Rage Against the Machine

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

No longer a reluctant candidate, Ammiano proves he is a contender and that he wants, more than anything, the office of mayor. "I had the embers then," Ammiano says. "[But] I have the fire in the belly now."

A newspaper photographer leads Ammiano to the upstairs dining room of a Chinatown restaurant for a quiet, private portrait session, away from the noisy press conference below.

"The light's better by the window," the photographer says. "I'll shoot you there."

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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"Oh God, please don't say 'shoot,'" Ammiano mutters, only half-jokingly, as he gets into position.

Security is a serious issue for the Ammiano campaign. Everyone remembers Harvey Milk's assassination as much as they remember his politics. And if elected, Ammiano would not only become the city's first openly gay mayor, but the first of any major U.S. city. Ammiano's campaign Web site has received vitriolic and homophobic e-mail messages. "I'll never vote for a faggot," said a typical one.

Only days after the general election, a more serious message was posted on Internet bulletin boards owned by two San Francisco newspapers threatening Ammiano's life, giving explicit details about Ammiano's daily routine and calling the supervisor a "sitting duck."

Ammiano initially balked at the notion of security, wanting to retain some sense of a normal life. He regularly rides Muni to work, and given the transportation issue's stature in the campaign, was adamant about continuing that practice. But his aides -- and the police -- insisted on protection. Now he is trailed everywhere he goes by uniformed and plainclothes police officers. "It's a very unfortunate aspect of public life," Ammiano acknowledges.

Early on a Monday morning, Ammiano stands at a Muni stop -- with an undercover police officer -- waiting for the bus near his Bernal Heights home.

The bus, not terribly late this morning, pulls up and Ammiano boards, flashing his Fast Pass. He's on his way to City Hall, but as a candidate he finds himself juggling jobs. No matter how much campaigning the night before, he must still put in a full day's work tending to his duties as president of the Board of Supervisors.

"How are you holding up?" a bus passenger asks Ammiano as he passes by looking for a seat.

"Pretty good," Ammiano replies, yawning.

Few on the crowded bus pay much attention to Ammiano. They see him on this route every day. Ammiano finds a seat next to someone he knows and the two chat as the bus lurches along Mission Street. The friend does most of the talking; Ammiano is tired, letting out long, wide yawns and rubbing his eyes.

Ammiano is typically an early riser, often making calls to aides and associates as early as 6:30 or 7 a.m. But lately, Ammiano has reserved the days' first moments to collect his thoughts. "Mostly I'm reminding myself where I'm at, not only physically, but in terms of the campaign," he says. "And then thinking, 'I wonder if I'll have time today to spend with a friend or how late I'll go.' But mostly it's the schedule, what lies ahead, and how to brace for it."

Law dictates that Ammiano's city and campaign staffs remain separate. Valdiviezo, the campaign scheduler, bears the brunt of navigating both worlds. He'd love it if Ammiano were available to campaign 24 hours a day to accommodate everyone who wants him to speak, give an interview, attend a dinner or a fund-raiser. Even then, there still wouldn't be enough time to do everything Ammiano's burgeoning schedule demands.

Young, brash, and smart, Valdiviezo is looked to by Ammiano for more than just scheduling information. The 35-year-old Federal Emergency Management Agency employee, who took leaves of absence to work on Ammiano's campaigns this year and last, is always by the candidate's side. And when Ammiano is at City Hall, the two are connected by cell phone. "I've gotten at least 10 or 15 calls today [from Ammiano]," Valdiviezo says, noting that it is only midafternoon. "Tom wants to touch base and make sure everything's OK."

Unable to travel across town to Josie's during the workday, Ammiano often has campaign events staged a quick walk from his office -- on the front steps of City Hall. But even inside, he at times can't help but act like a candidate.

Rushing to a recent weekly Board of Supervisors meeting, Ammiano is caught in the hallway by a Chronicle sports reporter and Channel 2 camera crew, begging him to do a quick bit for the morning sports segment. Chuck Nevius wants to record what a mayoral candidate thinks of the 49ers for his KTVU guest spot. Balancing a thick three-ring binder under his arm, Ammiano protests, saying he is late for a meeting at which he must preside. But Nevius convinces Ammiano it will only take a minute. The chance to reach a sports audience appears to be a savvy political move.

First, before the tape rolls, Ammiano has a question for Nevius: how to pronounce the name of the 49ers' new quarterback.

"Is it Stenstra?"

"No, Stenstrom," Nevius corrects.

"OK, Stenstrom."

"Everyone is talking about the 49ers -- even Tom Ammiano," Nevius barks into his microphone, the camera rolling. "So Tom, what is the problem with the 49ers?"

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