Rage Against the Machine

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

As the year wore on, the taste only got worse.

Toward the end of the summer in 1998, Brown asked the San Francisco Labor Council for an unheard-of early endorsement for his re-election. Tension at the council's meeting was tremendous, according to those present for what was, again, a contentious vote.

Under pressure from Brown, labor leaders moved forward with the endorsement vote despite objections from some representatives who said they wanted to discuss the matter with their own union members first. A growing number of people felt as if they were being strong-armed into supporting the machine, and they didn't like it. But Brown won the endorsement.

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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By summer of 1999, nearly every Democratic club in the city had endorsed Brown, except the Milk club. When that club voted in August, Brown failed to win its backing. The mayor received only 35 percent (60 percent is required for an endorsement), a clear vote of no confidence from the left side of San Francisco.

At the same time, newspapers -- including SF Weekly -- continued to break stories on the Brown administration's back-room deals and corrupt contracting. Not surprisingly, people in the business of collecting petition signatures for one reason or another -- many of whom supported Ammiano early on -- heard a theme develop on the streets: People were disgusted with City Hall.

And, when pushed too far, San Francisco always seems to snap back. Look no further than Ammiano's late political mentor, Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay supervisor. When the popular kids were running San Francisco in the 1970s, Milk led the outsiders to City Hall. His political campaigns started around 18th and Castro streets, and his gay voter base (gay leaders committed to the Democratic political machine at the time were not among them) grew to include progressives concerned about housing and social justice issues.

Not coincidentally, Hank Wilson, and a handful of others now drawn to Ammiano, also worked on Milk's campaigns. Many would argue that the city hasn't seen a truly progressive leader since Milk and his ally, former Mayor George Moscone, were assassinated in November 1978 (Harry Britt and Nancy Walker notwithstanding). At least not one who could be elected mayor.

Ammiano has increasingly become viewed as the savior of the progressive movement, the next to carry the torch. He seems to like the comparison to Milk.

"A lot of people keep remarking that Harvey would love this. He gets brought up a lot," Ammiano says. "I can see why they see him in me. Because I knew him when he was starting out and the gay establishment was against him, and he was made fun of, and I knew all that underdog stuff about him -- and he did prevail, even with his shortcomings."

And Ammiano has seen his own rough political times. Despite his overwhelming showing that won the board presidency, Ammiano has constantly battled the Brown-appointed supervisors who make up the majority of the board.

"They treat him like shit at the Board of Supervisors," observes one City Hall insider who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "They all gang up on him. It's like a fraternity house gone awry. It's like your worst moments in high school, this clique run by the mayor."

Hank Wilson crossed paths with Tom Ammiano on Monday, Oct. 11. Ammiano, on his way to an appointment, quickly, and matter-of-factly, told Wilson, "I'm going to do it on Wednesday," and went on his way.

Wilson smiled to himself and kept walking.

Robert Haaland got the phone call from Esther Marks, and then he called Jerry Threat and Tommi Avicolli Mecca. "I remember Robert called me the day he was going to declare and said, 'Tom's going to announce and I'm going to file papers. I thought you might want to come with me,'" Threat says.

Threat wasn't sure he believed it. And, he wasn't sure how he felt about jumping into another campaign, until he got to Ammiano's office, and saw that, this time, the supervisor was serious. Ammiano had come to believe that a write-in campaign might spur some enthusiasm in the progressive left, and that couldn't hurt.

Paul Trapani

Ammiano was visibly nervous in his first debate with the mayor, but warmed up as the campaign unfolded.

"Certainly, the tenacity of the 'Run Tom, Run' had an effect," Ammiano says. "Because in the beginning it was interesting, it was flattering, and it gave me fuel for some of the battles we were doing. But then it really started to penetrate my thinking about, 'Gee, maybe that's something I could do.'"

There was a quick meeting, and, with little fanfare, Ammiano signed papers that officially made him a write-in candidate. Legally, it meant that any write-in votes Ammiano received would be officially counted, instead of ignored the way most write-in ballots are.

Haaland and Threat filed the papers at the Department of Elections. Marks started strategizing. Everyone made phone calls to people, who called other people. Word spread like wildfire. However, it wasn't all positive.

"I was a naysayer," says Peskin, who remains a supporter. "I thought, 'Oh no, what an idea. This is like political suicide.' I thought, 'Hey, I've been voting for a couple decades and don't even know how to write in a candidate. This is going to be really bad for him.'"

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