A New Song
Tony Hall has brought a booming voice and feisty energy to the S.F. Board of Supervisors
Ilene Lelchuk, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 6, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Don't call Tony Hall a wedding singer.
Somehow, that label stuck to Hall while he was campaigning to become the Sunset District's new representative on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and he doesn't like it one bit.
Hall, a tall man with broad shoulders, stage-perfect dark, wavy hair and a smooth voice, prefers to be called an entertainer. Or band leader. Even court administrator, his day-job title, is better.
And now the Tony Bennett-singing baritone, who in fact does play some weddings as well as Reno gigs, can add supervisor to his list of prefered titles.
Just like his singing style, Hall's politics are old-school San Francisco, and he plans to keep it that way.
Hall is focused on neighborhoods the same way that supervisors were in the late 1970s during the city's first attempt at district elections. He's also politically connected through the Irish Catholic community that once dominated the Sunset and still holds some sway. And, Hall said, he modeled his 30-year bureaucratic career and his new political career after the city administrators of the 1940s and 1950s, who rose up through the ranks, unlike today's political appointees.
"I learned a lot under the great city fathers," said Hall, 59, who has worked for the city, district attorney and now the courts.
His victory party earlier this month at the Irish Cultural Center reflected his bent for everything traditional. Partygoers included priests, elderly parishioners, former Police Chief and Mayor Frank Jordan, former mayoral candidate and millionaire Clint Reilly, former Supervisor and retired Judge Jack Ertola and former Police Chief Tom Cahill.
His seven children and Irish American wife, Nora, who is regularly referred to by friends as "Nora of Bere Island, County Cork," were there, too.
Hall's altar-boy image -- singing Mass at St. Brendan's Church every Sunday, volunteering as a track coach at St. Ignatius Prep School and announcing the St. Patrick's Day Parade -- helped him snag the and narrow win over Mayor Willie Brown-backed incumbent Mabel Teng in San Francisco's most conservative district.
LOCAL CRITICSBut Hall, who detractors say is quick-tempered behind the scenes, also has enemies in the Irish American and Chinese American communities, which helped make the Hall-Teng runoff the city's tightest supervisors race Dec. 12.
It was so close that Teng's supporters challenged Hall's 38-vote win with an expensive recount.
"We've celebrated the victory eight times, and eight times we've gotten a hangover," Hall campaign manager Mike Mallen said of the on-again, off-again recount that dragged on for two weeks.
Hall's most vocal detractor is a prominent member of the Irish American community, the politically connected and controversial builder Joe O'Donoghue.
O'Donoghue, president of the Residential Builders Association, is suing Hall for slander, contending that during his campaign Hall had told the media that O'Donoghue exploited Irish immigrant labor.
"He failed the Irish community because now he has political ambitions like Caesar," O'Donoghue said recently.
O'Donoghue said Hall was plain mean, and had even taken out a temporary restraining order against one of his election opponents, candidate Rennie O'Brien, during the race. Hall contends that O'Brien was harassing him and threatening his family and supporters.
Hall denies O'Donoghue's allegations and says the builder is just jealous.
"Joe O'Donoghue seems to have a problem with another Irish name that represents the community," Hall said, also denying rumors about his temper. "That accusation was manufactured by my opponent (Teng), who was trying to take the 'I'm the little female' role."
Hall added: "I'm not going to be pushed over by anybody."
The fight doesn't run too deeply through the Irish American community. Jack Webb, president of the United Irish Societies and part owner of Ireland's 32 pub, described Hall as "a nice family man, married to a girl from County Cork."
Lawsuits, recounts and restraining orders aside, Hall said he was determined to focus on the neighborhoods he feels were abandoned by his predecessors.
CAREFUL BEGINNINGSHall has started slowly, unlike other new board members, who raced out of the gate with heavy legislative proposals such as curbing the mayor's power. Hall said he was assessing District 7's needs and consulting seasoned politicians from the Sunset: former state Sen. Quentin Kopp and former Lt. Gov.
Leo McCarthy. Hall also is assembling an advisory counsel of neighborhood activists including Rich Bodisco, who campaigned for the current water and sewer rate freeze and supervisors' term limits.
For now, Hall is sticking to what he knows. His first action as supervisor was requesting a status report on the dropping water level of Lake Merced. He also drafted a resolution commending St. Ignatius and Sacred Heart prep schools for their academic success and athletic rivalry. (Some of Hall's children attend St. Ignatius.)
"He has a real love for this city," said the Rev. Michael Healy of St. Philip's Church, who has known Hall for about 25 years.
Hall grew up in downtown Los Angeles, where his Irish American father worked as a delivery truck driver for the film studios. The second oldest in a family of eight children, he started working at age 6 delivering newspapers. "We worked our way through the good schools," said Hall, who attended Loyola Marymount University and UCLA on basketball and track scholarships.
SINGING CAREERHall always sang with choirs but didn't use his voice to make money until after college, when he set off to see the world and landed his first nightclub gig in Sydney.
Back in the United States a year later, Hall fluctuated between bureaucrat and crooner with his seven-piece traveling band, the Hallmarks.
Today, Hall's band still performs the lounge favorites -- Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Louis Prima -- four times a month at festivals, weddings and on the road, which helps support his large family.
Hall began working for the courts in 1986 and currently is the executive assistant to the Superior Court presiding judge, an $85,000-a-year job Hall will try to juggle with his supervisor duties.
Hall made one other bid for supervisor in 1978.
"Just like now, I thought the power was converging downtown under Mayor Moscone, and I thought the neighborhoods were being overlooked," Hall said.
Same theme, different decade. Hall campaigned for the Dec. 12 election as an independent from the mayor, who controlled many of the votes on the last board.
"We sing well together," Hall said, referring to his recent impromptu duet with Brown at a post-election party. "But it doesn't mean I vote the way he wants me to."
E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at [email protected]