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The Sound of Politics 

District election format makes neighborhood singer Tony Hall a real challenge to Supervisor Mabel Teng

Wednesday, Jul 19 2000
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A large group of families gathers on the perfect lawns of the Olympic Club to watch a private fireworks show on the weekend before the Fourth of July. The wives have brought coolers filled with ice and bottles of white wine. The children jab at each other with little American flags.

Tony Hall and his band, the Hallmarks, play quiet background music as the sky begins to grow dark and gray. Just as the last rocket explodes in the foggy night air Hall, a lanky frontman dressed in a red silk shirt, motions for the group to pick up the pace. Soon, the partygoers are dancing stiffly to "La Bamba" and "Jump, Jive and Wail," swiveling their hips in rhythm, as the wealthy do so well.

Hall has been singing in clubs around the city for more than three decades, but this year he has higher ambitions. He's running for the Board of Supervisors out of a district in the Inner Sunset -- and he has a good shot at victory. While he worked the crowds with old Louis Prima favorites on weekends, Hall kept his day job as a city administrator, and built a strong following in his moderate, heavily Irish neighborhood.

Hall has locked up a few key endorsements from Irish leaders in the district, and enjoys the support of almost all the old cops and firemen, as well as the Catholic parishes of St. Cecilia's and St. Thomas Moore. He has also accumulated a sizable campaign war chest -- more than $60,000, he says -- that represents a truly auspicious beginning for someone who has never held elected office. "No doubt about it, we're ready to rock and roll," he purrs confidently.

Hall is just the type of upstart to make an incumbent break out in cold sweats, especially this year, when San Francisco begins electing its city supervisors on a district, rather than citywide, basis. Supervisor Mabel Teng, who is running for re-election in the neighborhood, made her political panic fairly clear last month when she declared June 17 "Joe O'Donoghue Day," honoring the outspoken leader of the Residential Builders Association and one of the more polarizing public figures in the city.

"Joe O'Donoghue has been a friend for over a decade," Teng says when asked about the tribute. "Part of my job is honoring members of the community."

All the same, the gesture seemed a rather obvious attempt to cut into Hall's base by linking her name to something -- anything -- Irish, and it was a dramatic sign of how the city's changed election process has leveled the playing field. Teng, who two years ago was considered a top contender for president of the Board of Supervisors, now finds herself scrapping with a part-time lounge singer and a possibly violent chiropractor (among other candidates) for a few thousand votes. And she just might lose in this new milieu of street politics.

O'Donoghue has thrown his support behind Teng, though he says it has nothing to do with the day named after him. "They give those things out like tissues off a toilet paper roll," he says, when reached on his cell phone in Italy. He then immediately takes a swing at Teng's top rival. "Sure, Tony Hall sings at all the weddings and the funerals. But if singing were a prerequisite for office, they would have made Frank Sinatra president of the United States."

But Hall is more than just a crooner. In fact, he is something of a political animal himself, going back to the days when he was a special assistant to Mayor Joseph Alioto in the early 1970s. Since then, he has worked in high-level administrative roles for the district attorney, the budget analyst for the Board of Supervisors, and now the courts.

Hall has also played key roles in political drives, including campaigns calling for term limits for supervisors and a ban on deputy mayors. Last year he led a successful drive to freeze water and sewer rates. These are bread and butter issues for the fiscally conservative District 7, which runs from the Inner Sunset southwest to the bungalows around San Francisco State University and consists mostly of white and Asian homeowners. Hall, who is running as an independent, emphasizes a need to balance scales that, he says, have leaned too heavily toward renters in recent years. "If I have anything to say about it, there will be no new taxes for homeowners unless every cent is accounted for," he says.

He scoffs at Teng's platform of pedestrian safety and an anti-graffiti task force. "Yeah, and I'm for motherhood and apple pie," he says. "Her proposals are silly -- nothing but air. They don't accomplish anything."

While focusing on Teng, Hall has also had to contend with another feisty Irishman, Wilton "Rennie" O'Brien, who has taken it upon himself to knock on the door of every voting household in the district. (So far, eight candidates have declared their intention to run for the District 7 supervisor post; the filing deadline is Aug. 11.) O'Brien grew up in the neighborhood, believing in the solid middle-class credo that hard work leads to success. "People will vote for me because I've worn out three pairs of shoes," he says.

O'Brien has lived in the city all his life, excepting a short stint when he tended an organic farm on the island of Kauai. He recently dropped a thriving chiropractic practice to work full time on the campaign. "The only time I'm not campaigning is when I'm sleeping," he says. "My living, breathing existence on this planet is to win this election. Am I qualified? That's a good question."

Though O'Brien refers to Teng as the "800-pound gorilla," for some reason he has set his sights on Hall. "I admit I don't like the guy much," the stocky former rugby player says.

Earlier this year, Hall accused O'Brien of taking his disdain a step too far. In a signed declaration, Hall says that O'Brien threatened "to take me outside and beat the fucking shit out of me," after a public forum for Italian-Americans in North Beach. O'Brien also called Hall's brother "a poodle on a leash," the declaration says. (The declaration does not further explain the poodle incident.) A judge slapped O'Brien with a restraining order, prohibiting him from getting within 100 yards of Hall's family, except during official campaign functions.

O'Brien denies using such strong language when talking to Hall, but admits calling Hall's brother a leashed poodle.

A report released last week by the political consulting firm of Solem & Associates says 22,000 people voted last year within the confines of the new District 7, which is roughly 15 percent Chinese-American, 8 percent Irish-American, and 4 percent Italian-American. Assuming Teng receives fewer than half of the votes cast Nov. 7, a challenger could make a runoff while receiving the votes of fewer than 10,000 people. "If Hall were running against Teng citywide, he wouldn't have a chance," says Jim Ross of Solem & Associates. "But because this is his back yard, he's got a real shot."

Meanwhile, O'Brien has 6,000 more doors to go. Though he has almost no governmental experience, his willingness to introduce himself to every last member of his district is likely to win him a significant number of votes as well.

In fact, Teng has hit the sidewalks herself, claiming she's the only incumbent making such an effort. "I take my opponents very seriously," she says, very seriously.

About The Author

Matt Isaacs

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