Gary Giacomini, powerhouse of West Marin, dies

12/08/2016

Gary Giacomini, who is as entwined with West Marin as the California poppy is with the state, died in his sleep from an apparent heart attack on Friday, Dec. 2, at his home in San Geronimo. He was 77 years old.

The six-term District 4 supervisor boasted a bountiful list of accomplishments, including co-authoring the Marin Countywide Plan in 1973, helping establish the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in 1980, securing the Buck Trust to provide ongoing funds for Marin’s needy and dogged support for West Marin in general. Supervisor Steve Kinsey, whom Mr. Giacomini encouraged to run as his replacement on the Board of Supervisors in 1996, called him the “most successful politician of the century—of any century.”

Gary Thomas Giacomini was born on April 4, 1939 in San Francisco. His mother, Donna, and his father, Noel, landed in Marin in 1942 after Noel was impressed with the area during a sail into the Belvedere Cove. His sister, Roberta, who is five years his junior, described their childhood as “wonderful” and said Gary was an outstanding support, teaching her how to sail and ride a bicycle.

Mr. Giacomini was a born leader and hard worker, but always had time for his family, Roberta said. He was elected student body president at Marin Catholic High School and then again while earning his undergraduate degree at St. Mary’s College. In 1965, he obtained law degrees from the University of California’s Hastings College of Law and later became a partner in the San Rafael law firm Freitas, Allen, McCarthy, Bettini and MacMahon, before turning his attention to politics.

Noel served as Marin County recorder for seven terms, which Roberta reckons was Mr. Giacomini’s formal introduction into politics (though his first public service position was a seat on the Lagunitas School District board). By 1972, he was running for supervisor, along with Barbara Boxer—who was in the race for the District 2 seat—on a campaign that promised to keep suburban sprawl out of West Marin. His campaign symbol was the California poppy.

Mr. Giacomini won the election by 1,000 votes, becoming the youngest person ever to do so.

Reflecting on this time to the Light in 1997, he said he “saw Marin at a crossroads. The county’s destiny was on the line. It was about to become just like the [San Francisco] Peninsula. I said to Boxer, ‘Let’s go kick some ass.’” (In a statement released on Monday, Sen. Boxer said of Mr. Giacomini, “His defense of West Marin became a model for me.”)

Immediately upon entering office, Mr. Giacomini championed the preservation of West Marin’s ranchlands and open spaces. He helped orchestrate the Marin Countywide Plan that prevented the proposed Highway 17, which would have connected Point Reyes to San Rafael by a major freeway, and initiated A-60 zoning, which restricted the subdivision of many ranches. 

“A-60 was an immediate, defensible thing that could be done,” Ralph Grossi, vice-chair of MALT, said of Mr. Giacomini’s environmental protection strategy. “A-60 wasn’t popular, but he thought it was the right way to go.”

Biologist Phyllis Faber and rancher Ellen Straus co-founded MALT along with Mr. Giacomini, Mr. Grossi and Jerry Friedman. “[Mr. Giacomini] paved the way by getting the county behind MALT,” Mr. Grossi said.

MALT was the first farmland trust of its kind, formed to entice agricultural families to remain on their land while combating coastal development. As of today, the group has worked with 78 families and preserves over 48,000 acres in West Marin.

Earlier this year, Mr. Giacomini joined MALT’s board. During a fundraising meeting a few days before his death, Mr. Grossi recalls Mr. Giacomini as being “really energized” about his return to the nonprofit. “He was excited about coming full circle to help MALT,” he said. “It was his passion, one of his babies. He and I had a conversation about getting the rest of the acres in our lifetime. In some ways, I’d like to see us get that done in his memory. West Marin would not look like it does today if Gary Giacomini never came along.”

Ms. Faber said that at that meeting, Mr. Giacomini proposed getting funds from the Marin Community Foundation, a major philanthropy organization that he helped establish.

The foundation began with Marin oil heiress Beryl Buck, who, after her death in 1975, left a trust to benefit Marin-based nonprofits, charities, religious and educational causes. She entrusted the San Francisco Foundation to distribute her funds, yet the foundation collided with Mr. Giacomini over how to disperse the funds. The foundation went to court to alter the trust, and Mr. Giacomini, in one of his most famous outbursts of candid political rhetoric, railed against it in a press conference and called them “grave-robbing bastards.”

Eventually the San Francisco Foundation resigned as trustee, and a judge took the money to form the Marin Community Foundation.

Dr. Thomas Peters, president and C.E.O. of the foundation, said he met Mr. Giacomini decades ago, when he worked as the director of the county’s Health and Human Services department. “Although we started off in the professional capacity, for many years Mr. Giacomini and I were best friends,” he said.

Mr. Giacomini would often convince him to sneak out of work for a matinée (he said Mr. Giacomini “loved those movies where the military rescues someone”) and said his favorite drink was the Canadian whisky blend Seagram’s VO. (“With a tall, thin glass, a fair amount of ice—and always a double,” Mr. Peters said.)

Mr. Peters recalled an instance 20 years ago, when Gary’s reputation rippled into a New York City meeting.

“I had just started with the foundation and I was in this heavy-honcho meeting with some attorneys,” he said. “I was introduced as being from Marin County, California and at least three lawyers said, ‘Do you know that guy who, when the S.F.F. tried to break the Buck Trust, called them ‘grave-robbing bastards?’ They said there isn’t a law school in America that doesn’t use the Buck Trust case to show that if you try to break the covenant, you too will be called a ‘grave-robbing bastard.’”

In 1996, Mr. Giacomini decided to step down from the Board of Supervisors, after 24 years. Throughout his tenure, he earned immense support from admirers, but he wasn’t without his critics. In his 1991 book “100 Faces of Marin,” journalist Peter Anderson compared Mr. Giacomini to Lyndon B. Johnson for his arm-twisting style of politics. Ms. Faber paraphrased Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in her characterization of Mr. Giacomini’s underbelly: “When Mr. Giacomini was good, he was very good; but when he was bad, he was very bad,” she said.

After stepping down as supervisor, Mr. Giacomini returned to law, eventually becoming a partner at the San Francisco firm Hanson-Bridgett. He was named the Marin Citizen of the Year by the Marin Council of Agencies the following year. He and his wife, Linda, lived on an 11-acre property formerly owned by Van Morrison, in San Geronimo. His two sons, Andrew and Antony, both reside there still. Andrew said that, in his later years, his father’s interests focused primarily on his six grandchildren.

On the afternoon before his death, Mr. Giacomini went to lunch at one of his favorite restaurants: San Rafael Joe’s. (Lisa Boisclair, who has worked there for 33 years, said he would come in for lunch three times a week.) Roberta said the final lunch she enjoyed with her brother was jovial. At the end of the meal, as they embraced, Mr. Giacomini bid farewell to his younger sister.

“He looked at me and said, ‘We’re doing good, aren’t we?’” she said. “We had an ending with love, and six hours later he was gone.”