Rage Against the Machine

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

By Saturday morning, Oct. 16, a kickoff was planned at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. Avicolli Mecca arrived early to sweep the leaves off the patio. He remembers wondering if anyone else would show up.

They did. By noon there were about 40 to 50 people, all learning how to write in Ammiano's name on a ballot, ready to go out and teach the masses. A small but committed force, they left armed with fliers that demonstrated the legally correct way to write a candidate onto the ballot, and three words in large type: "Write Tom In."

Ammiano's campaign immediately tapped into the network of social activism that runs through San Francisco like Muni cables, regardless of the economy or who's in power. Most of Ammiano's early and key supporters were already players in that network, activists who can connect huge numbers of people at the drop of a hat. For instance, Wilson is a member of ACT UP Golden Gate, whose members jumped into action for Ammiano. Giuliana Milanese is a professional community organizer, currently for the California Nurses Association. Eileen Hanson, another longtime Ammiano supporter, is director of public policy for the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. Jeff Sheehy, who also jumped on board, is a leader of the Milk club, and veteran of all sorts of campaigns. Haaland organized tenants in droves last year for Proposition G, which toughened eviction restrictions.

Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani

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Picturing Ammiano on the campaign trail



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Whether or not he realized it, this was Willie Brown's worst nightmare. Phones were ringing all over town. Highly motivated people were walking the streets. Within days, there were fliers tacked across San Francisco, and a handful of people like Haaland, Milanese, and Hanson took leaves of absence from their jobs to campaign full time. Moreover, they were armed with thousands of names and phone numbers of people who had supported the "Run Tom, Run" campaign.

Within a week, the Ammiano for Mayor campaign had set up shop inside Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint on 16th and Market streets, which seemed to make a lot of sense. Ammiano has performed stand-up comedy routines at the cabaret for years, and the place is strategically located on a major thoroughfare at the edge of the Castro. Proprietor Ron Lanza offered the space for free, provided the volunteers packed up every night before the 7 p.m. show. (Later, the campaign got the place for itself and started paying rent after the general election.)

News coverage of Ammiano's write-in campaign also helped the idea catch fire. On Oct. 20, the Bay Guardian trumpeted Ammiano's candidacy with the headline: "See Tom run, at last." The same day, SF Weekly Editor John Mecklin's column titled "Ammiano's Surprise, and Promise" advised voters to write in Ammiano's name.

The following week, some 150 people turned up for a "mobilization" to get the word out. The idea of writing in Ammiano appealed particularly to the young. It was defiant. A form of protest. The campaign quickly took on a life of its own.

One of the best campaign moves occurred spontaneously, when someone showed up with homemade, bright orange stickers bearing the slogan: "I'm a Tom boy." Soon, the stickers were seemingly everywhere.

Transportation activist Michael Smith, who has built Web sites for the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations in which he's involved, called the Ammiano headquarters and offered to build a Web site. Within 24 hours, the site was up and running with a one-page instruction sheet on how to write in Ammiano's name. It grew from there, as Smith gathered information and continued to update the site.

A couple of weeks before the election, Web surfers could download "Write In Tom" campaign posters and fliers, make copies, and distribute them without ever having to talk to anyone. This was also key to quickly moving the write-in campaign -- people took off on their own with it.

"For the first time in about 22 years, I had made a conscious decision to sit out an election and not vote," recalls Dan Cusick, who has devoted the past month of his life to Ammiano's campaign. "I heard about the write-in campaign on the news. And I thought, 'You know what, I've got to do this.'"

Cusick hit the streets. A week later, he walked into Josie's, predicted that Ammiano would be in the runoff, and began the habit of literally wearing a pair of rose-colored glasses.

Pundits and politicos dismissed the write-in campaign as a blip on the radar screen, and concentrated on the debates among Brown, Reilly, and Jordan. Meanwhile, a number of things were evident about the write-in movement: Ammiano's campaign seemed to constantly run out of fliers and supplies. Droves of new people streamed in and out of Josie's. Random citizens cheered campaign volunteers on the streets. By about a week before the election, Ammiano's campaign was most certainly more than a blip. It was, among other things, a revolt against a housing crisis.

"Even people who haven't had problems [with eviction or rent increases] know someone who has," observes Haaland.

The Election Day strategy was simple: pens.

Campaign workers darned near cleaned out the office supply stores. Ammiano campaign workers were outside the polling places offering pens and reminding citizens how to write in Ammiano. Inside, the campaign had negotiated an agreement with the Department of Elections to have monitors watching the votes.

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