Rage Against the Machine

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

As the Ammiano campaign director, the middle-aged Marks is a bit of a den mother to the often ragtag volunteers who gather at Josie's. Always impeccably dressed -- red cashmere sweater, pressed black slacks, string of pearls -- she knows she stands out in the crowd. "Yeah, they're a little grungy," she acknowledges. "But everyone is so sincere in their efforts, and a lot of professional political consultants can't emotionally appreciate how much that benefits a campaign."

Under Marks' direction, Ammiano's campaign signed up nearly 10,000 new voters for the runoff election in the nine days before the Nov. 15 registration deadline. Marks was up to the challenge, but she is a recent convert to the cause. Initially, she says, she did not think Ammiano's write-in campaign had a chance. She would have preferred he file and run as formal candidate. "I said, 'No, it couldn't be done,' and now I see what's happened is phenomenal," Marks says.

Ammiano has reassembled the core campaign staff of past, more traditional races, and integrated it with the unconventional grass-roots volunteers of this mayoral race. Some of the full-time campaign staffers are now paid. Though ultimately in charge, Marks rolls with the freewheeling atmosphere, and doesn't impose a strict management style.



A mostly pro-Brown crowd gets the first look at the mayor and his challenger in an early debate.


Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani

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Picturing Ammiano on the campaign trail



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"People have the frame of reference that a manager will run things like a Clint Reilly campaign," Marks says, alluding to the campaigns that operate with elaborate corporatelike structures and spend millions of dollars. "But with the grass-roots effort, everyone helps out. Our volunteers are the base of our strength. I want to build on that, rather than proclaim a professional campaign."

Marks allows much of the responsibility for the campaign to remain with the original organizers, like Haaland and Wilson, the people who launched Ammiano into the runoff in the first place. They take chances, and their gut instincts have been right so far. (Haaland even tied for a win in a betting pool with Chronicleand Examiner reporters, correctly predicting that Ammiano would get 25 percent of the general election vote.)

With Marks taking over, Haaland is left in charge of field operations; he also plays a role in shaping Ammiano's message by editing campaign literature. Wilson runs the campaign office.

But the potential for clashes is great -- not only between the professional and grass-roots worlds, but among the volunteers themselves. Meltdowns are neither unexpected nor unheard of.

"We're giving each other enough space to not be perfect," says Haaland, who later ends up in a volatile, obscenity-laced shouting match with Giuliana Milanese on the sidewalk outside Josie's. Romero, standing nearby, intervenes, but later downplays the situation. "That blowup was about housing issues and tenants' rights. Not, 'You're taking my job!'" Romero says. "They were fighting about a difference in opinion about how to handle an issue, not petty stuff. The future of this city is too important for us to waste time bickering about silly things like who's running what in the campaign."

After things cool down, Haaland shrugs off the incident as a necessary release. "Obviously, things are running on a lot of energy here, and I'll have a few more gray hairs before it's over," he says, with a grin. "We just have to realize the stress will get to people; it will get to me tomorrow and someone else the next day. People are working really hard, and we have to be patient and give everyone the benefit of the doubt."

Despite his law degree, Haaland doesn't look the part of a potential mayor's point man. Always dressed in Levi's, work boots, sweat shirts, and an ever-present green baseball cap, the 35-year-old, chain-smoking Haaland -- slightly pudgy with a boyish face -- exudes a youthful and rebellious presence. He is the consummate outsider, a self-proclaimed progressive who likes to mix things up. But on the cusp of the election, charged with engineering a win and realizing what that could mean, Haaland finds the gravity of such responsibilities is sometimes at odds with his natural tendencies. The change has already manifested in how Haaland conducts himself on the campaign, which has evolved tremendously since the early days.

"It's still grass-roots, but a little more grown-up," Haaland says. "We've had massive growing pains."

When an eager volunteer suggests defacing the giant Brown billboard that looms over the Castro District near the Ammiano headquarters, Haaland squelches the idea, much as his heart loves it. "Usually I'm the one to do stuff like that, but now I find myself saying, 'No, that wouldn't be prudent,'" he says. "Things have gotten a lot more serious."

Indeed, when a group unaffiliated with the campaign meets at someone's home to plan pro-Ammiano publicity stunts, a campaign representative shows up to implore the crowd -- some schooled in the attention-grabbing traditions of Greenpeace and ACT UP -- to keep everything positive and legal. The Ammiano campaign asks the group to obtain all necessary permits and to have its ideas approved by campaign staff before engaging in any street theater.

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