Rage Against the Machine

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

As the polls began to close, monitors called in their informal counts to Josie's. The cabaret filled with excitement. The campaign sensed what the rest of San Francisco would wait days to learn from the official count: Ammiano was in the runoff.

However, no one, including Ammiano, expected that 48,500 people would actually write his name on the ballot. Progressive politics in San Francisco had, once again, made history. Yet, an exhausted Ammiano camp had only made the playoffs. A whole new mayor's race was about to begin.

One of the signs adorning the walls at Josie's Juice Joint is a banner for the Milk club, which normally holds its meetings there. While the gay and lesbian democratic club endorses Ammiano, some of its members are staunch Brown supporters.

Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani

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The club's November meeting, the first since the general election, afforded gay Brown supporters their first look inside the Ammiano camp. Some openly made fun of the operation, noting the dog hair on the floor, shed by the pets that roam through the office. The vaunted Ammiano apparatus looked sophomoric, like the war room of a student council election.

"They laughed, and held their noses up, belittling our campaign office," says Milk club president and Ammiano supporter Criss Romero. "They were saying, 'We wouldn't do anything like that.' No, we don't all wear suits like they do, but for them, it's just an image thing. There's no pretense here. We're here to do work and not impress anyone; just get Tom Ammiano elected."

Political consultants and pundits acknowledge that Ammiano's write-in campaign put him on the threshold of the Mayor's Office by breaking every accepted tenet of professional politics. It had no money, no television ads, no paid staff, little organization, and -- - seemingly -- no prospects for success. "The Monday morning quarterbackers, who were at first troubled by it, now see it in their words as brilliant," Ammiano says of his unorthodox campaign.

From its headquarters at Josie's, amid a tumble of folding tables and homemade signs, the entire operation is makeshift. Volunteers work in a cramped little vegetarian restaurant and cabaret, with theater lights hanging overhead and stacks of pots and pans still in the kitchen. The campaign's infrastructure is seemingly built with Magic Markers and poster board. "We need data entry people and a morning kitchen queen" reads one of the signs that plaster the walls. New messages appear every day: "Be an angel -- donate a cell phone/lap top for the campaign." "Free Massage (neck/shoulders) for tired volunteers."

Before the general election, volunteers had a simple, if daunting, task -- educating voters on how to write Ammiano's name on the ballot. They could immerse themselves in the giddy surge of adrenalin that comes with guerrilla politics, and hope for the best. There was really little to lose.

But all that changed on Nov. 4, when a weary Naomi Nishioka read off the results that confirmed Ammiano's stunning showing.

Suddenly, there was a lot to lose. Ammiano had just six weeks to take on Willie Brown, one on one. Magic Markers weren't going to cut it anymore. Ammiano needed an organization, and money, and someone to handle the flood of press inquiries. Voters had to be registered. Position papers hammered out. Campaign literature printed and distributed. Phone banks manned, and precincts walked. Ammiano needed a real campaign, and the setup at Josie's sure didn't look like one.

Certainly, Josie's remains the campaign's spiritual headquarters. But as Dec. 14 approaches, Ammiano has continued to build a more traditional campaign apparatus. The challenge has been keeping his core supporters while scouting for votes among the city's more conservative territories.

"We have a wide spectrum of skills and interests; I like to think of it as a volunteer buffet," says Hank Wilson, who continues to serve as a key organizer for the runoff campaign.

The buffet includes a large gay contingent for sure. But the number of straights over 50 is just as visible as transgenders under 30. Many volunteers are white, but plenty -- including key campaign staffers -- come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. "There are people from all walks of life on this campaign," Romero says. "This is a San Francisco campaign, and Tom represents everyone."

But to prove that, Ammiano must get his message out to everyone -- telling voters who he is, and how he plans to run the city. He's not the stealth candidate anymore.

That's why, within days after Ammiano made it into the runoff, Esther Marks officially took charge.

Marks, who oversaw Ammiano's successful Board of Supervisors campaign last year, and helped run Art Agnos' successful underdog campaign for mayor in 1987, is a seasoned local political consultant and past president of the city's League of Women Voters. She is a hired gun, but she tends to work for politicians whose political views mesh with her own. Marks was fired by Brown as a planning commissioner when the two clashed on development issues. "My interests are planning and open government," Marks says. "I may disagree with specific issues of Tom's, but I feel at one with him. He's a man of integrity."

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