Rage Against the Machine

Tom Ammiano's mayoral bid: inside the campaign that has become a cause

Sleepless election officials were at wits' end. Nearly two days had passed since the polls closed, and still no one knew the results of the Nov. 2 election. Although dismissed as inconsequential by political pundits, the last-minute write-in campaign by Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano had overwhelmed San Francisco's antiquated vote-counting process. Daunting piles of write-in ballots had to be sorted, counted by hand, then verified.

The suspense was maddening by late Thursday afternoon, Nov. 4. A mob of reporters and Ammiano supporters gathered in the North Light Court at City Hall for the latest update, ready to crash the gates and count ballots themselves if necessary. A bleary-eyed Naomi Nishioka, acting director of the city's Department of Elections, made her way to the podium to read the latest, almost final, results to a breathless crowd.

"Willie L. Brown Jr. -- 67,912 or 38.7 percent," Nishioka announced, reading down the list in a monotone voice. "Tom Ammiano -- 44,539 or 25.7 percent ..."

Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani



Picturing Ammiano on the campaign trail


Ammiano Speaks
Listen to Joel P. Engardio's uncut interview with would-be mayor, Tom Ammiano.

(Files require RealPlayer)


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Boisterous cheers broke the suspenseful silence. Ammiano and Brown were headed for a runoff. As chaos erupted, Ammiano strode into the center of it all, electrified by a glare of television lights and the din of his admirers. Making his way through the massive, pulsing crowd like a rock star taking the stage or a religious crusader heading for the pulpit, Ammiano greeted his supporters, calling their efforts "the mother of all grass-roots campaigns."

Ammiano's defiant candidacy had awakened San Francisco's politically disenfranchised like never before. A class of outsiders, led by their favorite teacher, had excelled beyond anyone's wildest expectations. "Win Tom, Win!" chanted the hundreds of Ammiano supporters, who only weeks before had been begging their candidate to "Run Tom, Run!" To the jumble of young and middle-aged, frustrated, financially struggling voters who felt shut out of City Hall by the wealthy and popular "in crowd," Ammiano was more than a candidate. He was a cause.

The gutsy, political underdog role is not new for the 56-year-old Ammiano. A former special education teacher, he effectively outed himself by forming a gay teachers organization in the mid-1970s. After losing twice, he won a seat on the Board of Education in 1990, and then became president. In 1994, he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors and, last year, was elected that board's president.

He was a reluctant candidate for mayor, initially declining to be on the ballot, but finally entering the race as a registered "write-in." In short order, the movement caught fire, and propelled Ammiano into the national spotlight. Now, he faces a Dec. 14 runoff against one of the most formidable political forces in California history, an incumbent mayor so brash that he declared it would be a good thing for San Francisco if no one challenged his bid for a second term.

An Ammiano victory, if it comes, will be a momentous repudiation, an unparalleled citizen revolt against the Brown political machine, which has held City Hall tightly for four years. Business as usual will likely end for the political economy that rotates around the mayor.

But to win, Ammiano must marshal even greater forces, and expand his appeal to new voters. Therein lies this odd campaign's greatest challenge: how to win the race without betraying the movement that brought Ammiano this far; how to tap the haphazard political passion that his campaign has shown is still alive and well in San Francisco.

One morning last spring, Robert Haaland and Jerry Threat were on the phone lamenting what had become a recurring theme in their circles. The mayoral election was shaping up to be a race between dismal candidates. Haaland, who works for the San Francisco Tenants Union (SFTU), was particularly familiar with the housing crisis afflicting the city. Threat also has been an activist, here and in his former home of Austin, Texas.

The more the two talked, the more obvious it seemed that the perfect candidate was Tom Ammiano -- a progressive ideologue who'd just been elected president of the Board of Supervisors and who had been friendlier to tenants than any other politician at City Hall. Neither reformer had any keen sense that this was the birth of a historic draft movement that might change the city forever. It was just wishful thinking.

Haaland and another activist friend, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, first floated the idea in an opinion piece for the SFTU's Tenant Times titled "Run Tom, Run." No one had bothered to ask Ammiano what he thought, but whether he knew it or not, his name was in play. Haaland and Threat began to do what they know best: collecting signatures, this time on a petition drafting Ammiano to run for mayor.

San Francisco has its own informal public address system, centered at certain intersections, where news of the day is delivered through word of mouth, news vendors, and political canvassers. So, on various weekend days throughout the spring, Haaland, Threat, and a handful of others took their petitions to the corners of 18th and Castro streets, Ninth and Irving streets in the Inner Sunset, Dolores Park, and the Upper Haight. They showed up at performances of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and rallies supporting convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Finally, they took the petition to meetings of the Harvey Milk Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club, where Haaland and Threat are members (as are a fair number of Brown's supporters).

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