Emeritus State Senator John Francis Foran grew up in the humble precincts of Saint Mary's Park neighborhood in the outer Mission District, near the antique twin spires of Saint John's Catholic Church. These were Depression blocks with Irish house parties and Italian homemade wine, where relatives and neighbors took in children without a home when their parents were sick or had no money or disappeared to drink. His career in government, in partnership with his wife, Mrs. Constanza Ilacqua Foran, spanned the three decades from 1963 to 1986.
His life began in San Francisco before they built the bridges, in the days of the now vanished urban villages of Mission Irish, Italians, Germans, and Mexicans; he launched his career in the great mid-Century era of progressive, far-sighted California government, and was deeply involved in policies that continue to have profound influence on for the future of our own rich and vastly complicated society of the 21st century.
Foran was involved in politics at a good young age: "When I was six, the guy up the street was a runner for the Assemblyman, he used to give me a quarter to walk around, go to all the houses, and hand out his card." At the foot of the very hill where he skinned his knees and played kick-the-can as a little fellow was where the state routed Highway 280, and named it the John F. Foran Freeway.
He started working in government in the late 1950s, in the waning years of the old City, whose final campaigns were waged by elderly stalwarts like State Senator Tommy Maloney, son of a saloon keeper from Kildare, raised on the rough streets South of Market, a great friend of labor with a sixth grade education. Foran knew Tommy well. His losing campaign in the 23rd Assembly District in 1956 against Phillip Burton was the end of an era. "Tommy Maloney's campaign was based on the good old boys, good old neighbors, many of whom had moved out of town, were no longer his constituents." He reached out through wedding, wakes, and funerals. The Burton brothers, who were not native San Franciscans, brought in "well-organized precinct campaigns" and a modern approach to political campaigning and issues. Tommy was no match.
Foran’s career emerged from the same old neighborhood political milieu as Maloney’s. His first campaign brochures from 1963 featured his family and neighborhood ties:
FORAN KNOWS OUR DISTRICT
There is a photo of "John, age 4, in front of home where he was born and where mother still lives, 414 Murray Street." Beside a family photo, "The four Foran children in 1936. Residents then…Residents now…James-Bowdoin Street, Marjorie-Justin Drive, John-Natick Street, Mary-Murray Street." (Marjorie Foran McSweeney, retired civil servant, remains in the neighborhood to this very day!).
Foran points to the Noe-Eureka Valley as a good example of the neighborhood system. “It was a very close-knit community, Holy Redeemer parish, and it was a nexus for the politics of the Noe-Eureka Valley…The Noe-Eureka Valley Democratic club produced campaign workers, and lots of signs and things like that, they were very active. Everybody knew everybody else, talked to everybody else.…it was a core neighborhood, and highly political. There were other neighborhoods, but not I think, as close knit.”
The Forans, both native San Franciscans, understood these neighborhoods all over town. Connie Foran remembers that they “walked the precincts in the Excelsior District, he (John) would take all of the Irish, I would take all of the Italian names, and ring doorbells on the same block…"
John adds, "you had garage parties; you had lots of volunteers… meet in Irish basements and cellars in the Mission District. You'd have one in a Mexican basement, one in an Irish basement, one in an Italian basement…I'd bring a bottle of bourbon, and put it on the table." This world based on the old ethnic associations, saloons, and parishes gradually passed as more of the old native stock moved to the suburbs.
There were tensions in Eureka Valley, as it became “The Castro” in the late 1960s. “All of the bars were Irish bars, now most of them are gay bars. There was a great deal of resentment, everyone was Irish Catholic, and they resented it" as the neighborhood deteriorated and was then overwhelmed by newcomers.
Foran was often at odds with the Burton machine in State politics, in line with the more conservative working-class Catholic districts of the City, often in partnership with Leo McCarthy, a close personal friend from youth. "The basic distinction…was, I was a fiscal conservative and he (Phillip Burton) was not. Other than that, on social issues, our voting records are practically the same." Despite their differences the young politicos drank together at John Monaghan's Ten Sanchez. "It was the center of Democratic politics, everyone went there".
If the stories about campaigns of the 1950s and early 1960s evoke a bygone era, Foran’s career in the State Assembly was very much about our lives today in 2008 and the lives of future California: transportation, air quality standards, labor, and civil rights.
Transportation became Foran’s signature issue in politics. He was startled to learn that the head of the transportation committee only thought about cars. "His concept of transportation was (to) build freeways, freeways, and more freeways…"I as an urban person believed in public transportation, that you have to have a multi-modal system of transportation"
Foran himself would later become Chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee at an absolutely crucial time in the development of our state. "I'm very proud of the fact that I changed the California state policy towards transportation from a uni-policy to a multi-policy." In this position he wrote laws and funded bodies that created the basic groundwork for our public transit and pollution standards today. Without these California would today be like Texas or Georgia, choking on smog and freeways.
Incredibly, no one had proven the connection between cars and smog until the early 1960s. "Everyone complained about that yellow haze, but nobody had identified the components as…largely coming from automobile exhaust". The environmental movement began to gather momentum. Foran had a major role in passing the Pure Air Act of 1968, which set the standard for California's clean air, standards with led to the development of the 'California car'.
Today he firmly advocates high-speed rail project for the future of California. "We can't pave the state and eventually air traffic is going to be curtailed"…as air routes grow more congested, high speed rail is "a solution for curtailing air pollution and freeing up roadways."
Partisanship today makes it much harder to get things done. "When I was in office, Republicans and Democrats worked to solve problems and that doesn't exist anymore. The caucuses decide how the votes are going to go…they don't try to work their bills." The rancor and personal innuendo used in campaigns have made it much harder to work together. Foran stands as an exemplar of the decency, foresight, and humane values of moderate liberal politics of his generation. As San Franciscans and Californians weary of political gridlock we ought to seriously consider once again what the old school has to teach us about good government.