Of Privilege and Persistence
So, Mayor Willie Brown has appointed his new supe: Gavin Newsom, a 29-year-old, straight, white guy whose sensibilities proceed from the homogenous Cow Hollow neighborhood, where he owns a restaurant with the Pelosi (read Congresswoman Nancy) and Getty (oil money) families. For a certain segment of the electorate, the appointment only will make more stark the rhetorical importance of one veteran member of the Board of Supervisors.
That would be Tom Ammiano, the son of working-class Italian-American parents from Newark, N.J., a guy who was “in utero” queer and had to defend himself in the schoolyard from day one. As a result of those roots, Ammiano has emerged as the biggest risk-taker and boat-rocker on the board. It's easy to take issue with some of Ammiano's decisions — his unquestioning support of irresponsible pot merchant Dennis Peron, for one — but he doesn't hail from the world of yuppie sophisticates.
Contrasting Ammiano with Newsom isn't gratuitous. And their cultural differences don't mean the two men won't get along. But, as politicians, they represent diametrically opposed worldviews.
With Newsom's ascension coming close on the heels of the November election of the unabashedly pro-business Barbara Kaufman as board president, Ammiano's role as archliberal (he'd say progressive) standard-bearer has become more important. Paradoxically, after his first two years in office, Ammiano finds himself isolated on the relatively powerless Rules Committee (thanks to Kaufman). He's also become unpopular with corporate San Francisco, more moderate board colleagues, and the editorial writers at both daily papers.
This set of circumstances, which could hinder his re-election in 1998, has not gone unnoticed by the first-term supe. On the other hand, he's steeled to adversity.
“In the early '80s I was openly gay, doing stand-up in straight clubs, many times with the motor running outside fearing for my life,” he says sitting in his temporary offices at the War Memorial building. “So I learned to be tough. And you can use that toughness [at City Hall].”
Indeed, in the milquetoast era of the permanent campaign, with pols shaping every decision on a desire to avoid angering interest groups, Ammiano has gone in the opposite direction; he's seemingly compelled to piss off precisely those people who have the power to drive him from office when he runs for re-election in 1998.
Mere weeks after taking office in 1995, Ammiano introduced the most ambitious array of progressive taxes in a decade. He had his hat handed to him. And now corporate leaders hope to bump him from the board in the 1998 supes race by recruiting and funding a moderate, business-friendly gay man as an alternative. (Kaufman's isolation of Ammiano may well have been part of that plan.)
Last year, Ammiano introduced a proposal to regulate City Hall lobbying by campaign consultants. In the process, he angered the most powerful consultants.
But Ammiano says winning isn't everything. By confronting his fellow supes with the tough issues, he says he is broadening the boundaries of the debate. “I've given people a lot to think about if nothing else,” he says. “I like being in a position of setting a tone.”
While other supervisors coast with easy issues (Mabel Teng's long-winded introduction of several bills to improve street lighting comes to mind) or suddenly waffle on difficult issues (Michael Yaki's abandonment of legislation to restrict landlord move-ins on tenants is a ringing example), Ammiano sinks his teeth into weighty policies and refuses to let go.
In 1995, he sponsored Proposition G, a ballot measure to increase funding and staffing for the Office of Citizen Complaints, the civilian police watchdog agency and a longtime orphan of city government. Every month, Ammiano still meets with community activists and discusses ways to improve the police discipline system. And in the coming year, Ammiano plans to hold hearings and propose legislation that will increase the powers of the OCC and reform further the police discipline process.
Among his nascent ideas: public hearings into officer-involved shootings. (Count on the police union joining corporations and consultants in their anti-Ammiano crusade in '98.) This year Ammiano also plans to bring back his lobbyist regulation bill, dubbed the Honest Elections Ordinance. And if the board rebuffs him again, he says he'll put it on the ballot.
If he accumulates powerful enemies along the way, Ammiano doesn't seem to mind: “I'll stick to my guns in terms of who I am and let the voters decide.” When those voters do decide, it will send a clear signal as to the comparative appeal of Ammiano's candor and progressive legislating — some of which are long on laudable motives and short on execution — or the status quo orientation Brown augmented with his latest appointment.
After years of failed attempts, the San Francisco Democratic Central Committee is finally preparing to adopt affirmative action guidelines for the political consulting contracts it gives out. In February, a policy modeled after the city's affirmative action law will be adopted (though we can only hope it won't be as feebly enforced as the city's [see “Affirmative Action Derailed” on Page 12]). The policy would give minorities and women a leg up when bidding on contracts to produce campaign mail and the committee's slate card of election endorsements.
Ever since the days when Assemblywoman Carole Migden was committee chair in the late '80s and early '90s, committee members have fought for the policy. But the consultants who got the contracts through back-scratching and cronyism always helped defeat the measure.
One reason for the breakthrough this year is that since the California Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the committee can make endorsements in nonpartisan races — for years a lawsuit prevented endorsements — the slate card and campaign mail business has become more lucrative. (Before, the consultants were limited to working on mail for partisan races.)
With a bigger pie, the generosity of entrenched consultants has increased a bit. And the appetite of contenders has increased a lot.
Another reason for the heightened popularity of affirmative action? While committee members could quietly oppose the measure in the past, passage of Prop. 209 has made that position untenable in 1997.