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One evening last August, Matt Gonzalez, the mop-haired Green Party president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, sat amid a circle of mad-as-hell gay activists. Among the dozen or so people present were several past presidents of the Harvey Milk Club, a powerful Democratic group that had recently endorsed Gonzalez's political godfather, Supervisor Tom Ammiano, for mayor.
Gonzalez was squarely in the hot seat inside Ammiano's campaign headquarters on Upper Market Street. Earlier that week, just days before the Aug. 8 deadline for getting into the mayor's race, he had quietly informed friends and supporters that he intended to run. To many Milk Club activists, the news came as a surprise -- and as a slap in the face. Why would Gonzalez, a fellow progressive with fewer than three years in office, want to jeopardize Ammiano's campaign?
Ammiano is the local left's elder statesman. For 15 years, first as a school board member, then as a supervisor, he has championed tenants' and gay rights, the environment, and government accountability. In 1999, the gay ex-teacher and stand-up comedian stunned San Francisco's political establishment by forcing Mayor Willie Brown into a runoff election. And though he'd lost, Ammiano's backers viewed 2003 as the Year of Tom, when San Francisco would elect its first gay mayor.
Now, less than 24 hours before the filing deadline, the gay activists battered Gonzalez, the political interloper, with questions.
"What is it that makes you think you're going to win?" one gay activist asked pointedly, according to Deborah Walker, a former Milk Club president who was present. Wasn't Gonzalez worried that his candidacy would cannibalize votes from Ammiano, thereby boosting the chances of their collective archnemesis, front-runner Gavin Newsom? Why did Gonzalez spring his candidacy on everybody at the last minute, with seemingly little concern for the divisive fallout it might have on progressives? The none-too-subtle subtext of their queries was that he should withdraw.
But the 38-year-old Gonzalez didn't apologize, nor did he back down. Instead, he listened quietly as Milk Club members took turns berating him.
According to several participants in the meeting, Gonzalez then described -- a touch defensively -- how he'd build a grass-roots campaign. He said that unlike Ammiano, who had moved steadily toward the center since '99, he'd stick firmly to a progressive platform. And he felt that, as a former college debate champion and exdefense lawyer, he'd slaughter Newsom in campaign forums, exposing him as an intellectual lightweight. With his tough-love crusade to rein in homelessness and seemingly endless TV appearances, Newsom had surged to the forefront in campaign polls, consistently hovering around 36 percent. Ammiano couldn't seem to break above 20 percent, while the other strong progressive candidate in the race, ex-Supervisor Angela Alioto, ranked in the teens. In all probability, Newsom would face one of the lefty candidates in a Dec. 9 runoff election.
"I feel I'm the only one who can beat Gavin," Gonzalez declared, according to witnesses.
Frustration in the room mounted as the Milk Club members pressed Gonzalez to offer concrete evidence -- poll numbers, something -- of how he could do that. Gonzalez seemed also to be discounting Alioto, who was gaining on Ammiano in the polls.
"I don't believe either Tom's or Angela's campaigns are generating the kind of enthusiasm that could defeat Newsom," Gonzalez stated simply, according to Barry Hermanson, another Ammiano supporter who was present. "I have to disagree," Hermanson shot back. Others concurred.
To Ammiano's acolytes, Gonzalez's entry was an astonishing act of hubris. Granted, he was off to an impressive start as a politician. Gonzalez had won his District 5 seat, which includes the Haight-Ashbury and Hayes Valley, in 2000. At City Hall, he quickly developed a reputation for honesty and hard work; last January, his board colleagues chose him as their president, making him the highest-ranking Green Party member west of the Mississippi. Gonzalez proved a talented administrator, smoothly steering the board through the worst budget crisis in San Francisco history. And despite his lefty ideology, he demonstrated crossover appeal: Supervisor Tony Hall, arguably the most conservative board member, is one of his closest allies. Still, he was a political newbie. And it was Ammiano who'd recruited him to run for supervisor in the first place. Now Gonzalez was repaying that favor by stepping all over Ammiano to make it into the runoff?
The acrimonious encounter with the Milk Club leaders underscores the serious obstacles facing Gonzalez in his mayoral bid. The other major candidates -- Newsom, Ammiano, Alioto, and City Treasurer Susan Leal -- have been organizing their campaigns for months. The late-starting Gonzalez lags in name recognition, endorsements, and money. Before deciding to run, he enjoyed strong support in the progressive community. But by competing for votes with Ammiano and Alioto, he's lost some allies and, some say, weakened the left.
With the race in its final month, the stakes are high for Gonzalez. If he comes in third or fourth in the Nov. 4 primary election, and Newsom wins in December, he will forever be viewed as a spoiler. Having publicly opined that Ammiano's and Alioto's campaigns weren't generating sufficient electricity, Gonzalez must now prove that his can.