Rage Against the Machine

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

The first time Threat ever met Ammiano, in fact, was on the way to one of the Milk club events. Threat introduced himself to the man he was trying to enlist for the mayoral race. Ammiano had gotten wind of what was happening, but remained decidedly coy.

"He shook my hand and said something like, 'Oh, you've been very busy, haven't you?'" remembers Threat.

In the absence of a definitive "no" from Ammiano, the pair continued to collect signatures and pass out buttons reading "Run Tom, Run." It was an odd situation, to be sure. When people asked if Ammiano was really going to run, the petitioners had to explain that they didn't know. But the buttons went like hotcakes. Even people who thought the petitions were silly liked the buttons. "Some people gave us money, even though we didn't ask for it," Threat remembers.

Robert Haaland, a veteran of San Francisco's housing wars, helped start the "Run Tom, Run" campaign.
Paul Trapani
Robert Haaland, a veteran of San Francisco's housing wars, helped start the "Run Tom, Run" campaign.
Victor Valdiviezo, a veteran of Ammiano campaigns, guards the candidate's schedule.
Paul Trapani
Victor Valdiviezo, a veteran of Ammiano campaigns, guards the candidate's schedule.



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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Others were more patronizing.

"People thought, 'Oh, isn't that cute. Look what they're doing,'" Haaland remembers. "I think Tom kind of thought it was cute too."

The fledgling movement encountered numerous people who said they liked the idea of an Ammiano for Mayor campaign, says Haaland, but feared writing down their names. Most worked for the City and County of San Francisco, or for organizations that do business with it, and did not want to risk Willie Brown's wrath.

"The fact that all these people live in fear -- that's machine politics," Haaland says. In late May, Ammiano held a fund-raiser to retire his campaign debt from his 1998 supervisors race. Haaland showed up with his petitions and buttons, eliciting a combination of interest and unease. A lot of folks who helped Ammiano win the board presidency, also supported Brown. They were not sure where this "Run Tom, Run" thing was going. "I saw high-ranking bureaucrats looking around and then sneaking a button off the table," Haaland remembers.

Paul Trapani

Ammiano and his entourage make their way through Chinatown to campaign.

At some point, the draft Ammiano movement achieved something that candidates pay huge money for: "buzz." People were asking Ammiano about a run. The press was including Ammiano in its lists of potential candidates. "Run Tom, Run" had been burned into local pop culture, as was evident at the Gay Pride Parade on June 27. Ammiano was in the parade, as is tradition. Along the route, people were wearing "Run Tom, Run" buttons. A shirtless man had painted the slogan on his chest. People began chanting, "Run Tom, Run," as Ammiano passed.

Brown heard the buzz, and was none too pleased. Nor were his supporters.

A month after the parade, Ammiano received a phone call from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime Brown ally, asking Ammiano not to run for mayor. Jackson was a strategic choice. Both Brown and Ammiano have supported Jackson for years, even working on Jackson's presidential campaigns. Jackson was a special guest when Brown was sworn in as mayor.

But locally, the pressure on Ammiano mounted. The race was shaping up as a fight among Brown, political consultant Clint Reilly, and former Mayor Frank Jordan. And it was bound to get ugly. Reilly would try to buy his way into City Hall with a $4 million campaign. Brown, too, had amassed a big war chest, and had been muscling labor and the city's political clubs for endorsements since mid-1998, mostly to scare off would-be challengers.

With only a few months left before the election, polls showed unusually large numbers of "undecided" voters. It seemed as though a quarter of the city had no interest in anyone offering to lead it.

In late summer, Ammiano called meetings with about 15 people. Some, like Esther Marks and Ray Vitale, had worked on his previous campaigns. Some were neighborhood activists like Aaron Peskin and Gerri Crowley. Others were Milk club members, community organizers like Giuliana Milanese, and, of course, Haaland, who had been promoting the "Run Tom, Run" campaign. He and his fellow petitioners had collected nearly 3,000 signatures encouraging Ammiano to enter the race.

The group had three potluck dinners at different homes, including Ammiano's. Many of these people had never met each other. Most wanted Ammiano to run, but some weren't sure. At each dinner, the group discussed the pros and cons, reviewed the numbers and geography of Ammiano votes in previous elections, and discussed the money Ammiano didn't have, and how much he might get. They debated the retribution that would surely come from Brown supporters at the end of an unsuccessful campaign. And, frankly, they talked about how much a potential loss might hurt Ammiano's political future.

"It was actually a very frank discussion," recalls Peskin, a neighborhood preservation activist. "I was really quite moved by listening to how much these people knew about the issues and cared about him [Ammiano]."

At the first dinner, Ammiano took it all in but gave little indication what he might do. By the third, however, things seemed different. At least three people left that last potluck convinced that Ammiano was about to announce his candidacy.

And then, he didn't.

Instead, during the first week of August, only days before the legal deadline for registering as a candidate, Ammiano called Haaland to say he had decided not to run. The time didn't seem right, and Brown and Reilly had so much money. Ammiano said he would rather continue pushing his pet issues on the board. Haaland was devastated.

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