No Joke

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 atSF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

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