State Sen. Milton Marks — Everybody knew him

In 1980, third-party presidential candidate John Anderson asked state Sen. Milton Marks for his support.

Marks wanted to know why Anderson had authored legislation declaring the United States a Christian country. For that reason, Marks said that he could not support the candidate.

"He had a kind of knee-jerk reaction to anything that would appear to be in any way anti-Jewish," said his son Milton Marks III. His connection to Judaism "would come out in ways that were very heartfelt and deep within him."

Marks, a state assemblyman and senator for more than 30 years, died of heart failure Friday of last week. He had battled illness for some time and died at UCSF Medical Center, with his wife, Carolene, and three children by his side. The inveterate politician was 78.

"Everybody knew him," said John Rothmann, who served as Marks' chief of staff in the 1970s and then again in the last months of his senate term in 1995-1996. "He was the only politician in San Francisco for years who listed his phone number in the phone book so people could call him."

Indeed, if one word were to describe Marks as a politician, it would have to be accessible.

"He was famous for constituent services," Rothmann said. "There was a rule that if a constituent called with a problem, we responded within 24 hours."

The ubiquitous Marks was known for being a frequent surprise guest at weddings, b'nai mitzvah, birthday parties and other celebrations throughout the area. His genial style earned him the nickname "Uncle Miltie."

Quick with a compliment, the politician often penned warm letters of congratulations or thanks. He sent several letters to Bulletin editors and reporters over the years congratulating them on various journalistic achievements.

Marks, a Democrat, vigorously supported gay and lesbian rights, abortion rights and laws protecting the environment. He was particularly proud of authoring legislation creating personalized license plates, the proceeds of which have supported state environmental causes.

A giant fan of British statesman Winston Churchill, Marks, like his idol, switched parties.

A one-time Republican, Marks ditched the Grand Old Party to become a Democrat in the mid-1980s, after which he was swiftly appointed chair of the senate's Democratic Caucus.

But even before he was a Democrat, Marks championed progressive causes to the extent that he earned the nickname "best Democrat in the Republican Party."

For example, in 1963, while still a Republican, he was one of the few members of his party in the state to support passage of the Fair Housing Act. Elected to the Senate in 1967, he helped establish the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and remove anti-gay sodomy laws from the books.

"If you take a look at the legislative work of my father, it all has to do with helping people," said his son Milton of San Francisco. "The constant theme was improving health, education, access to work or health care for the disabled, improving the dignity of people's lives."

When it came to causes of interest to the Jewish community, Marks fought for the state's hate-crimes legislation and laws protecting Jewish ritual slaughter, as well as a measure prohibiting the state from doing business with companies complying with the Arab boycott of Israel.

A longtime member of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, Marks participated in telethons of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and belonged to the Jewish Community Relations Council and B'nai B'rith.

His grandparents, as well as his wife's, were among the Bay Area's early Jewish settlers. In the Jewish community and beyond this week, Marks was remembered as a mensch.

"He was the warmest, liveliest guy you'd ever want to meet," Rothmann said. "He was just a nice, sweet, lovely human being."

A funeral for Marks was held at Sinai Memorial Chapel in San Francisco. A public memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St.

In addition to his wife and son Milton, Marks is survived by son Edward David Marks of Mountain View, daughter Caro Marks of Sacramento and three grandchildren.

The family asks that contributions be made to the Milton Marks Fund at the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Federation, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA 94105.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.