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No Joke

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
If some truly awful earthquake of the spirit shattered my life; if my wife left me and my heart and soul seeped into a Capp Street gutter; if in my dejection I was knocked flying by a Muni bus, suffering moderate, permanent brain damage; if, in other words, I became so disabled and disillusioned that I decided to return to writing for a daily newspaper, I wonder: Would I be allowed to call Willie Brown the Head Negro of City Hall?

Now, I understand that the paragraph I have just written is an offensive bit of prose. I apologize -- really, genuinely -- to Mayor Brown and anyone else who may be hurt by it. But it was necessary to illustrate what is starting to happen to Tom Ammiano, and why it ought to be stopped.

It's been less than a week since Ammiano placed second in the race to be mayor, setting up a runoff with Mayor Brown on Dec. 14. Several times already, members of our mainstream press have called Ammiano, a longtime public servant who is president of the city's Board of Supervisors, the "Queen of City Hall." Brown is the reigning King of City Hall, and the runoff will therefore be the king vs. the queen, and isn't that a cute quip. Ha ha ha. The quip is premised on Ammiano's own jokes about being gay. But it is one thing for Ammiano to joke about wearing pumps, or for Chris Rock to make jokes using a particularly vile anti-black slur. It is another thing entirely when mainstream news outlets reference a serious political candidate's sexual orientation in a way that produces this very definite subtext: Can you really trust a flouncy frivolous homo to be mayor?

Understand something here: I despise the straitjackets that the politically correct would put on the press. I do not believe that interest groups should be allowed to edit the dictionary. But the emphasis on Ammiano's sexual orientation seems to be excessive, especially in a city where being gay is about as unusual, statistically speaking, as being, say, Asian or white. Ammiano has been a major public figure here for years now; yet the local press seems to find it necessary to describe him as a gay former comedian in every daily election story, even though the same press finds it (quite properly) unnecessary to describe Brown as a black former lawyer.

A story in Sunday's Examiner about Asian voter preferences, for instance, went out of its way to quote a supporter of Mayor Brown on why he would not vote for Ammiano: "I don't like the fact that he's gay." Could you imagine the Ex quoting a man on the street who said he wouldn't vote for Willie Brown because he didn't "like the fact that he's black"?

There's not much to say about the regular cretinism of Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia that thinking readers have not already noticed. Garcia's "column" published last Saturday, though, set some kind of record for unthinking, misshapen viciousness, basically saying that voters who did not agree with Garcia's retrograde beliefs must have lost their minds. Here is Garcia's way of describing Ammiano's second-place finish in the mayor's race: "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."

Now I suppose placing the president of the Board of Supervisors inside a children's fable, in a way that suggests he is skipping down a make-believe yellow brick road, need not be seen as an unmistakable play on the silliest stereotypes related to sexual orientation. But the summation of Garcia's column makes his general intent pretty damn clear. After criticizing Clint Reilly for allegedly misusing his baby for political purposes by keeping the infant up late at night, the Chronicle's lead columnist penned these lines:

"At least the poor thing [Reilly's baby] will now be able to get some sleep -- unlike the rest of San Francisco voters, who will 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."

Like much of Garcia's writing, these sentences are vague enough as to frustrate attempts to identify an exact meaning. But it seems obvious that Mr. Garcia wants to link Ammiano in some way to the wearing of pumps and grass skirts, and to suggest that voters who aren't offended by a pump- and grass skirt-wearing candidate have, in the terminology of the headline for Garcia's pleasant little column, "spit in [the] eye of reason."

There is a word for people who believe gays ought not be elected to public office, simply because they are gay. The same word describes people who refuse to vote for a political candidate, simply because he is African-American. These people are called bigots. Bigots should be reported on, when they make news, as a public service to decent people. Bigots ought not be pandered to by reporters and columnists who should know the difference between stereotypes and human beings, and the difference between sly nastiness and serious political reporting.

Our local press has begun creating other subtextual messages about Tom Ammiano. One such message suggests that Ammiano holds the kind of far-left beliefs that will, if he is elected mayor, frighten legitimate businessmen from our environs. A corollary to this message is that Willie Brown is a friend of business who has been instrumental in the troubled prosperity the city now enjoys.

These paired notions underpin a general run of coverage that supposes Brown and Ammiano, both considered liberals, are now engaged in a fight for the generally more conservative supporters of Frank Jordan and Clint Reilly. By this analysis, because Brown finished first in the general election, and because the mayor supposedly is more centrist than Ammiano, he has an advantage in courting Jordan and Reilly voters, and an advantage in the runoff.

I don't think this mainstream analysis is even close to correct. Turnout for runoff elections is almost always lower than for general elections. More often than not, a runoff is more an exercise in energizing one's political base than in attracting new voters to the cause. It seems clear that Ammiano's voters, each of whom had to write Ammiano's name to vote in the general election, are markedly more likely to return to the polls on Dec. 14 than Brown's voters. Most Jordan and Reilly voters will stay home. So in my view, the runoff election is Ammiano's to lose.

Whether he keeps that advantage, however, should depend less on any journalist's horse-race political analysis, and more on what Supervisor Ammiano and Mayor Brown say they will do during the next four years. Whichever way you lean, here is a conceptual framework that might help you sort the journalistic signal out of the noise during the coming five weeks of campaigning:

Tom Ammiano does not walk on water, and no one should vote for him simply because it's the new new thing to do. I'm glad that young people seem enthused with Ammiano's candidacy; I hope they remember that he is a longtime politician, that all politicians weasel and make less than admirable compromises, and that Ammiano has yet to explain with specificity what he wants to do with the Mayor's Office. Although I have written in support of his candidacy, I also know that Ammiano has a record of policy proposals that could make a reasonable individual wonder whether the supervisor flunked Economics 101. Most of those proposals had no chance of becoming official policy when Ammiano made them.

As mayor, Ammiano would set and execute citywide policies; every resident, therefore, should want to know what Ammiano's top five concrete priorities would be. If the transit system, the homeless problem, and the housing crunch are the major problems facing the city, what solutions can Ammiano propose that might actually get done. The real question about Ammiano is not whether he is so far left that his actions will scare away business; there are many, many checks and balances in the city system that will keep him from turning San Francisco into North Korea. The real question is whether Ammiano can focus on the city's most important problems, and propose solutions that seem likely to work in the real world. If you're looking to vote for Ammiano, look first for hard specifics, and pay less attention to the feel-good, good-government bromides that have characterized his short candidacy to date.

Willie Brown is not an embodiment of evil, and he has undeniable strengths founded upon his longevity in office. His connections to Sacramento and Washington do, indeed, bring special favors to San Francisco. He clearly has more knowledge than Ammiano of the down-and-dirty reality of making big business and big politics work together. In his first four years, however, Brown has given the strong impression that his strengths are used to benefit political and business allies, rather than to promote the general welfare of the city. So the questions for Brown ought not center on what he proposes to do, but what he proposes to do differently in a second term. How does he plan to reduce the appearances of impropriety and incompetence that have dogged his administration? What will he do to blunt the impact of the digital boom on low-income residents? If you're looking to vote for Brown, look hard for admissions of specific mistakes, because no one changes something he thinks is unbroken.

And while you're reading about the Brown and Ammiano campaigns over the next five weeks, you might spend 20 seconds pondering this: If it's not really a big deal to you or anyone you know that Tom Ammiano is gay and Willie Brown is African-American, why do the daily papers keep talking about sexual orientation, instead of the future of the city?

John Mecklin ( can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

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