The rarefied giddiness, like so many things political, feels somewhat fictional, as if everyone is a character in a book about a mayor's race -- as if none of this has anything to do with the real, live fact that on Nov. 7, barring a major upset, two of the four debaters here will win a primary election, and come December, one will win a runoff and become mayor. The only somber note appears in the worried-looking form at one end of a collapsible table onstage: incumbent Frank Jordan, a man whose homeless program shares the same name as a shampoo.
To Jordan's right sits Supervisor Angelo Alioto, "the candidate with heart," who's already broken a rhetorical sweat, chatting frenetically. Dark horse "idealist sui generis" Joel Ventresca isn't here: He announced both his candidacy and his interest in this showcase too late to appear, explains a Demo Club official. There's a vacant chair where Assembly Speaker Emeritus Willie "Wheeler-Dealer-I-Get-Things-Done" Brown will eventually hold court: He's fond of the late entrance.
And then, swathed in a dress as iridescent as a jungle bird, 45-year-old Roberta Achtenberg, "the cerebral candidate," steps onstage -- and cheers, hoots, hollers rise from the floor. The 600-plus in attendance are equally kind to Alioto, and tepidly kind to Jordan, and awfully enthused about Brown once he finally sweeps in. But they greet Achtenberg as if she were long-lost kin. And indeed, this is her turf: She's owned a Noe Valley home since 1972; she's known and respected; she is to her fans as much a symbol as any hero -- a slate upon which to transfer dreams and longings, a political vessel in which to pour hope and salve bruises. Achtenberg takes a small bow, and applause wells again.
The adulation, her fans will tell you, comes because she's a progressive with a plan. A maverick with a message. She is a former Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assistant secretary for fair housing who was dubbed a "militant-activist-mean lesbian" by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms during her 1993 confirmation hearings -- a Clinton nominee who despite Helms' rantings became the highest-ranking openly gay political appointee in U.S. history. She is a longtime civil rights lawyer and activist; a mother, along with her partner, lawyer Mary Morgan, of a 9-year-old son; and a California native who made an unexpectedly strong showing in her first and failed political audition, a 1988 bid to unseat Democratic powerhouse John Burton in the state Assembly. By 1990, she was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where she stayed two years until HUD called. But other than those feats and her 22-month stint in Washington, Achtenberg's government record is relatively thin.
Will her "reform, reinvent, revitalize" platform help bring her third victory, her third act? Can she win the fight of her political life and become the first gay mayor of a major American city?
"I'm here tonight," Achtenberg begins, kicking off the debate, "because I believe San Francisco has a clear choice between the failed policies of an ineffective mayor" -- Jordan winces -- "and the failed politics" -- she aims at Brown -- "of an entrenched power broker."
A man holding a "Willie Brown for Mayor" sign forgets his allegiance and whoops from the sidelines.
"You all know about the policies pursued by the incumbent mayor," Achtenberg continues. "You must ask yourselves, are you better off today?"
"No!" the Brown man shouts.
"And you know what's happened in Sacramento," Achtenberg continues, keeping up the pace. She is glancing at note cards, violating the unwritten rules of public speaking, breaking eye contact with her audience, her chin low, her bobbed gray hair and bangs framing a face that seems capable of steeling itself against any emotion but then dissolves, unexpectedly, into eye-crinkling grins -- her persona is a sea wall that lets random waves through. "You must decide for yourselves," she says flatly, but the audience is with her, "whether or not the practice of raw political power over common sense policy-making is what San Francisco needs to help it confront the future. It is not a new style of politics that we need," she says, "it is new substance."
"Yes!" cries the Brown man, providing her an exclamation point.
"I offer a grass-roots campaign that is based on energy and the idealism of thousands of San Franciscans, not millions of special interest dollars," she goes on.
"Amen!" cries the Brown man.
"Time!" calls the moderator.
Achtenberg's first two minutes tonight are over. But her campaign days -- filled with voter angst and position papers and reform plans, filled with warm hugs and cold shoulders and a challenge by a reporter to be shadowed for two weeks -- have only just begun. The days will wag on with the synapse-straining demands of electoral politics: with endless forums, interviews, appearances, talk shows, and debates -- and with agonized progressives trying to decide whether to support the first African-American mayor, or the first lesbian.
And the days are replete with a perceived choice: leadership (Brown) vs. ideas (Achtenberg). An old-time power broker with strings attached vs. an unfettered, less-proven purist. Day-Glo charisma vs. a bracing splash of tonic. Alioto, Ventresca, or Republican Ben Hom are not absent from the mix and could also win in November, of course, but a recent poll puts Jordan first, followed by Brown and Achtenberg. (When the voters were told about Achtenberg's platform, she beat Brown for second place.) And in Democratic crowds, it is those three who most often win first mention.