Achtenberg's Third Act

There's something high-hopes, mares-eat-oats '60s-ish in the evening. Maybe it's the smell of wood and the creak-plunk of human hands and bodies pushing down seats in the cavernous school auditorium. Maybe it's the peach-fuzz sunset, the strangely retro feeling of being surrounded by smiling Democrats, the balmy air swaddling Noe Valley, the multiethnic progressive politicos flocking to a Democratic club forum: folks waving campaign signs, jawing on the front steps of the James Lick Middle School, good-naturedly comparing candidates as if sizing up a horse race post parade. It's Aug. 8, 1995, but flash back 27 years and this crowd might well be carrying Gene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy signs. Thoughts of Newt and the neocons are about as likely to appear as piss in a punch bowl.

The rarefied giddiness, like so many things political, feels somewhat fictional, as if everyone is a character in a book about a mayor's race — as if none of this has anything to do with the real, live fact that on Nov. 7, barring a major upset, two of the four debaters here will win a primary election, and come December, one will win a runoff and become mayor. The only somber note appears in the worried-looking form at one end of a collapsible table onstage: incumbent Frank Jordan, a man whose homeless program shares the same name as a shampoo.

To Jordan's right sits Supervisor Angelo Alioto, “the candidate with heart,” who's already broken a rhetorical sweat, chatting frenetically. Dark horse “idealist sui generis” Joel Ventresca isn't here: He announced both his candidacy and his interest in this showcase too late to appear, explains a Demo Club official. There's a vacant chair where Assembly Speaker Emeritus Willie “Wheeler-Dealer-I-Get-Things-Done” Brown will eventually hold court: He's fond of the late entrance.

And then, swathed in a dress as iridescent as a jungle bird, 45-year-old Roberta Achtenberg, “the cerebral candidate,” steps onstage — and cheers, hoots, hollers rise from the floor. The 600-plus in attendance are equally kind to Alioto, and tepidly kind to Jordan, and awfully enthused about Brown once he finally sweeps in. But they greet Achtenberg as if she were long-lost kin. And indeed, this is her turf: She's owned a Noe Valley home since 1972; she's known and respected; she is to her fans as much a symbol as any hero — a slate upon which to transfer dreams and longings, a political vessel in which to pour hope and salve bruises. Achtenberg takes a small bow, and applause wells again.

The adulation, her fans will tell you, comes because she's a progressive with a plan. A maverick with a message. She is a former Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assistant secretary for fair housing who was dubbed a “militant-activist-mean lesbian” by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms during her 1993 confirmation hearings — a Clinton nominee who despite Helms' rantings became the highest-ranking openly gay political appointee in U.S. history. She is a longtime civil rights lawyer and activist; a mother, along with her partner, lawyer Mary Morgan, of a 9-year-old son; and a California native who made an unexpectedly strong showing in her first and failed political audition, a 1988 bid to unseat Democratic powerhouse John Burton in the state Assembly. By 1990, she was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where she stayed two years until HUD called. But other than those feats and her 22-month stint in Washington, Achtenberg's government record is relatively thin.

Will her “reform, reinvent, revitalize” platform help bring her third victory, her third act? Can she win the fight of her political life and become the first gay mayor of a major American city?

“I'm here tonight,” Achtenberg begins, kicking off the debate, “because I believe San Francisco has a clear choice between the failed policies of an ineffective mayor” — Jordan winces — “and the failed politics” — she aims at Brown — “of an entrenched power broker.”

A man holding a “Willie Brown for Mayor” sign forgets his allegiance and whoops from the sidelines.

“You all know about the policies pursued by the incumbent mayor,” Achtenberg continues. “You must ask yourselves, are you better off today?”

“No!” the Brown man shouts.
“And you know what's happened in Sacramento,” Achtenberg continues, keeping up the pace. She is glancing at note cards, violating the unwritten rules of public speaking, breaking eye contact with her audience, her chin low, her bobbed gray hair and bangs framing a face that seems capable of steeling itself against any emotion but then dissolves, unexpectedly, into eye-crinkling grins — her persona is a sea wall that lets random waves through. “You must decide for yourselves,” she says flatly, but the audience is with her, “whether or not the practice of raw political power over common sense policy-making is what San Francisco needs to help it confront the future. It is not a new style of politics that we need,” she says, “it is new substance.”

“Yes!” cries the Brown man, providing her an exclamation point.
“I offer a grass-roots campaign that is based on energy and the idealism of thousands of San Franciscans, not millions of special interest dollars,” she goes on.

“Amen!” cries the Brown man.
“Time!” calls the moderator.
Achtenberg's first two minutes tonight are over. But her campaign days — filled with voter angst and position papers and reform plans, filled with warm hugs and cold shoulders and a challenge by a reporter to be shadowed for two weeks — have only just begun. The days will wag on with the synapse-straining demands of electoral politics: with endless forums, interviews, appearances, talk shows, and debates — and with agonized progressives trying to decide whether to support the first African-American mayor, or the first lesbian.

And the days are replete with a perceived choice: leadership (Brown) vs. ideas (Achtenberg). An old-time power broker with strings attached vs. an unfettered, less-proven purist. Day-Glo charisma vs. a bracing splash of tonic. Alioto, Ventresca, or Republican Ben Hom are not absent from the mix and could also win in November, of course, but a recent poll puts Jordan first, followed by Brown and Achtenberg. (When the voters were told about Achtenberg's platform, she beat Brown for second place.) And in Democratic crowds, it is those three who most often win first mention. [page]

“As a gay man, the first thing I wanted to do was vote for someone gay,” says Larry Edmond, 34, the Brown sign-holder in Noe Valley who also hollered for Achtenberg. Edmond is African-American and a solid Brown supporter. “I like a lot of what Roberta says, but Willie's record is unquestionable. I mean, he was fighting Anita Bryant back in the '70s when I was still in high school,” he says.

“I'm for Roberta,” counters another forumgoer. “I think this race really is about form over substance. And Willie is so slick I think he turns people off.”

“For some candidates, it's like opera,” Achtenberg volunteer Els Buesten explains a few days later. “I could never support Brown,” Buesten says. “And Alioto — she's like a prima donna, she's very good. She really believes in the story, but it's just a story. It's just entertainment. Roberta is real.”

But what is real?
“I can beat Mayor Jordan,” Achtenberg tells the Noe Valley crowd. “Speaker Emeritus Brown can beat Mayor Jordan,” she says. “The people will make their choice.”

And as of this night, she has 91 days to persuade them.

Aug. 11. Harvey Milk Plaza bustles with people, and Roberta Achtenberg is feeling fine. The BART escalator on the sunlit corner of Market and Castro streets disgorges a man who looks like Gandhi in drag. Women scurry for Muni buses in power skirts and black leather. Senior citizens drag mini-shopping carts and wait impatiently for lights to change. Executive types bounce to the beat of the Walkmans in their ears.

It's a typical Castro Friday afternoon, with a twist: Achtenberg stands midplaza, hugging and greeting with abandon, buying roses from a stunned young hawker who's barely sold a bud all day. None of the brusque reserve that she sometimes displays is apparent here. Achtenberg is positively beaming.

“Come meet the next mayor of San Francisco,” cries Lisa B. Cohen, her field director.

A slight, young, gay man sitting on a plaza wall squeals with delight and turns crimson when Achtenberg shakes his hand.

A man with a shaved head wants to know where she stands on the hemp issue. Hemp, he tells Achtenberg, who nods appreciatively, can be made into all kinds of things: paper products, wood products …

“Plastics?” Achtenberg says, catching my eye and grinning. The hemp man is confused by her reference to a famous scene in The Graduate. “You have to be a certain age,” she comforts him.

Meanwhile, I am hounding her, irritating campaign aides who strive to keep her on schedule and don't need a pesky reporter making demands on her time. The aides are a devoted crew but not the best in returning my phone calls, and we've had struggles over access to the candidate. Much of it can't be helped, tireless campaign scheduler Andy Wong points out: Achtenberg's days are back-to-back with things such as closed-door trade union interviews and homeless shelter tours offered by the Coalition on Homelessness, a group that doesn't want reporters along. But today it's just Achtenberg, her fans, and me.

“We've wanted to meet you for so long!” says longtime supporter Robin Greear, with friend Veronica Abrickis nodding at her side. “We were hoping you were going to announce that you'd run and come back from Washington, and when you did we jumped up and down and high-fived each other.”

A man in a leather cap and combat boots asks what Achtenberg can do about homelessness. She tells him she will centralize services, increase affordable housing, attack the issue from all angles, and throw out the mayor's Matrix program, a “facile solution to a complex problem” that “criminalizes the homeless, rounds folks up, and moves them along without solving the problem,” she says.

The action is beginning to feel like those mall lines at Christmas where you wait to talk to Santa.

“It took me 25 minutes to get from Castro to Church Street!” Michael Saint Onge tells Achtenberg, barely able to contain his outrage at the bus system.

“Are you going to put out a position paper on Muni?” Saint Onge asks. “This is just ridiculous!”

Achtenberg sympathizes, telling him she will set standards for every city department, demand that people meet them, and rebuild things from top to bottom — one of her favorite expressions, along with the words “reform,” “reinvent,” “responsibility,” and “reorganize.”

I follow Saint Onge as he trails down Market Street after shaking Achtenberg's hand. Who will he vote for?

“I'm torn between Willie and Roberta,” he says. “It's hard, because Willie's been such a friend to the gay community for so many years.”

Aug. 16. Under ballroom chandeliers in the ANA hotel on Third Street, Achtenberg is back onstage along with Jordan, Alioto, and, this time, businessman Ben Hom, the Republican who starts nearly every snippet this morning by declaring, “I am not a politician.”

Joel Ventresca still hasn't been invited. And once again, Brown is late. He arrives with no apology and a white rose in his lapel.

The candidates are live on the Ronn Owens talk show, and Owens asks them to shorten their answers. “Snap it up,” he says during a station break, before pitching a question: “Is the San Francisco Board of Supervisors way too far to the left?”

“Oh, way too left,” says Hom.
“I believe,” says Achtenberg, “there needs to be more constructive leadership …”

“Are they too liberal?” Owens cuts her off.
“No,” Achtenberg concedes.
Owens nods, karate chops with his hand — commercial time. And a distinguished-looking, gray-haired woman in front of me quietly fumes. [page]

“Why is he always late, and doing that grand entrance?” asks Elza Burton. “What — he thinks he's the king or something?” A lot of things about Brown annoy Burton, particularly the fact that since 1980 Brown has reportedly accepted more campaign contributions from the tobacco industry — $659,492 — than any other U.S. lawmaker.

What's the solution? I ask.
“Roberta!” Burton says emphatically. Achtenberg always has the most sensible, detailed answers, she says. And she's really improving her speaking style, she adds.

“The first time I saw her,” she says, apologetically, “I nearly fell asleep.”

Aug. 15. Roberta Achtenberg sits in Peet's coffee store near her 2275 Market office, wearing pink and sipping a latte. We are finally one-on-one, which is anything but sleep-evoking. She will soon be talking about a tragedy. And I am ready to shred napkins.

After a week of watching, I'm still not even close to figuring out who Achtenberg “really is.” Is she an inexperienced idealist — a Jimmy Carter who will find it hard to cut deals and compromise? Is she someone uniquely capable of cleaning house and promoting social justice, free of the constraints of cronyism or conflicts of interest (which critics say will hobble 31-year political veteran Willie Brown)? But more troubling, how can anyone extract the snarled, rich, mysterious singularity of a human being by watching them in the spin cycle of politics: endlessly repeating the same phrases, endlessly answering the same questions; as endlessly forced to smile as Miss America contestants who smear Vaseline on their teeth to keep their lips from snagging.

I silently beg Achtenberg to relax and reveal something. She does and doesn't comply.

“I was born in Inglewood,” she begins. She was the third of four children born to Russian Jewish immigrants who had completed the equivalent of eighth grade. Her parents started their own business, a corner grocery store.

They weren't political — “Absolutely not! They were apolitical as they could be,” she says — but they were “Democrats without question,” and they infused their children with concern for social justice. Life at home adhered mostly to the non-eventful — until Achtenberg turned 14.

Her brother, a Boalt Hall Law School student, suffered a bicycle accident that impaired his mobility. “And then he had a surgery that went badly, and as a result of the surgery, he became a quadriplegic,” Achtenberg says, quietly. Things would only get worse.

“After my brother became disabled, my father basically became incredibly distraught and ultimately had a stroke and became paralyzed. He lived three years in a nursing home.” He died when she was 18.

“To have my brother in a rehabilitation facility and my father in a nursing home” — Achtenberg pauses. “I mean, it was a disaster. We had a lot of trouble just taking care of the family, right? Keeping things going. My mother had a business to run by herself and my sister and I had to make sure that my brother and my father were visited every day.” Back then, she explains, the way to ensure good nursing care was to let the homes know you were involved. “The family had to stick together and take care of each other.”

A “dutiful daughter,” a “good Jewish girl,” as she has described herself, Achtenberg finished high school — ignoring the counselor who told her she should be a teacher, “like all smart girls” — and went to the University of California at Berkeley, planning to become a lawyer. It was the time of civil rights battles and the anti-war movement, and Achtenberg joined in. It was also the time of a burgeoning women's movement, and the nascence of gay rights. But at 21, Achtenberg married a man and went to the University of Utah law school to fulfill her dream of doing good. Four years later, her discovery arrived.

“It was like, 'Oh!,' ” she recently told Out magazine. “Someone once asked me if I became a lesbian for political reasons, and I know some people do so, but for me, being a lesbian was about sex. It was about my deepest, most intimate feelings.”

Though she struggled with the moral and religious commitment she had made to her husband, a law professor — and though the time was made even more difficult by the mourning she was doing over the death of her mother — Achtenberg decided to divorce. In 1975 she began a new life back in San Francisco, submerging herself in civil rights battles that included the gay and lesbian community.

Achtenberg's resume soon bulged at the seams. For a year she taught at Stanford Law School. In 1976, with a mission to train public interest lawyers, she joined the faculty at the New College of California School of Law. Two years later, at age 28, she became school dean — the youngest in the nation, she says proudly.

By 1982 she had become director of the Lesbian Rights Project of Equal Rights Advocates, a group that battled discrimination; in 1989 the project evolved into the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Achtenberg was executive director. She formed the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom; she edited a book on sexual orientation and the law. She joined a community of gays and lesbians fighting homophobia and consolidating their gains.

Her private life blossomed. Fellow activist and trial lawyer Mary Morgan — soon to become a San Francisco Municipal Court judge, the first openly lesbian judge in the country — became her lover and long-term partner. And with prompting from friends like Superior Court Judge Donna Hitchens — and the help of Debra Chasnoff, the Oscar Award-winning documentary filmmaker — Achtenberg decided to take the next step. She challenged Assemblyman John Burton. [page]

Unseating the formidable Democrat would have been a sizable task for even the most seasoned veteran. Achtenberg, the new kid on the block, lost the election but won a solid 36 percent of the vote.

“Was it early on,” I ask her, “that you decided you wanted to become a politician?”

“No,” she fairly barks.
I wait for her to explain. There is silence.
“You didn't even think about student government in high school?” I try again.

“Yes, I was a class president and all those things. But, no — to want to be a politician?” she says, inscrutably. “Can you imagine such a thing? I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “I had no idea why. But it seemed like you could stand up for people that way.”

On the Board of Supervisors, Achtenberg stood up for open government, children and family issues, and environmental matters. She wrote the city's Sunshine Law, which offers public access to nearly every government function. She chaired then-Mayor Art Agnos' task forces on family policy, and on the Commission on the Status of Women; she battled for a domestic partnership law and a ballot measure for a children's budget; she penned a major water recycling bill; she supported needle exchanges, health care, AIDS prevention, and domestic violence prevention programs.

In San Francisco, at least, “standing up,” Achtenberg-style, wasn't likely to get you plugged by a right-wing bullet. The Board of Supervisors by this time boasted African-American President Doris Ward and three gay members — Harry Britt, Carole Migden, and Achtenberg, followers in the footsteps of the city's first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. But in Washington, the sniper fire got ugly.

When Achtenberg's dedicated campaign work for Clinton sparked the HUD nomination — along with confirmation hearings and blazing headlines — she became the nation's most public target for homophobic bile. Jesse Helms, chief bigot bully, described Achtenberg as a “damn lesbian” who'd been “working her whole career to advance the homosexual agenda.” Others called her an “intolerant radical activist,” a bad parent, a religion-hating atheist, an AIDS spreader, and a woman who terrorized the Boy Scouts of America (she and other supervisors had taken a stand against the organization for its anti-gay policies).

Republican senators chewed sandwiches while they watched videotapes of a five-second appearance Achtenberg made with Morgan in a San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day parade, trying (unsuccessfully) to catch a glimpse of the women kissing. Achtenberg “is not your garden-variety lesbian,” Helms informed the Senate.

“He wasn't talking about me,” Achtenberg now says. She takes a sip of coffee. “There was no human person he was talking about, right?” she says. “Because anybody who knew me would know this man didn't know me. What he knew was ignorance, prejudice. He knew a caricature of people that he had in his mind, and he played that fantasy out on the floor of the Senate.

“I mean, the only part that was personal is that I wanted to win, right? This was my life.” She smiles, and savors a bit of Schadenfreude. “But then I did win,” she says.

And now she has to win something larger: the trust of a city that feels wounded by budget cuts, homelessness, an ailing transit system, job layoffs, health crises, high rents, and low pay.

Given all those problems, I want to ask, isn't it even more important to be a good cheerleader: to throw such sparks and work so hard it makes people want to stand up and do the wave? In a previous interview, I'd left out the sparks part and asked instead about the work.

“Why do you think people are saying, 'It's Willie who gets things done?' ” I'd asked.

“My question is, 'What exactly has he gotten done?' ” she'd bristled with anger. “I have gotten things done my entire life, right? I was the youngest law school dean in America and I got my institution accredited by the state bar of California and that school has educated thousands of public interest lawyers. And if that's not getting things done, I don't know what is. I wrote a book, an 800-page book,” she said. “That was getting things done.” She ticked off her legal advocacy and director's jobs, her celebrated victory in a landmark court battle in which a gay man dying of AIDS won custody of the 9-year-old son who wanted to be with him.

“How is that not getting things done?” she demanded. “Who is saying that Willie gets things done?”

“People on the street,” I said. “Some of them are probably echoing soundbites from the Brown campaign,” I offered.

“Well, let's not contribute to some soundbite perception,” she said. “Because my entire history is hard work in the public interest realm. I would ask those people on the street, 'What in his life has Willie Brown done?' And I bet they don't know. People who want an effective, principled progressive to run this city — that's me. I'm the candidate who comes from the neighborhoods, who works with the grass roots, who comes from the public interest.”

“Do you enjoy fighting?” I'd asked her shortly afterward.
“I don't like to fight. Absolutely not,” she'd said. “Will I do it? Absolutely.”

The fight, political analysts say, might be treacherous.
Shaking hands and ringing doorbells and courting political clubs aside, the progressives' race, as Karl Marx might put it, could hold within it the seeds of its own destruction.

“One of the tests for Roberta's campaign and Willie Brown's campaign and to a certain extent Angela Alioto's campaign,” says former Mayor Art Agnos, currently a HUD housing secretary representative, “is that they not destroy each other in this primary election and allow to happen what did happen in 1991.”

In that race, Agnos provides a blow-by-blow, “I got chewed up on the left by Alioto and Dick Hongisto. And then I had [Supervisor] Tom Hsieh and Frank Jordan” — the former police chief — “attacking from the right. And there was nothing left by the time the runoff came because I was bleeding to death.” [page]

Why did it happen? Agnos reserves his harshest words for political consultants, not naming Brown's current consultant (the ubiquitous Jack Davis, who engineered Jordan's victory), or Achtenberg's current consultant (the earnest Eric Jaye), or Jordan's current consultant (bad boy Clint Reilly, who has summed up the race by saying, “Willie's going to get the shit kicked out of him, OK?”).

“Political consultants,” Agnos says, “are the political equivalent of hired assassins. It's 'have gun, will travel.' So it's important that the candidates keep control of their hired guns and not allow them to destroy the overall objective, which is to elect a progressive and unseat Frank Jordan.” Contenders can help each other, he adds, by agreeing not to mudsling — “which leads the electorate to become so disillusioned, so depressed, they don't vote for the progressive candidate or they stay at home and don't vote at all, in which case the conservative wins.” They can also do it by vowing to support one another in the December runoff, no matter who wins in November, he says.

But who will win in November? What does San Francisco want?
On the latter question, at least, almost all agree.
“People are starved for leadership, starved for dynamism,” says a longtime lesbian activist, who jokes that the Brown vs. Achtenberg decision has been so torturous, her friends should start a support group, “Lesbians in Agony.”

“There are a lot of people I've heard who have publicly supported Roberta and who in the privacy of the voting booth will really vote for Willie Brown,” says the woman, who asks to remain anonymous in order to protect her job. “Personally, I love Roberta and respect Roberta, but she is not a dynamic person. You don't get the sense of passion from her that you do with Brown. People think she's very smart. They love her ideas. But I don't think people see the leadership in her, the passion that they want.”

And voters tend to choose a candidate who sports the leadership style they prefer (or wish they themselves had), says San Francisco State political science professor David Tabb. The less that voters know about specific issues, Tabb adds, the more likely they are to vote on style — media-fed, simplistic perceptions of humanity. First impressions.

Achtenberg's “cerebral style,” as Agnos puts it — he likens her to the thoughtful New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley — easily appeals to voters tired of flash and old-boy networks.

Brown, meanwhile, tends to spark a “bi-polar approach,” says Tabb. “People either think of him as a savior or a sleaze. But his overall image is one that attracts people looking for a leader,” Tabb says.

A reason the leadership longing is so sharp, adds political veteran Hadley Roff, currently director of special programs at the San Francisco State University Urban Institute, is that the city faces such perilous budget cuts at the hands of Washington Republicans. “With the profound federal cuts that are coming in welfare and health care, the city is going to have to undergo tremendous self-examination in order to sustain even the most rudimentary of public services.”

Another hunger factor: “The incumbent has very little leadership flair,” says longtime gay political strategist Dick Pabich, now retired. “And he has let everything slide for almost four years.

“People are looking for someone who can stop the city from falling apart in everything it does, and that, to me, is not a function of having a brain” — the Achtenberg image — “but of having an incredible leadership style,” Pabich says. “And Willie Brown certainly has a leg up on everybody in that respect. Nobody doubts that he can do the job. They may have other doubts about him, but people know he can take the reins.”

Achtenberg's strategy to win recognition and a competitive edge has been to issue position papers and stress her commitment to reform (the word appears eight times in her campaign door-hangers). At public forums she reminds people of her successes at HUD: of streamlining government, “tackling a hidebound bureaucracy,” making work more efficient by updating technology, and empowering workers.

She stresses her work to eradicate housing discrimination: She tells how she helped integrate an all-white housing project in Vidor, Texas, in defiance of the Ku Klux Klan; and how she developed fair lending agreements with banks that have routinely redlined in poor communities. (“She hired extremely competent people, she revamped and centralized the HUD fair housing enforcement centers — she was definitely a quick study,” confirms Shanna Smith, executive director of the National Fair Housing Alliance.)

In the four position papers that Achtenberg has released to date (16 more have been promised but haven't yet appeared), she's proposed creation of an “Office of Environmental Management” to keep the city environmentally friendly; she's vowed to create and publish “standards of service” for everyone in her administration; she's called for a “Mayor's Council of Neighborhoods” so that hand-picked neighborhood “ambassadors” can consult with her monthly. Most controversially, she's vowed to revamp the city's financial system — particularly in light of recent revelations that $30 million in uncollected taxes is being lost each year. She wants to update computer technology (already in the works), and eliminate the treasurer and assessor's offices, combining their duties with those of the tax collector and auditor. The office would be streamlined (read: old bosses would get booted and fewer new bosses would get brought in). And a professional chief financial officer would be hired to run things (if, of course, voters approved a charter amendment allowing it).

Political observers say they find the ideas interesting, but don't know that they've exactly captured the public imagination. [page]

“It may be futile to do this in bits and pieces that dribble out in a campaign,” says Professor Rich DeLeon, chair of the San Francisco State political science department. The papers should have a clear sequence and fit together so they have a cumulative impact. “If they're just cranked out like so many links in a sausage, then I don't know how much that helps.”

Pabich puts it this way: “What you really have to demonstrate in this race is the ability to move mountains. And that is certainly not a function of position papers.”

Lurking in the backdrop, meanwhile, are the twin monsters, racism and homophobia.

How much will they affect the November outcome?
Putting statistics to prejudice is enormously difficult, since very few people, aside from right-wing Republicans, will volunteer their bigotry publicly. But according to a national pollster — who asked that his name not be used, honoring a private client — 800 San Franciscans in a random survey last year were read a list of names from various “power” groups — business people, the media, the neighborhoods, African-Americans, whites, gays, Asians, Latinos, and so on.

“Which of these groups has too much power?” respondents were asked. The results: About 30 percent of those polled — the highest percentage of any of the groups — said gays had too much power. No other group won more than single-digit percentages. “It was startling,” the pollster said.

An oft-used San Francisco pollster, David Binder, however, says he believes that “only a small number of people here will immediately dismiss a candidate for being a lesbian — there are other things that they weigh,” he says.

“It is still possible for Roberta Achtenberg to win the mayor's race,” Binder predicts. “People are saying that Frank Jordan hasn't done anything, and that Willie Brown is a sleaze, and that Roberta Achtenberg is at least making an effort and it sounds like she has good ideas.”

Perhaps a bigger problem for Achtenberg, says Binder, is the fact that she departed midway through two political posts — leaving for Washington after two years as a supervisor, leaving Washington after two years at HUD.

All that aside, a recent poll of 600 voters conducted by Decision Research of Washington, D.C., for the Achtenberg campaign showed the candidate's ratings are healthy, and growing. Jordan won 30 percent of the vote, Brown had 27 percent, and Achtenberg won 20 percent — up six points from a 14 percent showing in a Binder poll this April. (Alioto won 7 percent, the other candidates 3 percent, and 15 percent were undecided.) When respondents were “educated” — given info on what Achtenberg stood for — she beat Brown, 26 percent to 24 percent.

“She's successfully coalesced a majority of the gay and lesbian voter base, and given that several candidates in the race have long roots in the gay community, she's done a good job,” says San Francisco political strategist John Whitehurst. “I think the critical question now is, 'Can she get beyond the base?' ”

The most likely place to go fishing, Whitehurst says, is among Democratic, straight women, which, like the gay and lesbian community, comprises about 20 percent of the electorate, he estimates. “Frank Jordan is too conservative for that group. In Alioto, maybe they agree on the issues, but she's not what they're looking for in a mayor. And then Willie Brown's ethical questions make it difficult for some Democratic women to vote for him,” Whitehurst says. Trouble is, he adds, “if Roberta's going to affect the race, the notion of why have a policy-oriented, an ideology-oriented mayor, has to be brought out in a way that makes her the primary choice for the voters, and that hasn't happened yet.

“Most of the insiders have already assumed this is a Jordan-Brown runoff,” Whitehurst says. He pauses. “I think the real message is, it ain't over till the votes are counted.”

Aug. 20. The ring-kissing rolls on. Already navigated, among just some of the events, is the Harvey Milk Progressive Democratic Club appearance, the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club interview, the Local 87 Service Employees International Union interview (they were cordial to Achtenberg, but ate out of Brown's hand), and the Richmond District Democratic Club forum (this time both Brown and Alioto showed up late).

Today, Andy Wong drives Achtenberg in his Ford Festiva to Chrissy Field, in honor of health service workers marching across the Golden Gate Bridge behind grand marshal the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Health-care workers have endorsed Alioto, who gets to stand on the sound stage next to the reverend. Brown is not around.

“It's indicative of Roberta's character that she wants to come here and show support whether or not they've endorsed her,” Achtenberg field director Cohen says.

Foghorns blow, and Achtenberg, wearing only a T-shirt and sleeveless vest in the cold wind, does not hunch or shiver. She stands quietly applauding, largely ignored in the milling crowd. She looks small and somehow vulnerable.

“Let us move forward by hope, and not backwards by fear!” Jackson shouts. Golden retrievers pad by with soggy tennis balls in their mouths. “We need a fix in '96!” Jackson preaches, and the rapt audience chants with him: “Jobs! Health care! Housing! Jobs! Health care! A fix! A fix!”

Here, at least, the Brown vs. Achtenberg issue is nowhere to be seen. And it wasn't present on Saturday, the day before — volunteer day at the Achtenberg campaign — when more than a dozen exuberant Roberta fans gathered strips of paper to hang on doors citywide. With more than 300 active volunteers, Achtenberg won 16,500 petition-signers to get her name on the ballot. Brown won 17,210.

Outside of Achtenberg's headquarters, people will tell you Brown has won elsewhere, too, raking in endorsements that include the San Francisco Labor Council, representing 140 local unions and more than 80,000 workers (Brown won 40,837 votes; Achtenberg won 73). Brown has won the thumbs up from Lesbians & Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action, the Democratic Women's Forum, and, not surprisingly, the long-supportive Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club (the Harvey Milk Club didn't endorse anyone because no candidate won 60 percent approval, but Brown was the top vote-getter). [page]

It's a clichŽ to say that Brown has cachet. He's been a friend to the gay community since Day 1, as he puts it: In 1968, long before the issue had a place on the national agenda, Brown backed the elimination of criminal penalties for private sexual acts between consenting adults. He later wrote the law that did so. He campaigned in 1977 against homophobic orange-juice flack Anita Bryant. He worked as a private lawyer for big corporate players like the Catellus Corp., Davies Medical Center, Gerald Hines Interests, and an energy firm making deals with PG&E — the type of work that's raised continual questions about his potential for conflicts of interest. But he's also won state funding for AIDS research at San Francisco General Hospital, a national first; he's supported local gay candidates; and he's raised millions to keep Democrats in Sacramento.

How to choose, how to choose?
I decide to go to Castro Street to conduct my own private poll.
“I'm for Roberta,” says the first woman I see. “I've seen Brown speak, and I've yet to see him give a straight answer to a question.”

“I guess I'm for Jordan,” says a business owner. “I asked Achtenberg once about how she stood on the disabled issue and told her how people have to pay $14,000 for ramps that no one uses, and she just absolutely shut me down. Totally brusque,” he says.

But why Jordan?
“Better to vote for someone who doesn't do anything than vote for someone who does things and screws it all up,” he says.

A man behind the counter of a coffee shop says he can't say who he's for — his boss would get mad. “Can you do sign language?” I ask. He points to a brownie.

“I think people who fault Roberta's style are just sexist,” says Kathy Kensinger, next up. “I mean, look at how people tear into Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton every time they get their hair cut,” she says. “I mean, you never read something like 'The president, who was wearing blue, announced at the White House today.' ”

But Kensinger isn't definite yet about her allegiance.
“To have a first black mayor, or a first lesbian mayor,” she says. “The choices are both so good!”

She ponders this as her bus pulls up and nearly shaves off her nose.
“Maybe we should elect both of them,” she says. “Maybe we should have co-mayors.”

Aug. 8. Time can be circular; flashbacks shed light on the present. Or future.

And so it is again a balmy night with a peach aureole sunset at a Noe Valley Democratic club forum. The candidates sit onstage, tapping their feet, waiting for the debate to begin. One can almost imagine Jordan singing, “I'm going to wash those bums right out of my hair.”

And two fresh-faced, impassioned young voters — as if some directorial presence hovered under the seats giving cues, as if Walt Disney were still alive and trying his hand at political heartwarmers — stand up and produce a Hollywood ending.

The man is African-American. She is white. They face the crowd filing down the gently sloped aisles of the school auditorium, the voices pinging off the walls, the hacks giving hugs, the press fluttering, the consultants straightening their ties, the Achtenberg crew grinning through their exhaustion, the devoted waving cardboard candidate signs from along the walls and balcony.

The man stands up and holds aloft his “Willie Brown for Mayor” sign. The woman laughs, rises to her feet next to him, and shoves her “Achtenberg for Mayor” sign in front of his. The man shoves his sign back in front of hers, she nudges his aside, he flashes hers aside, and they keep at it, like dueling banjos from the movie Deliverance, though this is dueling placards — or dueling symbols. It is male vs. female, black vs. white — two people, like Achtenberg and Brown, sharing the same political row in life who have nevertheless faced off, determined to put their names out in front.

Achtenberg sits onstage, her gray bangs slightly parted, her smile hesitant. She surveys the crowd and nods to herself now and then. She is pumped for the battle of her life.

And the perfect-ending man and woman have their backs to her, at the moment. They keep up their cardboard flashing routine, then start to tire, smile broadly, giggle, drop their signs to their sides. The dueling isn't something they want to do all night. They toss the signs down. They drop into a warm, lingering hug.

And the debate begins.

View Comments