberal neighborhoods.

I: Ethånic and Political Demographic Shifts

Milk was running for Supervisor when older, conservative Irish influence in San Francisco politics was giving way to more liberal tendencies. Although demographic shifts are dramatic, shifts in political and ethnic demographics happen over a decade or more. While a shifting demographic was necessary to carry Milk to a supervisor seat, it did not decide the 1977 Supervisor elections. Contrary to popular belief, San Francisco has not always been a fortress of liberal progress. In fact, “San Francisco politics beginning in the 1890s was directly influenced by the deliberate attempts of the Catholic Church and devout Catholic men and women to influence the terms of debate about the common good and to shape public policy according to their faith-based values.” Most poignantly, the Irish preferred religiously affiliated candidates “and a strong concern for worker’s rights.” Earlier in the century, Irish Catholics dominated San Franciscan politics. In the election year 1909-11, Irish supervisors seat in 50% of the seats. In the election year between 1963-71, the Irish occupied 25% of supervisor seats. As the declining percentages of representation allude to, the Irish, and therefore Catholic, political dominance in city government was eroding.

1960s marked the beginning of more noticeable demographic shifts that stretched into the early 70s. By the late 60s and early 70s, “a distinctive era of San Francisco history was coming to an end—an era that witnessed high degrees of influence of the Catholic notions that the common good derived from and must operate within the bounds of a God-given moral order.” Now 2nd generation Irish, and traditionally Catholic, San Franciscans, were “declining, [as] the successful ones [moved] to the suburbs.” The Irish that stayed were “becoming increasingly conservative on new social issues as their party and church bespeak now liberal trends, disappearing from elective office and civil service as other groups claim[ed] those rewards.” The Irish were decreasing in number but increasing in conservatism. Simultaneously, the gay presence in the city began to grow.  In 1973, “The politically conscious men of the Castro did not mince or step delicately down the street; they strutted defiantly. A sour look from a crusty Irish widow was the most valuable form of flattery.” Clearly, by the early 70s, gay men displayed confidence in their neighborhoods and chaffed against the existing Irish Catholic presence. Still representing a strong conservative presence, San Francisco politics did not welcome gays. Again contrary to popular belief, “[i]n the early 1970s, the record on gays and lesbians in politics in San Francisco looked no different from most cities in its reluctance to grant a formal voice to this community.” Conservative Irish Catholic presence in city politics was still strong, but it was decreasing, making way for a more liberal wave. While more liberal influence was on the rise in San Francisco politics, it did not prove strong enough to win Milk a seat as supervisor.

II: Campaign Strategy and Rhetoric 

Milk’s rhetoric and campaign strategy was consistent between his failed campaigns in 1973-5, and his successful campaign in 1977, pointing to the conclusion that his rhetoric and campaign strategy did not secure his victory in 1977. Political life thrived on active participation in community groups. “‘Clubs’ is used here as a rubric to cover not only the city’s 27 clubs chartered with the Democratic Country Committee, but also another 750 politically active clubs, caucuses, committees, associations, organizations, groups, councils, unions, societies, taskforces, collectives, projects, campaigns and mobilizations.” Throughout Milk’s three campaigns, Milk’s strategy consisted of building coalitions between the various neighborhood and political clubs, which peppered San Francisco’s political landscape. Despite his theatrical and populist rhetoric, he consistently garnered mixed success in endorsements from these clubs.

In 1973, Milk’s campaign strategy was to target established community groups and his rhetoric carried populist sentiments. In 1973, to the Democratic Council, “Milk went on to deliver a theatrical hellfire and brimstone populist speech.” Although his eccentric, anti-establishment campaign behavior won him name recognition, his speech ended up rubbing the Council the wrong way and lost him the Council’s endorsement.  Due to his alienation of Democratic Council, it is unclear if he was able to secure enough core democratic votes. In addition to targeting existing community associations, Milk began to promote anti-elitist reforms. Proving Milk’s commitment to populism, in 1973, Milk argued for “an amendment to the city charter that require city officials to ride Muni to work everyday.” Although Milk rode a political up swing from successful campaigning, gaining momentum, he could not secure key endorsements.

In 1975, Milk continued to promote populist ideas and rely on established clubs’ networks. In 1975, as president of the Castro Village Association (CVA), “Milk took to promoting his new theories through the CVA with all the flair he had once demonstrated in pushing Broadway shows.” Building on his 1973 methods, he continued to reach out to community associations. Mirroring his populist positions in 1973, Milk’s 1975-rhetoric capitalized on populist impulses. Milk was a political outsider, and used that status to his advantage, running an anti-establishment campaign:  Because, “Milk was gay, … and ran for office at a time when the gay and lesbian community, even in San Francisco, was not a political force, created a rhetorical situation that was far from ordinary.” His position as a non-elite resonated with the non-gay population.  As one auto-shop owner mentions, Milk stuck up for gays because they were minorities, the same reason he advocated for Asians, Blacks, and the poor. While this comment glosses over Milk’s personal ties to the gay community, it points to Milk’s political persona as populist.

Milk’s 1977 campaign strategy and rhetoric did not deviate from his previous tactics.  In 1977, Milk’s organizing with groups so different from his own identity remained impressive, it is unclear, however, due his mixed endorsements, whether they translated politically. Besides galvanizing groups in his neighborhood, Milk’s reached out to groups that were traditionally not considered allies to gay men. Surprisingly, Milk gained significant popularity among union workers. Ultimately earning him the endorsement of many small businesses, “Milk was successful at organizing gays to boycott Coors beer in gay bars as a part of a Teamster’s action against beer distributors who would not sign a union contract.” Milk’s commitment to small businesses and the middle class drew the attention of union workers. Milk’s status as a gay man, connoting femininity and weakness, made unions, strongholds of masculinity, unlikely allies. Although union members often thought highly of him, despite his sexuality, Milk did not receive the Labor Council’s endorsement. Milk’s rhetorical style was unique. Far from being a stern and hardhearted politician,  “Using laughter, reversal, transcendence, and his insider/outsider status, Milk helped create a climate in which dialogue on issues became possible.”  This ultimately enabled him to provide  “a means to integrate disparate voices of his various constituencies.” This strategy and rhetoric bolstered his political momentum, but not without mixed results.

All and all, “Milk’s political campaigns appear to be the usual moves of a candidate who becomes increasingly astute about the political process; they suggest typical adaptions in terms of language, dress, and decorum to the political arena.”  It seems unlikely that a consistently fringe candidate in 1973 and 1975 would suddenly dominate the race in 1977 due to ‘usual moves’ of a more seasoned campaigner. Mixed results receiving endorsements from powerful political clubs and his predicable rhetorical and strategic development weren’t enough to win him the election in 1977. A sudden jump from seventh to first between 1975 and 1977 makes it seem as though other factors greatly contributed to his success. Although Milk’s theatrical rhetoric and alignment with local businesses garnered him local attention, it would take an external political change in San Francisco’s political landscape to propel Milk to political victory.

III: District Elections and Proposition T

Prior to the passing of Proposition T, which changed the electoral process, in November 1976, supervisors were elected city-wide, so conservative neighborhoods canceled out the liberal leanings of other neighborhoods. In the mid 70s, in the area soon to be called District 5, was known as the Haight, Buena Vista Park and Noe / Eureka neighborhoods. Voters in these neighborhoods exhibited high levels of liberalism, populism, and progressivism. Liberal voting is directly linked to “low socioeconomic status, renter status, gay sexual orientation, African race, and Hispanic Race.” The neighborhoods, like the Haight, Buena Vista and Noe/Eureka, which, in 1977, would be District 5, had a political orientation that is favorable to a populist, liberal candidate, like Milk. Other neighborhoods did not have a tendency to vote liberal, like West of Peaks or Parkside. Although the liberal attitudes in a few neighborhoods seemed auspicious, Milk was competing throughout the city before the passing of Proposition T.  Supervisor elections that were voted on citywide, and not by neighborhood, canceled out the vast differences in political leanings, making it difficult for a populist liberal like Milk to be elected.

Neighborhood Populism Progressivism Liberalism
Haight 68.65 81.11 91.6
Buena Vista 60.23 74.70 81.17
Noe/Eureka 57.58 67.91 70.18
Parkside 58.87 44.33 24.48
West of Peaks 42.46 37.38 18.73


The passing of Proposition T in November of 1976 allowed Milk to capitalize on liberal neighborhood’s voting trends. Ultimately, Proposition T allowed Milk to win a supervisor seat by a large margin. Because Milk was running in a citywide election, his campaign could not capitalize on liberal voting trends; conservative blocks of the city undermined his citywide popularity. In 1973, “He was the top vote-getter in the precincts around San Francisco State University and swept ‘brown rice belt’ of hippie voters…On a precinct-by-precinct basis, Harvey either won big or lost big.” These big losses and victories canceled each other out, undercutting Milk’s electoral success. The large differences in progressivism, populism and liberalism between neighborhoods made it difficult for Milk to win in citywide elections. Again, in 1975, the localized “the liberal voting trend[in selected neighborhoods], however, did not extend to the races for supervisor…Harvey finish[ed] the race in seventh place, just one slot from victory.” Because supervisor elections were held citywide, conservative block neighborhoods diminished the political realization of increasing liberal attitudes. Changing the electoral process was key in deciding the election in 1977: “Had the district election plans been in effect for the 1973 race, Harvey Milk would have been elected a member of the Board of Supervisors from the Castro district.”

In 1977, however, Proposition T re-organized supervisor elections, so that each newly created voting district elected a supervisor. District 5 encompassed Haight, Noe/ Eureka and Buena Vista, all neighborhoods with residents that favor liberal, progressive, and populist candidates, and excluded conservative neighborhoods like West of Peaks and Parkside. Proposition T “would have the Board of Supervisors elected by districts, beginning with the city election in 1977. The city would be divided into eleven supervisorial districts. Each district would elect one supervisor who would have to live in that district.” Proposition T’s new election process changed the old system, where the city as whole elected supervisors, making the election processes beholden to  “large financial interests because huge sums of money are usually needed to win city-wide elections.”  Proposition T was fundamentally a populist initiative. It served to ameliorate the city-wide problem that “essential services suffer from lack of attention while concerns of downtown corporations absorb too much energy and too many tax dollars.” In electing a supervisor, who had to live in the district they represented, “Proposition T will make supervisors directly accountable to city resident, instead of those who pay for expensive campaigns.” Reflecting Milk’s commitment to populist ideals and his political ambition to be elected, Milk endorsed the Proposition: his name appears four names from the bottom on the list of endorsements.

Proposition T changed the composition of the Board of Supervisors, pointing to its passing as a pivotal electoral change that realized the ethnic and political demographic shifts in San Francisco. While Harvey Milk had been gaining political momentum, it was the shift to district supervisor elections that propelled Milk from a theatrical fringe candidate to a dominant politician who won 30% of the vote out of a race of 17 candidates. Proposition T’s significance is clear because its passing collectively changed ethnic composition the Board of Supervisors. Just a few years after its passing, the Board of Supervisors became “more demographically representative of the city’s population: five women, six men; three gay or lesbian persons; two African Americans, one Chinese American, and one Latino.” Just in the election year of 1977, a woman who ran on feminist platform, the first black woman, first Asian man, as well as the first openly gay man, Harvey Milk, were elected. Proposition T realized San Francisco’s populist movement in the 1970s: the inclusion of previous politically underrepresented groups in the Board of Supervisors contextualizes Milk’s success in a larger anti-establishment movement.  Proposition T represents a decentralization of the electoral process meant to magnify the voices of minorities.

Milk was a populist candidate: he fought big companies like Coors, argued for elected officials to take public transportation, and most notably, was an outsider as a gay man. He won through populist means: Proposition T decentralized supervisorial elections to neighborhoods, combatting the influence of large companies and elitist money in municipal elections. Milk’s success is coached in a larger populist, anti-establishment movement in California.  In the 1970s, Watergate and Watts Riots at Berkeley hung over the nation’s head. In the 1970s, distrust of government and a sense of unease permeated towns and neighborhoods. Milk’s rise to political prominence further indicates the rise of populism in California politics in the 1970s.




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Ringer, Jeffrey. R. Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality. New York: New York University Press, 1994. Accessed February 20th, 2016.

San Francisco General Municipal Election, § Supervisors (1977). Summary Report

San Francisco Voter’s Information Pamphlet, § Proposition T: District Election of Supervisors (1976). General Election. Tuesday November 2, 1976.


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