May and December? Balding, 62-year-old Joe Alioto and his wife since February, Kathleen Sullivan, 34, have rewritten that romantic cliché. “It’s a June-October relationship,” says Alioto, one of the leading antitrust lawyers in the U.S. and the former mayor of San Francisco. “I thought about age at the start, but not now. I’m older than Kathleen in some ways, but younger in others. Though she has great stamina, she gets tired before I do. I never ask for quarter.”
Sullivan, a former teacher who entered politics in Boston via the city’s controversial School Committee (i.e., school board), is now running in the Democratic primary to oppose Republican Sen. Edward Brooke this November. Kathleen all but gets on the stump when her new husband is mentioned. “Joe has a secure ego—many men would find me difficult to deal with, but he gets a kick out of seeing other people grow.”
The two met in 1976, through her father, owner of the New England Patriots football team. He asked Alioto, who had done legal work for the Patriots, to show Kathleen around San Francisco. When Alioto’s driver returned from picking her up at the airport, the ex-mayor asked what she looked like. “A schoolmarm,” was the dour reply. But Alioto recalls, “When I picked her up the next day for my patented tour, I thought: ‘Some schoolmarm!’ ”
“I knew immediately,” says Sullivan. “I was almost 32, and not expecting it to happen, but I knew.” Alioto was equally surprised. “I hadn’t expected it, but after we met, I was fascinated.”
Sullivan departed San Francisco a week later, “knowing we’d see each other again.” Sure enough, Alioto soon found that a law practice that hitherto had required his presence in the East some 100 days a year now demanded twice that many. (His term as mayor had ended after eight years in 1976, and he could not succeed himself.)
The only son of a Sicilian-born fish dealer, Alioto remembers hawking shrimp, crab and oyster cocktails to ferry passengers on Fisherman’s Wharf in his youth. He worked his way through St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. and started working for the Justice Department after earning a law degree at Catholic University in Washington. He later built a private practice in his hometown, where his clients included Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney. An approving Ralph Nader once called him “a pioneer for the victims of monopolies.” When the candidate he supported in the 1967 mayoral race dropped dead on a handball court, Alioto took his place and won.
He found himself immediately embroiled in the urban crisis and the political big leagues. When his was one of the few major cities that did not explode in rioting after Martin Luther King’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson called to say, “Mr. Mayor, I want you to know San Francisco is a big relief to me tonight.” In 1968 Alioto delivered the Democratic convention speech nominating Hubert Humphrey and was among those considered for his running mate.
But in 1969 the mayor was enveloped in a cloud of scandal. Look magazine charged him with links to the Mafia; the state of Washington, which he had represented, accused him of improper fee splitting and sued to recover $2.3 million, and the federal government indicted him for bribery related to the Washington case. A judge threw out the bribery charge, a jury upheld his legal fees and Alioto eventually won a $350,000 judgment, still under appeal, in a libel suit against Look—but his political future had dimmed.
Then, while he was campaigning unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1974, his wife of 33 years, Angelina, disappeared. When she surfaced after 17 days, she said she had run off “to punish my husband” for treating her like a “robot.” They separated legally in 1975, were divorced last year and now Alioto won’t say much about the matter except, “I don’t like people who whine about their first marriages. It’s undignified and unseemly.”
He’s equally displeased by the suggestion inside Boston political circles that he is Kathleen’s Svengali. “Ridiculous!” he says. “I advised her not to listen to me, but to the professionals who know Massachusetts politics.” He does help, of course, chatting with Boston’s Sicilians in their native tongue, persuading Frank Sinatra to come in for a fund raiser and lining up former LBJ adviser Larry O’Brien for some campaign critiques.
Sullivan says of Alioto, “He’s my chauffeur, my valet and a great advance man.” She believes, however, that her four years of teaching in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem gave her a knowledge of “life in the city” that matches his savvy. “I was stunned by the poverty of those kids,” she says. “I was cocky, assuming if I loved them, they’d love me. They made mincemeat out of me.”
After she had to subdue a mugger in one of her classes and two students, aged 8 and 13, died of drug overdoses, she took a year off in 1971 and toured Europe. Back in Boston, she was teaching emotionally disturbed children when she began to worry that some members of the School Committee were more interested in their own political careers than in students. It was enough to propel her into the campaign for a seat in 1973. “I thought, ‘Well, Sullivan’s a good name in Boston.’ ” She had grown up in Watertown and Wellesley, Mass. in circumstances that were increasingly comfortable as her dad’s at-first-ridiculed $2,500 investment in the Patriots in 1959 began to pay off. She is a graduate of Manhattanville College.
Reelected in 1975 during the school busing crisis and again in 1977, when she was the city’s top vote getter, Sullivan has shifted somewhat from liberal to centrist. She favors school desegregation and capital punishment, opposes gun control and busing, and fudges on abortion. The political liability of marrying a divorced Catholic in Boston may be offset by the fact that Kathleen is expecting a baby in February.
During the campaign the Aliotos are living in a suite at the Ritz Hotel but have temporarily retired Joe’s much-publicized $19,000 Rolls-Royce (even though it’s 11 years old). The oddsmakers rate her only an outside chance, but if she does make it to Washington, says Sullivan, “It’ll be Joe, me and our child—we don’t enjoy cocktail parties and lightweight conversation.”
And, says a smiling Alioto—whose estimated net worth is $6 million—”I’ll have a wife who can support me in the manner to which I’m accustomed.”