Ammiano's Surprise, and Promise

Since Brown took office, San Francisco's low-income housing problem has become its low-income housing crisis; Brown gave us live-work lofts, marketed to the well-to-do and placed in absurd, problem-causing locations. The Redevelopment Agency has been all but bankrupted, while it funded projects for huge corporations (e.g., Gap Inc. and Bloomingdale's) that, really and truly, need no help. Vast amounts of mayoral effort were thrown into obtaining voter approval of a $100 million city contribution to a new 49ers football stadium; somehow, along the way, the mayor and his crack advisers forgot to require the team to go forward with the project. And anyone with any friends inside the city bureaucracy knows how politicized the routine workings of government have become, and how demoralized and fearful many city employees are.

But Brown has done something worse than just making incompetence a hallmark of City Hall. By allowing appearances of wholesale impropriety to flourish, Brown has created the strong impression that the city government is for sale or rent. A long line of heavily documented news stories in the Weeklyand other publications describes what certainly seems to be a pattern that favors friends, former aides, former law clients, and other apparent insiders, and excludes those who are not part of the clique. To top it off, Brown has consorted with a felon who now appears to be central to a federal criminal investigation of (at least) the activities of the city's Human Rights Commission.

By running an incompetent government rife with apparent impropriety, Willie Brown has dishonored the city of San Francisco, and forfeited the privilege of continuing as mayor.

San Francisco really needs, as mayor, a well-trained, committed policy wonk with a big heart and almost endless patience, someone who would listen honestly to all the voices that compose this city's micro-democratic mosaic, and still relentlessly pursue the professionalization and modernization city government desperately needs. Knowing that the fish rots from the head, this mayor would fire incompetent department heads as a first order of business. In keeping with the city's prevailing ideology, this mayor would probably have to lean generally left, but would be eclectic enough to choose solutions that are not "progressive" enough for the loonier of his constituencies. When you come to think of it, this mayor would look a lot like a San Francisco version of Oakland's Jerry Brown.

Obviously, Tom Ammiano is not this mayor.

Ammiano trends further left, and is less flexible in his ideology, than I am comfortable with. He spends too much time on symbolic actions of an ideological bent (attempts to regulate automatic bank teller charges, for example) that are really outside the scope of city control. He can be flip when flip is uncalled for. As the conduct of his "campaign" for mayor has shown - he was probably running, or likely not, multiple times in the weeks before the August deadline to be on this November's ballot -- he can be as indecisive as a hung-over Hamlet.

But Ammiano has served capably on the school board and the Board of Supervisors. He has shown courage in standing against Willie Brown's soulless political machine. Ammiano's support of open government and the right of opposing voices - especially the voices of the unprivileged -- to be heard has been unfailing, and unfailingly San Franciscan. Tom Ammiano is, in my experience and the experience of people I trust, a decent man, and he is smart, in the generic and political senses of the word.

Believe me, the combination of smart and decent is rare in local governance.

Ammiano's decision to file write-in papers is an act of courage, representing real defiance of Willie Brown and his many powerful supporters. Filing this late, however, is not just courageous; it is a brilliant stroke.

As a write-in candidate, Ammiano risks little; he needs to raise and spend no money, and if he loses, the loss will be seen as understandable. At the same time, the filing almost certainly will force Brown into a runoff; the left-tending support for Ammiano and Brown overlaps to a great degree, and Brown, who already was struggling to get to the magic 50 percent mark in the general election, will certainly lose votes to the Board of Supervisors president. Anyone who enjoys throwing the occasional monkey wrench into the machine, just to see what happens, has to love Ammiano's surprise.

So far, the daily media have portrayed Ammiano's write-in "campaign" as a minor event that does little but assure a runoff, where Reilly or Jordan will slug it out mano-a-mano with Brown. But I have watched politics for a couple of decades now, and I have a pretty good nose for what is likely to catch the public imagination. Ammiano became president of the Board of Supervisors by out-polling his peers in the last supervisor election. By entering the race so late and in such a quixotic way, Ammiano could well become the Paul Wellstone of San Francisco, riding his outsider status and penchant for humor to victory over grim candidates who have been caked with the mud, much as Wellstone did in his surprise ascendancy to one of Minnesota's U.S. Senate seats. The daily papers may be right that it is very unlikely Ammiano will make it into the mayoral runoff. But as little as 18 or 20 percent of the vote could put someone into a runoff, and I'm not going to bet anyone that Ammiano won't get to 18.

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