San Francisco—long a center of counterculture and tolerance—seems the perfect home for Gus Armstrong, a man with a small and wayward cause. A security guard by trade, Armstrong has for the last month taken up the banner for a minority among minorities. Just last Wednesday, Armstrong paced along the concrete island divider separating traffic on Van Ness Avenue off Market Street. He looked like an aging lounge singer version of Pete Seeger: a man with a mission in an oversized white tuxedo jacket worn over a white t-shirt, baggy black slacks, and white Adidas sneakers, topped with a pair of aviator sunglasses. In a way Armstrong was a protester, walking the island divider, in the middle of the swirl of cars and buses and pedestrians, in the heart of Obama country, holding a blue sign with the bold white words “McCain/Palin.”
San Francisco County is as blue as a $5 basket of organic, locally grown, antioxidant, rich blueberries. Registered Democrats outflank Republicans by nearly 6 to 1, according to the California Secretary of State. The Field Poll for the last half of October had Senator Obama ahead of Senator 55 percentage points to 33, with the odds likely greater in San Francisco. Armstrong is a David to this sizable Goliath when he hits the streets of San Francisco with his McCain/Palin signs and stickers. He champions a candidate that few will tolerate. Armstrong says drivers have yelled out that he is in the wrong city. They couldn’t be more mistaken.
Now Armstrong, 46, isn’t some poet like Ginsburg or an organizer like Bowen. He can’t quite explain why he puts himself out there with such overwhelming odds. He mumbles something about God and how everyone at his church is a Republican. But he also alludes to a sense of the democracy of ideas. The Democrats have their way in San Francisco, and here the Republicans are underdogs. “If you go restaurant and eat chicken all the time, get a different menu. That’s what I’m feeling right now. Get other people’s perspective. Give them a choice, not just have everybody eat chicken. Get a little variety.”
An immigrant from the Philippines, Armstrong arrived in San Francisco in 1992, and now lives in the Mission district. Formerly a Democrat who voted against President Bush in previous elections, Armstrong switched sides when, after years of drinking and gambling, he became an Evangelical Christian in 2006. In October he picked up signs and stickers from the offices of Leo Lacayo, a prominent San Francisco Republican, and hit the streets.
Armstrong talks about campaigning for “high profile people,” which I assume means the rich. He has an odd way of finding them. Valencia and 16th Street’s clubs and restaurants make it a better nighttime campaign zone, Armstrong said, where the drunken pedestrians tease but don’t bother him. The best hour to catch people between 3rd and Drumm Street is lunchtime and before work. They like to ask if he is paid to be out there. Armstrong hands out about 20 stickers and signs each time out. His reward is often impolite signifiers. “You get birdies,” Armstrong said, referring to the rude hand gesture. “You just have to accept it. You don’t argue. You just wave and say thank you.” Some people just tell him to shut up and go home.
The warmest response came at Lombard and Fillmore. Drivers gave him thumbs up and pedestrians want more signs while saying Armstrong is the first McCain campaigner they’ve seen on their streets. Church and Market proved less hospitable. “A lot of people there are really into politics,” Armstrong said. “They know more than I do. I can’t answer some of the questions they ask me. I just tell them I’ll get back to them.”
When questioned about his cause Armstrong becomes as vague as an Alaskan governor. He knows McCain is a veteran but little else. And don’t even ask about the vice presidential candidate. “I don’t really know much about Sarah,” he said. “I probably need to study some more and get back to you.”
I spent a few moments with Armstrong that one afternoon on Van Ness Avenue. Most pedestrians and drivers ignored him. A white-haired woman asked for a sign and a couple of stickers, which said “Veterans for McCain,” as did an Asian American female with a “No on Prop 8” button on her backpack. I can’t tell if they are serious or just want stickers to laugh at with their friends. Armstrong has had this same problem. Half of a “McCain/Palin” sign lay on the concrete, ripped in two by a passerby, said Armstrong. So now he gives out paraphernalia when asked or when he sees a thumbs-up. “But I don’t push it, like I’m selling Giants tickets.” In a jacket a few sizes to big, Armstrong looks much smaller than his 5’6” height. But there he was, in the middle of traffic, few blocks away from City Hall, stalking the concrete divider with his arms raised high, his “McCain/Palin” sign visible for all to see.