Bay Area political dynamo, Henry Berman, dies in S.F. at 92

Henry Berman arrived in San Francisco in 1930 as a 19-year-old laborer — an occupation, his family concedes, he was not well-suited for.

"He couldn't change a light bulb. He must have been the worst laborer San Francisco ever had," said son Ron Berman with a laugh. "It's amazing the city is still standing."

So, instead of laying drywall or mortaring bricks, Henry Berman built San Francisco into the Democratic stronghold it is today.

Berman served as a fund-raiser, mentor and friend for politicians who have gone on to run the city, state and nation, all while serving the Jewish community in almost every capacity available. He died in his San Francisco apartment Tuesday morning at age 92.

Along with "Mighty Mo" Bernstein and Eugene Friend, Berman formed the "Jewish mafia" of San Francisco, backing and advising area politicians.

"He had a special gift. He would advise you without appearing to in any way be steering you. He'd always try to bring out the best in you," recalled John De Luca, the deputy mayor of San Francisco under Mayor Joseph Alioto from 1968 to 1976.

"Henry was really one of our sage, inner-circle advisers. He knew a lot about the world, and from all sides. He was not a man who didn't know about work because he worked himself. He had great insight into the human personality, and he always shared that. He was a generous man."

It was Berman's early support for Israel that led him to eventually be a close friend and backer of such politicians as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Mayor Willie Brown, former Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and the Burton family.

"I remember as a kid that he used to drag me to fund-raisers for a strange place called Palestine. Through doing that he not only did fund-raising but became involved with politicians," said Ron Berman.

"He realized the importance of politics in creating and preserving the state of Israel."

Henry Berman was heavily involved with AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby; the Anti-Defamation League; and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, of which he was a former board member. Berman is, to this date, the only person ever honored by Northern California AIPAC.

He also served as the chairman of Glide Memorial Church's "Mo's Kitchen," which provides daily meals for the poor, and was appointed to serve on city commissions by five San Francisco mayors.

In addition to Jewish community service and politics, Berman's other passion was his work. He ran a highly successful liquor distributorship and, amazingly, had been involved in the liquor business since he was a toddler.

In Berman's birthplace of New Haven, Conn., his father, Sam, was an Orthodox Jew who, nevertheless, ran a billiard hall and speakeasy. As a young child, the unknowing Henry would push a baby carriage loaded with illegal booze across town to his father's pool hall.

After his less-than-enthralling days as a San Francisco day laborer, Berman began trading butter and eggs before getting back into the liquor business — legitimately this time. He prospered, and eventually became a close adviser to the colossal Seagram's company and the immensely wealthy and powerful Canadian Jewish family that owned it, the Bronfmans.

Berman became such a trusted adviser to the Bronfmans that he was the only Seagram's employee who was allowed to make a political contribution on the company's behalf without going through official channels.

Despite a reputation as a man who could get things done — and fast — Berman was well-known for giving others the credit for his accomplishments.

"His own ego was not important. He took pleasure out of doing good," said Naomi Lauter, AIPAC's national community consultant and former longtime Bay Area executive director.

"He would raise money for candidates or organizations and give other people the credit. He would come in with three tables sold for a political event and give the credit to someone else. He would always do that."

Berman also had an uncanny ability to spot would-be powerful politicians on the way up — and help them there.

"I think, if you look around today, there are folks in their 30s, 40s and 50s who all learned from Henry Berman. Probably there are people in their 20s right now" as well, said Eleanor Johns, the San Francisco mayor's chief of staff.

"You knew you could always depend on Henry. If you needed his advice on how to approach an issue, he always told it like it was."

In a statement to the press, Brown said he "will have trouble getting used to the idea of not having Henry around," and ordered the city's flags to fly at half-staff.

Henry Berman's wife of 55 years, Esther, died 11 years ago. He is survived by his second wife, Sally Pareglio, whom he married in 1995; sons Ron of Kentfield and his wife, Ellie; Bob of San Francisco and Nevada City; two adult grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for noon Tuesday at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Contributions can be made to the charity of one's choice.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.