Achtenberg's Third Act

Roberta Achtenberg bristles when anyone dares say that Williw Brown is the one who gets things done. "I have gotten things done my entire life, right?" she says, citing when her accomplishments as a law school dean, her 800-page book on sexual orientatio

"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.

"As a gay man, the first thing I wanted to do was vote for someone gay," says Larry Edmond, 34, the Brown sign-holder in Noe Valley who also hollered for Achtenberg. Edmond is African-American and a solid Brown supporter. "I like a lot of what Roberta says, but Willie's record is unquestionable. I mean, he was fighting Anita Bryant back in the '70s when I was still in high school," he says.

"I'm for Roberta," counters another forumgoer. "I think this race really is about form over substance. And Willie is so slick I think he turns people off."

"For some candidates, it's like opera," Achtenberg volunteer Els Buesten explains a few days later. "I could never support Brown," Buesten says. "And Alioto -- she's like a prima donna, she's very good. She really believes in the story, but it's just a story. It's just entertainment. Roberta is real."

But what is real?
"I can beat Mayor Jordan," Achtenberg tells the Noe Valley crowd. "Speaker Emeritus Brown can beat Mayor Jordan," she says. "The people will make their choice."

And as of this night, she has 91 days to persuade them.

Aug. 11. Harvey Milk Plaza bustles with people, and Roberta Achtenberg is feeling fine. The BART escalator on the sunlit corner of Market and Castro streets disgorges a man who looks like Gandhi in drag. Women scurry for Muni buses in power skirts and black leather. Senior citizens drag mini-shopping carts and wait impatiently for lights to change. Executive types bounce to the beat of the Walkmans in their ears.

It's a typical Castro Friday afternoon, with a twist: Achtenberg stands midplaza, hugging and greeting with abandon, buying roses from a stunned young hawker who's barely sold a bud all day. None of the brusque reserve that she sometimes displays is apparent here. Achtenberg is positively beaming.

"Come meet the next mayor of San Francisco," cries Lisa B. Cohen, her field director.

A slight, young, gay man sitting on a plaza wall squeals with delight and turns crimson when Achtenberg shakes his hand.

A man with a shaved head wants to know where she stands on the hemp issue. Hemp, he tells Achtenberg, who nods appreciatively, can be made into all kinds of things: paper products, wood products ...

"Plastics?" Achtenberg says, catching my eye and grinning. The hemp man is confused by her reference to a famous scene in The Graduate. "You have to be a certain age," she comforts him.

Meanwhile, I am hounding her, irritating campaign aides who strive to keep her on schedule and don't need a pesky reporter making demands on her time. The aides are a devoted crew but not the best in returning my phone calls, and we've had struggles over access to the candidate. Much of it can't be helped, tireless campaign scheduler Andy Wong points out: Achtenberg's days are back-to-back with things such as closed-door trade union interviews and homeless shelter tours offered by the Coalition on Homelessness, a group that doesn't want reporters along. But today it's just Achtenberg, her fans, and me.

"We've wanted to meet you for so long!" says longtime supporter Robin Greear, with friend Veronica Abrickis nodding at her side. "We were hoping you were going to announce that you'd run and come back from Washington, and when you did we jumped up and down and high-fived each other."

A man in a leather cap and combat boots asks what Achtenberg can do about homelessness. She tells him she will centralize services, increase affordable housing, attack the issue from all angles, and throw out the mayor's Matrix program, a "facile solution to a complex problem" that "criminalizes the homeless, rounds folks up, and moves them along without solving the problem," she says.

The action is beginning to feel like those mall lines at Christmas where you wait to talk to Santa.

"It took me 25 minutes to get from Castro to Church Street!" Michael Saint Onge tells Achtenberg, barely able to contain his outrage at the bus system.

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