Personalities

It’s OK to Talk Politics With Ann and Jim Lazarus

By Jesse Hamlin

Ann and Jim Lazarus were in the car — Ann at the wheel, Jim riding shotgun, the radio on — when his cell phone rang from a number he didn’t recognize. He picked it up and heard a voice he couldn’t make out. “Do you know who this is?” she asked. When he said no, she let him know: “It’s Dianne!” Jim didn’t have to ask Dianne who. He’s worked with Senator Feinstein off and on since the mid-1970s, when he served as San Francisco deputy city attorney and she presided over the Board of Supervisors, which he advised. Feinstein brought him back from private practice in the ’80s to be her deputy mayor for finance and administration, and in 1999, during her second U.S. Senate term, made him her California director.

Photography by Anastasia Blackman.

Now, after 13 consequential years as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s senior VP for public policy, Jim has been lured back to serve again as Feinstein’s state director. She was calling that day from her car to talk about it.

“I said, ‘Oh, sorry senator, I’m in the car and couldn’t hear too well,’” he recalls, laughing about the episode. “She asked me if I wanted to do this, said she wanted me back, and asked to get together when she was here.”

Feinstein couldn’t find a more able, experienced and committed public servant than Jim, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who’s had a notable impact on the city. During his first chamber stint from 1990 to ’92, he led the effort to tear down the loathsome, quake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway. After serving as Mayor Frank Jordan’s chief of staff, he ran the San Francisco Zoological Society, shepherding the bond measure that rebuilt the zoo.

“I CAN SAY FOR THE TWO OF US, YOU HAVE TO CHANGE TO SURVIVE, AND IT KEEPS THINGS INTERESTING.”

—Ann Lazarus

“The best job I ever had was the years I was deputy mayor to Feinstein, a great job if you’re a San Franciscan and love the city,” says the 69-year-old, sitting in the terrarium-like rooftop den of the 1927 Pacific Heights apartment he shares with his wife of 39 years, another deeply rooted, civic-minded San Franciscan.

Ann, who served as an aide to Mayor George Moscone, makes her living running nonprofits in transition on an interim basis. She sat for eight years on the city’s Port Commission and is into her second term on the Board of Permit Appeals

The couple grew up near each other — Ann on Jackson between Walnut and Presidio, Jim at Jackson and Lyon in flats his grandfather built in 1907 — but never met until they worked at City Hall. Ann left Moscone’s employ before he and Harvey Milk were murdered by Dan White 40 years ago. Jim was at City Hall that November morning, which is seared in his memory.

Hearing the mayor had been shot, he recalls, he rushed into the supervisors’ chambers, where he encountered “the police chief, Dianne and Harvey Milk’s body.”

On the 30th anniversary of the assassinations, Jim was driving to a conference with chamber colleagues. They asked him about that day. Just then his phone rang. It was Feinstein, wanting to talk about that horrific event before doing an interview about it.

Jim admires the fact that “Dianne’s first response to everything was nonpolitical,” he says. As mayor, “she managed what was then a $2 billion to $3 billion municipal corporation — now $11 billion — and focused on getting the potholes fixed, cleaning up the streets, lowering crime rates, making sure the flowers are planted in Golden Gate Park. I think London [Breed, the current mayor] is very much the same way.“Politics comes into everything because it’s government, and it’s an elected office, but Dianne’s first reaction was always, ‘What’s the right decision for the city?’ I think everybody appreciated that she was a tough person to work with and for, but she was just as hard on herself. You knew her heart was in the right place to make sure the city moved forward, and you were proud to work for her.”As Feinstein’s California director, Jim, who took over for Sean Elsbernd, now Mayor Breed’s chief of staff, heads a statewide staff of 20 to 25, helping constituents with things like Social Security snafus and immigration issues, connecting local governments with federal programs, and, as Feinstein puts it, assisting to “advance my priorities in California and Washington.”

In a statement, Feinstein praised Jim’s judgment and “grasp of policy and politics.” Chronicle editorial writer Marshall Kilduff, a friend who met Jim and Ann while covering City Hall in the ’70s, describes him as “very experienced, very knowledgeable, careful and thoughtful. He really cares about the legislative work and the impact of things.”

As for Ann, the former longtime executive director of the Mount Zion Health Fund is directing the St. Francis Foundation on an interim basis and will do the same for the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation. Says Kilduff: “She has a tremendous loyalty to and love of the city. She’s got the public spirit.”

The couple raised four kids on Fifth Avenue in the Richmond District, where the toddlers would come downstairs to say goodnight during board meetings of PAR, the Planning Association for the Richmond. Now, older daughter Kate, who lives in the Richmond, is president of PAR’s board.

“Our dinner table conservation was politics and local government. They picked up on it by osmosis,” recalls Ann, sitting in the light-filled space whose artworks include a cityscape by the late San Francisco painter Sam Provenzano, Jim’s art teacher at the Town School.

Out the window to the east, looming like a giant vape pen, stands Salesforce Tower, symbol of the new City. Salesforce chair-man Marc Benioff championed Prop. C, the so-called homeless tax measure approved by San Francisco voters in November but now tied up in litigation. Lazarus led the chamber’s opposition to it.

“All the money in the world is not going to solve the homelessness problem in San Francisco when there’s still a problem in Oakland or San Mateo County or Sonoma County, when you still have people being put on buses from other counties and sent to San Francisco,” Jim argues. “It’s a regional issue that needs state and federal attention as well as local resources. I think Dianne sees that and wants to move legislation and appropriations in that area in the next couple of years.”

Jim plans to stay with Feinstein for a few years. Ann is segueing to her new interim gig at SF General, and her Board of Permit Appeals term ends in 2022.

“People think I’m crazy because that board is a fair amount of work,” Ann says. “But I enjoy it. It’s a really interesting way to be involved in the city and see how regulations and legislation are playing out for real people and businesses.”

Unlike some natives, Ann is not nostalgic for the old San Francisco, although she abhors the current city’s dirty sidewalks and snarled traffic.

“Some people do change better than others. I can say for the two of us, you have to change to survive, and it keeps things interesting.”

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