Farewell to a Great Man: Hadley Roff, RIP


hadleyroffThey’re giving Hadley Roff a big send-off in San Francisco this morning – hundreds of family, friends, pols, hacks and flacks who knew and revered the big heart and virtuoso skills of a much esteemed, old-school political player.

Hadley, who died last month at 85, spanned five decades as a behind-the-scenes go-to guy — a strategist, speechwriter, adviser,  operative, crisis manager and consummate insider, serving three U.S. Senators and five S.F. mayors.

He worked in Washington for a time, for Ted Kennedy and John Tunney, but he always was a California guy. A native of Santa Cruz, he made his bones as a reporter at the old News and the Call-Bulletin, at a time when San Francisco boasted four daily papers; then he switched teams to enlist in the Dark Side, and over the years became a City Hall fixture and fixer for alcaldes Joe Alioto, Art Agnos, Frank Jordan, Willie Brown and, most of all, Dianne Feinstein, who is to deliver his eulogy at a “Celebration of Life” gathering of the tribes at Delancey Street at 10 a.m.

“Never,” Difi said, after hearing word of Hadley’s death, “have I had a more loyal, stalwart partner and friend.”

Far from the self-important consultants, humorless careerist creeps and ass-smooching martinets who litter the landscape of political campaigns and government offices these days, the late Mr. Roff was a throwback: he managed simultaneously to be absolutely loyal to his principal and unfailingly honest with reporters; while street smart and shrewd, he also was a genuinely sweet, compassionate and decent man who loved to laugh; with rare perspective, he saw clearly the utter absurdity of the political game but never forgot the needs, troubles and humanity of the ordinary folks who looked to government for help.

hadley 30Falstaff of the press office. As a source, Hadley had great integrity. Once he came to trust you, he’d always steer you straight; even if he couldn’t share everything he knew, he’d warn you off a bum lead or confirm good information gathered elsewhere. His Falstaff face was a masterpiece of expression; Hadley practically invented the eye roll, and he could communicate volumes without using his voice — hoisting his bushy brows, scrunching rows of wrinkles into his wide forehead, or shuddering and shaking his head while covering his eyes with one hand.

John Wildermuth, a Friend of Calbuzz now re-enlisted at the Chron, did a must-read job on the obit for the late Mr. Roff, including recollections of Hadley’s 1950’s first encounter at Stanford with Dianne Feinstein, nee Goldman, who then was breaking down barriers in campus politics while Hadley was the editor of the Daily.  

The intersection of their lives, both professional and personal, is worth a novel, a fascinating behind-the-scenes narrative that Hadley described in part a quarter century ago, in a series of interviews with a future Calbuzzer researching a book on Difi.

The Hadley and Dianne Show. In 1971, when then-Supervisor Feinstein launched an ill-advised and spectacularly dreadful challenge to incumbent Mayor Alioto, Hadley was working for Joe, and part of his job was to taunt Dianne’s flailing campaign efforts in the local dailies.

At one point, Feinstein complained bitterly that Alioto volunteers were tearing down her campaign signs. With mock solemnity, Hadley vowed to investigate her claim adding, butter not melting, that “maybe this is an indication that her campaign is failing and people don’t want her signs up anymore.”

A few years later, however, Hadley became Dianne’s first big hire, signing on as Deputy Mayor a few months after she moved into Room 200 following the 1978 assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk. When he flew out from Washington for an interview, each of them had recently suffered and endured the loss of a spouse by cancer. In 1993, Hadley recalled the highs and lows of the meeting:

He and Dianne sat on the deck (of her Pacific Heights home) and talked about life and death and loss and he was taken with her “empathy and sensitivity.”

Then she and (future husband Dick) Blum took him on a long car tour of the city, during which the mayor reeled off an epic monologue of minutiae about federal housing programs, infrastructure improvements and UDAG funds for public transportation. “Scrunched down in the back seat, it seemed endless,” he smiled years later, recalling Feinstein’s zest for policy detail.

difi govHadley and Dianne on the trail. In 1979, a tentative Feinstein faced a fierce and aggressive challenge, from then-Supervisor (later state Senator and Superior Court Judge) Quentin Kopp, to win a full term of her own, after serving out the final year of the late Mayor Moscone’s. Roff described being constantly at her side during the campaign, reassuring, coaxing, soothing, cajoling, and listening, listening, listening.

One day, Ted Kennedy was in town and drew a big crowd to the Hyatt Regency hotel for a political event. The campaign scheduled a “drop-by” for Dianne, but when she arrived, she balked and sent (her driver) inside to find Roff, who raced out to the car.

“Why am I here? Who are these people? she asked her top aide.

“They’re Democrats,” Roff patiently explained, “they’re voters.”

“Do they have name tags?” she replied.

Over the course of the bitter campaign, however, Roff recalled that Feinstein found her voice, and his allegiance, respect and personal admiration grew.

“Quentin was running a veiled sexist campaign and she had to prove she was firm and tough and decisive,” Roff recalled. “At that point, she was still very insecure and kept saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ he added. “But she proved she could thrust and parry. And she had an extra component he couldn’t touch – she was a person of recognized compassion who had brought the city together.”

willieOaths and bloody oaths. Feinstein beat Kopp and, ten days after taking the oath as mayor in January 1980, she and Blum took out a marriage license. Roff and his fiancée, the spectacular Susie Trommald, who passed in 2010, accompanied them on the errand; they wed the same day as the mayor.

After nearly a decade together at City Hall, Hadley next became a key adviser in Feinstein’s historic 1990 bid for governor, when she became the first woman to win a major party nomination before losing narrowly to Republican Pete Wilson.

That campaign had a shaky start. In the summer of 1989, Feinstein took time off for a hysterectomy – coincidentally at the same time Roff was out of action with prostate surgery. On the day they returned, the dynamic duo was blindsided when chief campaign strategist Clint Reilly infamously fired Feinstein, by sending out a press release to announce his resignation, charging that Feinstein allegedly was “unwilling to make a 100 percent commitment” to the race.

Roff came in early and was greeted with a call from Gerry Braun, political reporter of the San Diego Union, asking for a comment on “Clint Reilly’s statement.” What statement is that, Roff wanted to know. Braun politely faxed him a copy.

A few days later, Feinstein had a damage control press conference to announce her campaign would continue. Standing before reporters, still soon after major internal surgery, she was asked if she truly had “the fire in the belly” for the campaign.

“I thought I had that removed,” she answered. It was a great line, and it had Hadley’s touch all over it.

hadley 2RIP. Hadley wore his politics on his sleeve, and after President Obama’s first inaugural in 2009, wrote an essay reflecting on the historic event. Here is an excerpt, that is printed in the program for today’s service:

To me, “change” embodies an idealism awakened in me by my first history book.

I still remember the sadness I felt as a kid when I walked past the sullen faces in line at soup kitchens in the Depression. World War II rallied Americans of all ages, as if each of us were a recruit. I can remember in the fifth grade the sailor, still on crutches from Pearl Harbor, who asked us to buy Victory Stamps with their picture of the vigilant Minute Man.

I remember the green-hulled cargo ship that listed from a torpedo as she steamed offshore from my hometown of Santa Cruz, and I can still hear the rumble of the grey Navy blimp as, each morning, it passed low overhead.

After college came years in city rooms and then in City Hall in San Francisco and in the Capitol in Washington D.C., that confirmed for me that if voters are involved and leadership is accountable, government, no matter at what level, can advance the public good.

That’s -30-

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