Jim Rivaldo, 1947-2007

Pub date October 23, 2007
WriterTim Redmond

› tim@sfbg.com

There aren’t many political consultants in the world who deserve the term "sweet person." There aren’t many who last in that often vicious and horrible business who care more about their personal political principles than they do about money. There aren’t many who are universally liked, even by the people they routinely oppose.

Jim Rivaldo was weird that way. I knew him for almost 25 years, since I began watching the nasty world of insider San Francisco politics, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who had anything bad to say about him.

Rivaldo was one of the first openly gay political consultants in the country, an advisor and campaign manager for Harvey Milk and an innovator in the early days of the business of using graphic art and direct-mail technology to elect people to public office. He was the state’s first openly gay commissioner, serving as Milk’s regional representative on the Coastal Commission.

Rivaldo and his business partner, Dick Pabitch, managed the campaign that defeated the Police Officers Association juggernaut to create the Office of Citizen Complaints in 1983. He helped elect Milk and his successor, Harry Britt, helped found what is now the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and was one of the key players who put gay politics on the map, making the queer community a force to be reckoned with in San Francisco. He was the treasurer of the first campaign to bring district elections to San Francisco.

Rivaldo was also one of the first political activists to make connections between the gay and the African American communities. He ran the campaigns of nearly every black politician elected to office in the 1970s and ’80s. In other words, his professional résumé was, by any standard, impressive.

But when you ask people today about him, what they remember most is his sense of humor, his passion for what he cared about — and the fact that he was, above all, a wonderful human being.

"He was such a great guy," said City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who hired Rivaldo to run his first campaign. "I think it’s a measure of the integrity of the man that everyone in town had a fond spot in their hearts for him."

"He had principles," San Francisco Information Clearinghouse activist Rene Cazenave recalled. "He was sort of a socialist, with a real understanding of class, and he really believed in it."

State senator Carole Migden said, "He was the sort of person who could cross all political lines. He was like a UN ambassador."

Rivaldo was born in Rochester, NY, in 1947. It wasn’t an easy place to be a young gay man, but he persevered, as he always did later in life, and wound up graduating from Harvard. He arrived in San Francisco in the early 1970s, just as the gay pride movement was getting into full swing, and quickly became a part of community politics.

He set up a political consulting firm when managing campaigns for money was still a new line of work — and quickly demonstrated that he had an innate skill for it. With Pabitch, he set up shop in a second-floor office in the 500 block of Castro Street and started promoting queer candidates as citywide contenders.

"He was the first one to use turquoise and hot pink for political fliers," Migden recalled.

And over the next two decades, as many of his industry colleagues began to make a lot of money — and some became very wealthy — Rivaldo always seemed to barely get by. After he and Pabitch split up he moved to a little office near City Hall and took on a string of candidates who were often barely able to pay their bills.

"He wasn’t the ruthless, get-ahead-at-all-costs type," Migden said. "That’s why he wasn’t rich."

I always liked talking to Rivaldo. He never called to talk trash about someone else. I didn’t always like his candidates, but I knew he always did; when he told me about someone he thought should be in office I always knew he was telling the truth. He actually cared about people and issues, and when things went badly (when, for example, a candidate he helped elect to the school board voted the wrong way on the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and infuriated the queer community) he felt personally let down, just like the rest of us.

AIDS has ravaged his generation of gay men in San Francisco, and there aren’t many people left in politics who are links to the days of Milk, who can remember and tell stories of a time when the idea of a queer person serving at City Hall was considered an astounding breakthrough. And it’s in part because of him that San Francisco now has two queer supervisors, two queer state legislators, and queer representation at virtually every other level of government.

But I think the most remarkable fact of Rivaldo’s life is that he was such a decent guy that he could be friends with so many people who were so often at odds, often to the point of not speaking. He talked to Jack Davis and Tom Ammiano, to Migden and Mark Leno, to Terence Hallinan and Kamala Harris. They all liked him; they all respected him. They’ll all miss him. And so will I.