Rage Against the Machine

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

What began as curiosity evolved into serious hounding, as Ammiano continued to push his pet issues on the ballot -- ATM fees, the Central Freeway, Muni oversight, and the Sunshine Ordinance.

One political insider recalls the scene at a fund-raiser for one of the propositions in early October: "People kept coming up to Tom and saying, 'You have to put your name in the ring.' Tom kept saying, 'Thank you, that's very flattering,' and stuff like that. I remember looking over and thinking, 'Poor bastard.'"

As the deadline for filing a write-in candidacy approached in October, Wilson called Ammiano with another not-so-subtle attempt at persuasion. "I just told him, 'Just in case you are thinking about this and decided to exercise that option, know that the absentee ballots are coming out today and people need to know.'"

Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani

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Wilson wasn't alone. In the week before the write-in deadline, Ammiano spoke to a handful of advisers, campaign strategists, and longtime political activists, including David Spero, who runs a business collecting petition signatures, and, of course, Esther Marks, who ran Ammiano's successful supervisorial campaigns.

"I didn't really know if it would produce or not produce," Ammiano says of the write-in. "But it certainly was in the back of my mind as something that might come in handy if things really got bad."

And they did get bad. Brown was not budging on neighborhood issues, and Ammiano felt that the mayor was stalling one of Ammiano's political babies, an $11 minimum wage requirement for city contractors.

From the beginning, the mayoral campaign embodied a theme throughout the city: rage against the machine.

Machine politics is certainly not new to San Francisco, existing in one form or another as far back as anyone can remember. Elected leaders have come and gone based, in part, on the city's ability to stomach their quid pro quo relationships.

But things changed a few years ago. The New Economy came, and brought with it a financial boom, turning out millionaires and bringing new business to the city as if gold had been rediscovered. About the same time, Brown, king of the deal and veteran leader of a well-crafted Democratic Party megamachine, returned from Sacramento to become mayor.

"San Franciscans may have been shocked in the latter years of Brown's first term to learn about insider development deals that benefited his chums or giveaways to city unions, but nobody who knew him as speaker of the Assembly was the least bit surprised," observes Sacramento Beepolitical columnist Dan Walters. "As mayor, Brown was simply operating as he had done in Sacramento."

Indeed, Statehouse lobbyists followed Brown to the city. True to form, Brown brokered deals for his business and developer friends. Some speculated that Brown figured he had a lock on the left, and so was free to court downtown business interests like the Committee on Jobs.


Paul Trapani

Hank Wilson pushed the idea of a write-in candidacy, while Esther Marks would have preferred a more traditional campaign. Together they're leading Ammiano's runoff campaign.


Meanwhile, housing prices soared into the stratosphere, homeless people continued to huddle in the streets, and the public transportation system that Brown boasted he would fix remained broken. Big business forever changed old neighborhoods -- some of which were, frankly, decaying -- without regard for the people who make their home there. Increasing numbers of folks, from both the progressive and conservative ends of the city, started to feel they were not welcome at City Hall. The clique of popular kids, it seemed, was running San Francisco. Everyone else was somehow an outsider.

There were plenty of signs that Brown and his crowd at City Hall had gotten too big for their britches. Even his early, heavy-handed efforts to squelch competition bred some of the animosity that would come back to bite him in the general election.

One watershed came when longtime political activist Jane Morrison challenged incumbent Natalie Berg for the position of chair of the Democratic Central Committee. Morrison's supporters saw her as a reform candidate for the city's most influential political club, and her supporters included heavy hitters like the San Francisco Labor Council, the Milk club, and some Asian political leaders.

But the mayor wanted Berg to continue running the organization, and flexed his political muscle to make that happen. Berg represents Forest City Enterprises, developer of the Bloomingdale's store project on Market Street (Berg's brother-in-law is co-chairman of Forest City in Cleveland), and serves on the Community College Board of Trustees.

After a hostile debate among committee members -- including those representing state and local elected officials -- Berg won by a narrow vote of 16-15. Almost immediately, the vote was challenged in court, when critics alleged malfeasance. A Superior Court Judge first nullified the results and then ordered the committee to hold another election. It produced the same result, with Berg elected chair.

The committee issued an early endorsement of Brown for a second term, and set about raising money to pay for things like campaign literature promoting the mayor -- the committee raised more than $400,000 in soft money contributions by Election Day. The move left a bad taste in the mouths of many would-be Brown supporters.

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