Rage Against the Machine

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

Still, an overwhelming number of volunteers continue to pour into Josie's asking for something to do. They are dispatched to walk the precincts, make live phone calls, and engage in the one-on-one interaction Haaland and the guerrillas believe in.

"Coming from my activist background, it is a stretch to have to think about the other stuff, but it's worth it because I want to be effective and I want to win," Haaland says. "A smart campaign is going to use a little bit of everything, and we need to adapt because we're going up against one of the strongest political machines in California."

In just a matter of weeks, the Ammiano campaign has grown up. "People are now somber, in a good way, about their responsibility that we could in fact win this, and that's made people somber about how real it is and that some structure is needed," Ammiano says. "So in that way, we've gone from junior year to senior year, and we're hoping to graduate."

Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani

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Picturing Ammiano on the campaign trail



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During the campaign, sleep never comes soon enough. Before going to bed, Ammiano's last thoughts are about relaxing and gaining strength for the next day. "Usually I try to put the campaign out of my mind, and try to think of things that give me peace of mind," he says. Often, he thinks of his late partner, Tim Curbo, who died five years ago. They were together nearly 20 years.

"I think about him a lot. In fact, last night I had a very impactful dream about him, and the physicality was great; I felt he was present even after I woke up," Ammiano says. "There have been a lot of dreams about Tim, but this one was particularly powerful."

Amid the chaos at Josie's, Ammiano makes the backyard deck his office. Not allowed to campaign from City Hall, this is his retreat, where he holds court under an umbrella at a little round table, meeting with aides, volunteers, reporters, or whomever he wants to see behind Josie's sliding glass patio doors.

Sitting at the table, Ammiano's papers, Calistoga water bottle, and funky electric blue or ruby red reading glasses are always within reach. Normally during interviews, television cameras position tight shots of Ammiano to avoid all the clutter. Out of the camera's frame, during one TV interview, Ammiano begins nervously bouncing his leg under the table. Before long, his gold-toe socks are exposed as he rapidly shuffles his feet in and out of his loafers while he continues to talk.

It is not the first time Ammiano has been visibly nervous. Despite his very public past, the supervisor has never been in such an intense media glare before, with such high stakes riding on his performance.

The anticipation is never more palpable than before the first debate between Ammiano and Brown on Nov. 16. The scene at the Lincoln Park golf course clubhouse is a circus, at best. There is a feverish energy in the air as reporters swarm the private event staged by a neighborhood planning association. A half-dozen microwave trucks sending feeds for the evening news are parked outside, a bank of television monitors and cords line the cramped foyer, while an incredible number of police officers surround the grounds and patrol inside. Everyone is expecting a showdown.

Ammiano arrives first, barely getting through the front door before being mobbed by a pack of reporters with blinding lights. He quickly ducks into the clubhouse's locker room, surrounded by golf clubs and dirty cleats. Someone gets him a glass of water, and Ammiano asks to be left alone.

Meanwhile, the mayor shows up with his entourage, grinning and glad-handing for the cameras as he makes his way through the crowd in his trademark fedora.

Ammiano aides hover outside the locker room door. Their candidate meditates for a few minutes, much like he used to prepare before going onstage for his stand-up comedy routines. He thinks about his opening remarks, his one-liners, and his timing. Then Ammiano leaves the solitary room, swipes off his glasses, clears his throat, and boldly strides up to the podium next to Brown.

The debate itself is far from the showdown the crowd is hoping for. Both candidates are polite and avoid direct attacks. Brown stands cool and composed, sharply dressed, as usual, with a red rose boutonniere. Ammiano looks a little more restless, speaking through a touch of cotton mouth, often licking his lips between answers. But he does manage to deliver one especially crowd-pleasing line: "If you decide to cast your ballot for me, as Martha Stewart said, 'It's a good thing.'"

It is obvious though, to the mostly pro-Brown audience and even Ammiano's campaign staff, that the first debate is not a breakout performance for Ammiano. "He didn't do great, but he did all right. It's not like he bombed," says Haaland. "He was a little nervous and it was an unfriendly crowd."

Back on Ammiano's turf at Josie's, the candidate's confidence rises. An energetic crowd of 200 packs the little club for a Saturday morning rally, chanting, "Win Tom, Win!" Ammiano takes the stage and stirs the volunteer troops into a frenzy. "There's a poll coming out tomorrow that says we're within 10 points of the mayor," he announces, his voice steadily rising in pitch and excitement. "I think we're in a race boys and girls!"

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