Rage Against the Machine

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

Pumped up by the cheering Josie's crowd, Ammiano embarks on a campaign swing through Chinatown, where Brown signs pepper the landscape.

Ammiano knows the stereotype that all Asian voters are part of a monolithic block who will vote for Brown is not true. He's found strong pockets of support among San Francisco's diverse Asian community, and even nabbed an endorsement from the Chinese American Democratic Club.

"Jo Sun!" Ammiano says in Cantonese, telling passers-by "Good morning" as he walks through Chinatown, up and down the narrow alleys, poking into the little stores and noodle shops. Then he switches to Tagalog, uttering, "Mabuhay."

Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani

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"It's what Filipinos say for good luck, or good morning, or something like that," says Sharon Bretz, who has worked Chinatown many times as Supervisor Leland Yee's former campaign manager. She now serves as Ammiano's treasurer, and is teaching the candidate various phrases -- when she can remember them herself. "I had 12 phrases down when I worked for Leland, and they're easy to forget when you don't use them. But Tom is picking them up; he knows about 10 now."

Shopkeepers are glad to see Ammiano, offering him warm fortune cookies and, at times, their opinions. "It's outrageous the politicians waste so much money," Mary Chung of the Superior Trading Co. on Washington Street tells Ammiano. "Don't waste my money."

"I won't, I promise you," he replies. "Because I know you are a hard worker."

At Anthony Wong's beauty salon, Ammiano's picture is taped on a mirror. "Oh look, there I am!" Ammiano says, surprised to see his image when he enters the business. The patrons clap and cheer.

A few minutes later, activist and staunch Brown supporter Rose Pak chases him down. "Look, she's following us like a dog," Bretz tells Ammiano, as they walk down Grant Avenue near Portsmouth Square.

"I know, let's keep going," Ammiano says, quickly finding refuge in a jewelry store.

But outside, Bretz and Pak vociferously hold their ground, hardly mincing any words.

"The guy has never set foot here in all the years he's been on the board," Pak complains. "You can't at the last minute come in and get support."

A few days later, Ammiano meets Brown in the County Fair Building for a second debate.

"Hey, new suit!" Haaland exclaims, with approval, when Ammiano steps out from backstage. The sharp olive suit is a marked improvement over the ink-stained jacket Ammiano has worn a few times in recent weeks, but he still hasn't given up wearing his Mickey Mouse wristwatch.

Haaland isn't the only one to notice Ammiano's new clothes. The Chronicle's style editor has put in a call to the campaign's press liaison. Griswold is amused by the inquiry, but at a loss to explain the candidate's fresh look. "I know Tom hasn't had any time for shopping," she says. "Maybe it's a surrogate suit, borrowed from someone with the same build."

The second debate is another lesson in civility between the two candidates. In comparison to the first matchup, Ammiano looks more relaxed, strong, and sure of himself -- more mayoral. "Tom hit his stride," Haaland says. "He really came across as authentic."

The campaign staff sees it as a turning point. "There's been a lot of stress; I feel like I've been through the war," says Ammiano scheduler Victor Valdiviezo, who has been struggling to fit what could have been months of campaigning into one six-week blitz. "But standing there watching that second debate has been the high point so far. He was confident, he knew his issues, and I could feel the enthusiasm in that room."

Limited to the few hundred people in attendance, a cable channel rebroadcast, and snippets on the evening news, the first two debates do not reach a large audience. They are good practice for the third debate, aired live on television at the dinner hour. Ammiano's campaign knows this debate will be watched by tens of thousands and that a lot is riding on their candidate's performance. "This is the big time, and we're all nervous," Haaland says. "You have a gut feeling how someone is going to do, but don't know for sure until it happens."

Much of the campaign staff gathers at Josie's to watch the televised sparring match, during which the candidates' gloves finally come off. Brown starts the attack and Ammiano hits back, deftly. "Tom was a lot more feisty, and he landed some solid hits," Haaland says. "My favorite line was about the mayor's hand being caught in the cookie jar; everyone cheered. Brown kept waiting for Tom to fall down, and he didn't."

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Ammiano and Brown join a few hundred others outside Harvey Milk's old camera shop on Castro Street for the annual candlelight march in Milk's honor, which moves down Market Street to City Hall. The two candidates greet each other warmly in front of the press, but the atmosphere is tense at what has become a highly politicized memorial. During the march, a small group of Brown supporters surround the mayor at the front of the procession, while Ammiano and the rest of the crowd walk behind. Brown doesn't stay long at City Hall. But Ammiano takes the stage for a rousing speech. While he hasn't been widely regarded as the most masterful speaker throughout the campaign, even ardent Ammiano supporters are taken aback by the eloquence of his tribute to Milk.

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