Rage Against the Machine

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

"There is a role for it, in the same spirit of AIDS activism in the early '80s that worked very well to educate the public about important issues," says campaign aide Cusick, who is dispatched to the stunt meeting. "But this is a positive, issues-driven campaign, and we just want to make sure it doesn't go anywhere else."

Three days after the general election write-in, the Ammiano campaign hired a full-time scheduler to keep track of his appearances, and a press liaison to feed reporters the day's message. The organization began taking shape, though there were some initial bugs to work out. Former Bay Guardian reporter Belinda Griswold, who volunteered to handle press during the write-in effort, had planned a weeklong Palm Springs vacation immediately following the general election. When Ammiano made the runoff, she was absent from the first week of the campaign, even as media demands reached a crescendo.

Upon Griswold's return, her learning curve was immense, but she quickly hit a stride, often returning calls on her cell phone while riding her bike to the next event. Nonetheless, there was no mercy from surly journalists. On the day Ammiano was to go to City Hall and deliver the thousands of voter registration cards his campaign had collected, Griswold sent out a press release announcing the event.

Paul Trapani
Paul Trapani



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It should have been a made-for-TV moment. But at the designated time, reporters arrived to find Ammiano speaking on the steps of City Hall. The voter registration cards had already been delivered. The easy photo-op was lost. Television reporters were livid.

"I'm sorry, it was a logistical mix-up," Griswold told angry Channel 2 correspondent Randy Shandobil.

"Yeah, a big one," he snapped back. "You'll maximize your TV coverage by being more organized."

"Yes I realize that," Griswold replied.

"So, did you have a good vacation?" Shandobil asked sarcastically, leaving in a huff.

Two weeks into the runoff, the Ammiano campaign expanded by opening a $6,000-a-month office in the Mission -- the former campaign headquarters for Clint Reilly, who had renovated an old corner department store into a snazzy and very functional work space. Ammiano's camp salivated over the already-installed 50 phone lines. Pacific Bell workers were constantly adding lines to little Josie's, first six, then 11 more, compounding the congestion. At the Mission office, Marks is able to keep a desk, and conference rooms allow for private strategy meetings. At Josie's, the bedlam forces people into powwows on the club's backyard patio, in the alleyway around the corner, or at nearby coffee shops on Market Street.

Of course, Ammiano also carries on other campaign-related meetings in private. Among them, the supervisor is speaking with former Mayor Frank Jordan, who came in third in the general election, seeking Jordan's endorsement in the runoff.

At the Mission office, things look decidedly grown-up. Volunteers aren't allowed to bring in their dogs, and the signs are glossy printed ones, not homemade. Ray Vitale, an Ammiano phone bank coordinator and strategist, can spread out voter demographic charts at a conference room table and prepare for a precinct organizational meeting. "To get this kind of work done, you need this kind of place," Vitale says.

More and more of the brain work of the campaign is now taking place under the fluorescent lights in the carpeted Mission office. And as the weeks wear on, Josie's is beginning to take on an air of maturity that even Ammiano notices. "I was at Josie's yesterday and it was a working, humming place and you didn't have the feel of organized chaos anymore," he says. "It was more focused and task orientated, and it felt great. It really felt professional, as it should be."

At the new Mission office, Marks flips through stacks of $250 checks, the campaign's voluntary individual donation limit. In a short time, she's managed to infuse a healthy amount of money into the campaign.

There is a quiet financial pipeline from City Hall. In the days before the general election, Ammiano's campaign chiefs say, they received a lot of "verbal" support from people, along with $99 contributions, just shy of the $100 level that would compel the campaign to disclose the source of the funds. The $99 checks have increased during the runoff, Ammiano staffers say, most coming from government employees who don't want Brown to know they have contributed to Ammiano's campaign.

Compared to the mere $20,000 spent in the entire write-in campaign, Marks' goal is to raise and spend a quarter-of-a-million dollars during the six weeks leading up to the runoff. But even that is not enough. By Thanksgiving, Marks realized she would need $300,000, even though the campaign had already taken in more than $200,000. "She's one of the best damn fund-raisers in this city," Haaland says. While Haaland says he's happy to have the money, he warns that dollars alone cannot win an election.

A handshake is always better than a recorded phone call or door-hung literature, Haaland says, but he recently found himself preparing the campaign's first glossy mailer. The target audience is much different now. "In terms of message development, now I have to try to think how a 68-year-old homeowner thinks," he says.

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