News & Politics
Campaign Without Precedent: Tom Ammiano's Run for San Francisco Mayor
April 25, 2000
The scene outside of campaign central -- Josie's Juice Bar and Cabaret at 16th and Market in San Francisco's Castro district -- is high energy."Vote for Tom! Vote for Tom!" supporters yell at passing cars, while waving signs.The runoff election between San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano is a month away, but passions are already in overdrive. One day before the November 15 cut-off date for voter registration Ammiano volunteers dash off in every direction, scrambling to sign up as many last-minute voters as they can get their hands on."It's been a long time since I've seen this kind of energy for an election," offered one supporter wearing a grin of pure pride.As the registration deadline loomed, the weekend goal for new voters was set for 6,000. By the end of the day, the word among Ammiano supporters was that totals reached in excess of 8,000, another positive omen for the campaign's momentum."It's very exciting," said Shawna Kaplan, a young executive and campaign volunteer. "First we had an ugly election where we were voting for the lesser of three evils. Now, overnight, there is someone people really want to vote for and who actually could win. Tom's campaign is even pulling in the non-political people.""Someone people really want to vote for." It sounds so simple. But think about it: In the world of megacampaign cash and manipulative media messages, when is the last time you went to the polls where people were filled with the hope of democracy? For this brief moment leading up to the December 13 runoff, San Franciscans have voter's nirvana, a cause celebre, someone to get excited about and a candidate who, according to his fans, is an authentic, principled man of the people.Not more than a month ago, San Francisco was locked into a vicious mudslinging campaign for mayor among three of the most unpopular men in town: incumbent Willie Brown, former mayor and police chief Frank Jordan and political consultant Clint Reilly. Adding up the negatives of these candidates could produce an avalanche. If "none of the above" were on the ballot, that ticket would have won by a landslide.But at the last minute, with more than a touch of drama, the people's hero parachuted into the race as a write-in candidate. Thomas Ammiano is a somewhat unlikely hero. New Jersey bred and a former teacher and school board member, Ammiano developed a constituency as a highly visible gay activist and standup comic. By dint of his strong political base, he was elected president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, (or Supes as they are called here in Baghdad by the Bay), two years running.The Mother of All Grassroots CampaignsAmmiano entered the race with the modest hope of making it into the runoff, since it seemed unlikely that the favorite, the wily Willie Brown, would overcome a disastrous first term and reach the 50-percent-plus-one mark needed to win the election. Local pundits gave Ammiano a slim chance, thinking he might get 10-12 percent of the vote. But he won 25 percent. Brown, spending millions, won 38 percent, and Reilly, using at least $4 million of his own money, came in fourth with barely double digits.Ammiano's virtually no-money, last-minute grassroots effort caught the imagination of the city and overcame at least $7 million of campaign largesse."I was flabbergasted," said Rich DeLeon, chair of the political science department at San Francisco State. "I've studied San Francisco politics for a long time and there has never been a precedent for this sort of grassroots uprising. It completely shattered expectations. You can take all the campaign science and technology and throw it out the window, because it doesn't matter."Suddenly, Ammiano is a national figure -- a symbol of hope for those who deplore big money elections and the growing corporate influence on cities, as chain stores move into neighborhood after neighborhood and international bodies, like the World Trade Organization (WTO), gather to vote to undermine local community control in the name of free trade.Ammiano and Brown are both considered social progressives, though Brown has his hands on and in just about everything, enjoying major union endorsements and the support of the corporate establishment. However, despite overlap in constituencies and relative closeness on many issues, voters will be offered a stark contrast on December 13."Big business may paint Ammiano as a Bolshevik but the runoff comes down to a choice between two visions of a city," explains San Francisco Examiner columnist Rob Morse. "In the Brown version, San Francisco is filled with hotels, glamorous restaurants and chain stores generating profits and jobs. In the Ammiano vision, San Francisco is a smaller, freer, cheaper place, the city young people yearned for in the '60s and mid '70s."Rachel Gordon of the Examiner adds: "When it comes to personal style, Ammiano is Bruce Springsteen to Brown's Placido Domingo. Ammiano rides the bus and sports a suit with an ink stain. The mayor rides in a limo and wears only the finest fashions."Brown the InsiderWillie Brown is the quintessential political insider and was considered the most powerful person in the California legislature during his long tenure as Assembly majority leader. Forced by term limits to move on, he decided four years ago to run for mayor, defeating the ineffective incumbent, Frank Jordan.During his legislative career, Brown maintained his lucrative legal practice, representing a range of unpopular interests, including cigarette manufacturers, the insurance industry and a number of developers -- some of whom are leading San Francisco's current building boom.In fact, it's Brown's freewheeling, let's-make-a-deal approach to government, especially with developers, that has created one of his biggest election liabilities: the spiraling rents and skyrocketing housing prices that are forcing working-class people, young residents and aspiring home buyers to flee the city.The hot Internet economy and Brown's aggressive alliance with developers, many of whom are major contributors to his campaign, has resulted in massive downtown growth and the proliferation of high-priced faux live/work lofts. These pricey boxes of real estate, spreading through the South of Market area like an infectious disease, have been built because Brown supported loopholes in the law. The lofts are being bought up, not by artists for whom the live/work law was intended, but by young, freshly rich Newbies, who now make the commute south to Silicon Valley more crowded than the route into SF.Brown has also spearheaded building of the new PacBell baseball stadium along with the giant Mission Bay project, which he has represented legally for many years.In contrast, Ammiano is the neighborhood's candidate, and San Franciscans recognize this. In a recent poll, 43 percent of respondents felt he understood the issues of the city's neighborhoods, compared to 32 percent who felt this way about Brown. Ammiano has led the charge on district elections for the Board of Supervisors, which will take effect in the next election, bringing more grassroots democracy to the city.Ammiano is also a tenacious legislator. His refusal to compromise on the city's pioneering domestic partners legislation led to comprehensive adherence to the law, with as many as 2,000 companies in the city towing the line and courts generally following through.Ammiano has also been out ahead of the Brown-dominated board on several issues. When he couldn't get a majority of the Supes to support him on a ban against double charging on ATM machines, he took it to the ballot and won a lopsided victory in the November 2 election, though that decision has been put on hold by the courts.A Close RaceThe race is close and likely to stay that way up to election day. A recent poll by the San Francisco Examiner of registered (as opposed to likely) voters showed Brown with only a 10-point lead and 24 percent undecided. Some observers see the race as even narrower, though topping Brown will take a masterful combination of grassroots work and media blitzing by Ammiano and his supporters.Labor and gay voting blocks, each of which number around 17 percent of the electorate will be contested constituencies. With Reilly and Jordan voters theoretically more conservative than the two defeated candidates, their supporters will be aggressively courted. Polls showed that some of former Mayor Jordan's voters -- he got 32,500 votes -- are leaning to Brown, with 51 percent undecided. Jordan, who has well-known animosities toward Brown, may eventually endorse Ammiano and has said "he has his heart in the right place."After the election Brown moved quickly to the right, which was quite a surprise since Brown had been symbolic of the big-spending liberal that Republicans historically have despised. This irony was not lost on San Francisco comedian Will Durst who wrote recently:"The Republican Party gritted its teeth so hard, they actually drew gum blood when endorsing Mayor Willie Brown's re-election bid. We're talking about an organization -- the Republicans -- who would rather be videotaped smoking crack with a group of naked girl scouts in a leopard fur-lined New Jersey dumpster than align itself with Tom Ammiano, who they perceive as being a little to the left of Fidel."Throwing Dirt at the QueenSensing how turned off the electorate was by personal attacks in the general election, the candidates will likely avoid gutter politics in the runoff. For Brown, that is working fine. The runoff campaign was barely underway when the corporate media started throwing dirt on his behalf, with some serious examples of verbal gay bashing and red baiting.The press has regularly referred to Ammiano as the Queen of City Hall, perhaps feeling free to do so since Ammiano often cracks such jokes at his own expense. But John Mecklin, editor of the SF Weekly writes, "the emphasis on Ammiano's sexual orientation seems excessive, especially in a city where being gay is about as unusual statistically speaking as being Asian or white. Ammiano has been a major political figure for years; yet the local press seems to find it necessary to describe him as a gay former comedian in every daily election story."One Examiner story on Asian voters quoted a Brown supporter as saying he didn't like the fact that Ammiano was gay."Could you imagine the Examiner quoting a man who said he wouldn't vote for Brown because he didn't like the fact that he is black?" asks Mecklin.Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia amplified the Queen theme in his November 6 column."And if you closed your eyes and clicked your heels together three times, there was Tom, Mayor of Oz, leading the Lollipop Kids down the road to the Emerald City," Garcia wrote, adding that voters would be "staying up nights wondering whether Ammiano was serious when he said he would walk a mile in his pumps...Grass roots or grass skirts? In San Francisco, no one would notice the difference."Bruce Mirken of the San Francisco Bay Times concurred with Mecklin that the focus on sexuality was unnecessary."Several local TV news broadcasts lingered almost pruriently over footage from last January of Ammiano being presented with a gold tiara and wand by outgoing Supervisors President Barbara Kaufman, who proclaimed him 'queen of the realm,'" Mirken wrote, a spectacle Ammiano called "terrifically inappropriate and somewhat of a setup."Shades of Marx -- For SomeThe San Francisco Chronicle tried to spread voter fear in another direction, suggesting that Ammiano holds far-out left economic beliefs, when it printed an editorial cartoon branding him as a Marxist. Keep in mind that the Chron is really now the Examiner, since the paper was recently bought by the Hearst Corporation for $660 million (although the sale has not yet gone through the necessary official hurdles) after a long joint operating agreement.The Chron/Examiner seem fearful at the thought of Ammiano at the helm of the city. This, despite the full range of checks and balances in San Francisco government, as well as the fact that Ammiano's positions are well within the mainstream of the Democratic Party.There has been particular hysteria regarding Ammiano's proposal to tax annual earned income in the city exceeding $150,000, which would require commuters, as well as citizens, to pay for city services. As an editorial in the Bay Guardian noted, this kind of law was on the books in New York until suburban legislators and a Republican governor repealed it. Similar high anxiety is associated with Ammiano's call for a tax on stock trades at the Pacific Stock Exchange. Yet note: it's no big deal in NYC, where there is a Republican mayor.Ammiano is perhaps best known for his fight for a living wage for San Francisco workers, similar to laws passed by neighboring San Jose and Oakland. True, Ammiano has called for an $11-an-hour wage, higher than in most other cities around the country, but then the cost of living in San Francisco has gone through the roof. Brown says he too supports a living wage, but that Ammiano's plans could bankrupt the city. Brown's assertion is a bit of fantasy given the city's budget surpluses produced by the white hot technology economy.Labor RelationsIt goes without saying that San Francisco is a union town, and as is often true, the union establishment -- The San Francisco Labor Council, in this case -- used its muscle very early to support a relatively friendly incumbent in Willie Brown. The maneuver was not that much different from the AFL/CIO endorsement of Al Gore. But as Lisa Davis notes in the SF Weekly, "Many rank and file union members appear to have quietly walked away from Brown and to Ammiano in the general election and more may do so in the runoff. And in some cases, they are doing so in direct defiance of their union's official endorsement.""I was there when they pushed us into making Brown our candidate," said Fred Alvarez, a Labor Council member. "Everyone was shocked about the pressure tactics. It doesn't surprise me at all that rank and file is voting on their own."While labor no doubt will pull many votes for Brown, they face a dilemma: Ammiano, with his militant support of a living wage statute and his identification with working people and neighborhoods in general, is just a stronger union guy. Brown by virtue of his silence, supported the privatization of the University of California San Francisco's hospital system and the subsequent decision to close (and kill jobs at) the Mount Zion hospital, one of the few sources for medical care for less affluent city dwellers.Mary Higgins, a local leader of the Coalition of University Employees, told SF Weekly's Davis: "Certainly I think that Ammiano was there for us with Mount Zion when Willie turned his back on us. Ammiano has not only helped us, he's taught us. He kicked our butts for whining and then led the way about what we should be doing to get organized."The problem for union leaders, who will be investing resources and effort in pulling the vote for Brown, is they won't really know when they are pulling votes for Ammiano.Down to the WireThe voters of San Francisco have two very complex candidates in front of them. Both Ammiano and Brown have taken on almost mythical stature. They are both deft political tricksters used to winning their elections.Brown is considered one of the most savvy politicians in America, an African American who rose from sharecropper roots to be pals with presidents and corporate CEOs. As a leader, Brown almost always gets his way. As Will Durst wryly notes, "Willie is the only politician I know who can enter a revolving door behind you and come out first."Ammiano has different complexities, perhaps less familiar to voters. He is a very tough, principled activist, but with his more vulnerable, self deprecating side, the "queen character" that has gotten the press attention, he is a different archetype for public office. He is not afraid to be his full self and as such he is proving to be a tougher opponent for Brown than many expected."Don't mess with a queen," says Robert Bray, former communications director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "In a battle they will rip you apart because as a gay men in this society they have had to learn to fight with all their resources."Strictly by the numbers, Brown should win the race. As the more moderate of the two candidates, he should draw the larger majority of voters to the center and right. With a long track record of support for gay issues and a truckload of endorsements from the gay establishment (Brown appointed two gay supervisors), Ammiano has no lock on the gay vote. Brown will get his share of union voters too, as well as the more conservative Asian-American block, not to mention strong support in the predominantly black Hunters Point and Bay View areas.But this is not a rational race. As we saw in the first round of the election, grassroots energy and a clear message can play havoc with conventional wisdom and millions of dollars of campaign spending. Despite the way he is being portrayed in the media, Ammiano is a known and trusted entity for many San Franciscans. His integrity is well established and may play better with more conservative voters who appreciate politicians who stick to their guns.A recent Examiner poll found that 53 percent thought Ammiano would install honesty at City Hall, while only 33 percent felt that way about Brown, who critics accuse of cronyism and backroom deal making."There are people who don't have to agree with me but do subscribe to my belief of honesty and integrity in city government, and they will vote for me," said Ammiano, who given the circumstances in San Francisco, is feeling a surge of deserved confidence.