By Joel P. Engardio
Few people live to see a section of interstate freeway named after them, so Quentin Kopp doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s a San Francisco legend. Yet rehashing his accomplishments as a longtime city supervisor, almost-mayor, state senator and San Mateo County Superior Court judge could get boring.
What’s more interesting is finding out what battles remain for the 85-year-old, why he keeps going to his West Portal office every day and how he feels when the San Francisco Chronicle dismisses him as “everybody’s favorite crank.”
“I want to stay in the mix because I discovered too late that retirement is boring,” Kopp said. “I don’t want to sit around, think of lost opportunities and shrivel. Being active makes me feel like I’m still relevant.”
Relevance was not a question for Kopp in the 1970s when, after more than a half-century of Republican mayors, San Francisco fully embraced the liberalism it is famous for today. The transition was chaotic and Kopp was seen as both a lightning rod and a beacon amid the social upheaval, violence and assassinations. A mail bomb was delivered to his home.
San Francisco bordered on lawlessness, under siege by serial killers and domestic terrorists. President Gerald Ford dodged a shooting near Union Square. Jonestown cult leader Jim Jones was embedded in The City’s new political establishment. And Kopp was a contrarian Democrat who would run for mayor in the aftermath of the Jonestown massacre as a hero of the conservative Westside.
“I was naive at first, but that period made me more suspecting of human nature and government. I became aware of motives,” said Kopp, who left the Democratic Party in 1985 to become an independent. “I dislike the sorry spectacle of taxpayers being taken advantage of.”
Kopp’s suspicions of malfeasance span the political spectrum, and he doesn’t care who he tangles with. He also partners with unlikely allies when there’s a shared principle. Recently, he joined firebrand progressive Democrats to end The City’s garbage and recycling monopoly (they failed) and to stop a luxury condo development near the waterfront (they won).
“I’ll work with someone whose politics are 90 degrees to the left of me, if we agree on something that must be done,” Kopp said. “I don’t mind arguing with them about everything else.”
Kopp is aware of his curmudgeonly reputation, and he can joke about it. His 1979 mayoral campaign ran a popular TV ad that showed him bursting into laughter after a voice announced, “People are calling you the town grouch.”
Yet his crotchety image endures because he has no qualms about firing off a letter to the president of the Board of Education to complain about a “lame-brained policy.” Kopp didn’t like Rachel Norton’s plan to let students eat breakfast during class, so he sent her the following missive: “Learning requires discipline and concentration, not the distraction and slumgullion nature of permitting pupils to ingest food.”
Norton posted Kopp’s letter on Facebook with the message: “I suppose I should feel chastened, but to be honest I feel like framing it.”
Norton’s post generated 65 likes and 46 comments, proving Kopp can still stir the pot without ever having been on Facebook himself. He doesn’t even use email.
“I’m old school and I’m going to articulate old-school criteria,” Kopp said in a raised voice as he banged his fist on the desk for effect. “It might just be in 20 years that people will agree with me.”
Kopp was prescient on an issue that Congress still debates today: legislation to end employment discrimination against gay workers. As a lawyer, he defended a gay man 45 years ago who was fired from a federal job.
Kopp also voted with fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978 to add sexual orientation to San Francisco’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
Yet he had a complicated relationship with Milk, The City’s first openly gay supervisor who was far to the left of Kopp politically.
“Harvey was a real schemer and manipulator,” Kopp said. “Now he’s for the ages.”
Kopp’s willingness to help gay people achieve equality in the workplace was overshadowed by his unwillingness to celebrate their relationships. The twice-married Kopp refused to vote for a resolution honoring the 30th anniversary of San Francisco’s most famous lesbian couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
“Anniversary of what?” Kopp barked in public session at City Hall, annoyed that the supervisors often voted on matters they had no control over.
“I said there was no cause to give official recognition because same-sex marriage didn’t exist at the time,” he said. “The place exploded and I became an anathema to the gay community.”
Kopp said he has not attended a same-sex wedding since they became legal in California again earlier this year.
“I probably would go if it was for someone in the family or a close friend,” he said. “Today you have to respect it. You have to follow the law.”
Kopp admitted to being out of touch with the younger generations around him, saying his 14-year-old granddaughter is “going to do things differently.”
However, he said he might take a class to learn how to operate the unopened iPad his daughter gave him.
“I do need to keep up, otherwise I’m totally mystified by what I see,” he said. “Don’t ask me what Justin Bieber does or why he’s successful.”
Last fall, Kopp attended his 60-year reunion at Harvard Law School. Only 38 people attended from a class of 450. He read aloud from a booklet of alumni profiles.
“This guy says, ‘I enjoy watching TV and dining out with friends.’ That sounds so boring,” said Kopp, who swims every morning before heading to his office. “Here’s one who died since the reunion. There’s another one. Here’s a guy in assisted living.”
Kopp put the book down and looked out the window.
“So many of my friends are hurt by dementia,” he said. “It scares me, but I try not to think about it.”
Then Kopp mentioned a physically spry and mentally quick 93-year-old he met at a Veterans Day event last November.
“I looked at him and thought, ‘Holy mackerel, he’s as active as I am,’” Kopp said. “It gives me a sense of hope, God willing.”
As for his legacy?
“My legacy is not in structures,” Kopp said. “I believe in eternal verities and I want to be known for speaking and acting honestly.”
He picked up the alumni book and turned the pages in silence until he came across an entry that quoted T.S. Eliot.
“Old men ought to be explorers,” Kopp announced with an equally joyful and mischievous gleam. “I’m for that!”