Rage Against the Machine

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

The news was relayed over phone wires throughout San Francisco, as Ammiano called Threat, Peskin, and others, thanking each for his or her support, and explaining that he didn't think his candidacy for mayor was a good idea.

"A lot of the time for the candidate, it has to be on your terms, too," Ammiano says, in retrospect. "You have to sort out who you are, your personal life, your personal goals, and the idea of being mayor -- particularly having to work under Brown and his six appointees [if the challenge failed]."

Ammiano invited some of the potluck advisers out to dinner to thank them. "Everyone put on a good face," says Haaland. "We said, 'This is your life and you have to make choices.' But the deflation level was amazing."

Ammiano and his entourage make their way through Chinatown to campaign.
Paul Trapani
Ammiano and his entourage make their way through Chinatown to campaign.
Two weeks into the runoff, Ammiano's campaign moved into the spacious Mission District offices that once housed Clint Reilly's campaign.
Paul Trapani
Two weeks into the runoff, Ammiano's campaign moved into the spacious Mission District offices that once housed Clint Reilly's campaign.



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)


SF Runoff Election
Reasons NOT to vote for Willie Brown for Mayor


Ammiano's Surprise, and Promise
By John Mecklin
October 20, 1999

Breaking Ranks
Union leaders endorsed Willie Brown, but the rank and file has other ideas
By Lisa Davis
November 10, 1999

No Joke
By John Mecklin
November 10, 1999

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After months of hope, the "Run Tom, Run" campaign was over. Meanwhile, the nasty fights among Brown, Reilly, and Jordan were repelling voters.

Sometime in September, Hank Wilson started thinking about politics, and street fairs.

A former classroom teacher, Wilson has known Tom Ammiano since they founded the Gay Teachers Coalition together to fight discrimination in the mid-1970s. "I was watching the news, watching the polls with large numbers of people being undecided," Wilson remembers. "And I watched the headlines with different problems of the Brown administration."

A steady drumbeat of news stories trumpeted FBI investigations and conflict-of-interest questions that made Brown's machine increasingly unpalatable. Meanwhile, Wilson knew that the end of summer always brings with it some of the city's largest street fairs, including the Folsom and Castro street fairs, which draw more than 250,000 people and might be a perfect place to test the political waters.

By this time, of course, the deadline had passed for Ammiano to appear on the ballot as a candidate. But the deadline for registering as a write-in candidate was still on the horizon. Without Ammiano's official imprimatur, Wilson spawned a second draft movement.

He registered for booth space at both street fairs so he could try to collect signatures for a campaign to write in Ammiano for mayor. Wilson told Ammiano what he was up to, but didn't ask for permission. "I called him and started leaving a voice mail about that I wanted to do the street fairs," recalls Wilson. "He picked up and we talked. I told him that I thought he had potential for volunteers and I thought that was worth a million dollars. I told him I was going to do the booths whether he decided to run or not."

Except for a handful of friends who kept him company at the street fairs, Wilson was alone in his quest. Haaland and Threat did not join him, nor did any of the others associated with the earlier, "Run Tom, Run" effort. "I wasn't going to discourage Hank, but I'd just invested months of time for something that didn't happen," says Haaland, echoing the letdown of other "Run Tom, Run" organizers.

The Folsom Street Fair was held on Sept. 27, a drizzly Sunday that, despite the weather, brought out thousands of people. Wilson was there with his booth. The would-be candidate was master of ceremonies for one of the shows. He passed by the booth and waved, but did not linger.

The reaction was mixed. Some took it seriously, some didn't. A lot of people were angry at Ammiano for not just running in the first place, and wouldn't put their names down to volunteer again.

A man of tall stature and kind voice, Wilson was struck by the people who seemed drawn to his cause. "The diversity of people who come up is always interesting to me," he says. "I had a husband and wife -- an older Filipino couple, a couple of African-American young people, a single mother with her baby in a stroller, a young married couple with a child, worried that they were not going to be able to stay in San Francisco."

At the end of the day Wilson had collected about 100 signatures. He left a message for Ammiano letting him know how it went. But they didn't talk.

The next week, Wilson manned his booth at the Castro Street Fair, encountering the same mixture of hope, dismay, excitement, and anger. Again, he collected about 100 names. And, again, Wilson left Ammiano a message about the outcome.

Meanwhile, the election was in full swing. While Brown, Jordan, and Reilly slung mud, polls continued to show large numbers of undecided voters. None of the big three candidates drew more than 50 percent support. Brown had a clear lead, but with only 37 percent of the vote.

And people still constantly seemed to be talking about Tom Ammiano.

Friends and strangers alike availed themselves of the Internet, sending e-mail messages to Ammiano about a possible run. Some called his Board of Supervisors office. Politicos and others who knew Ammiano stopped him in the hallways, and on the streets.

"At some point, I remember seeing Tom at City Hall," recalls one Ammiano supporter. "I was [teasing] him, giving him a hard time about not running. He got very serious and said, 'I know a lot of people are angry and hurt, but I felt it was the right thing to do.' I actually felt kinda bad for him."

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