Sleepless election officials were at wits' end. Nearly two days had passed since the polls closed, and still no one knew the results of the Nov. 2 election. Although dismissed as inconsequential by political pundits, the last-minute write-in campaign by Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano had overwhelmed San Francisco's antiquated vote-counting process. Daunting piles of write-in ballots had to be sorted, counted by hand, then verified.
The suspense was maddening by late Thursday afternoon, Nov. 4. A mob of reporters and Ammiano supporters gathered in the North Light Court at City Hall for the latest update, ready to crash the gates and count ballots themselves if necessary. A bleary-eyed Naomi Nishioka, acting director of the city's Department of Elections, made her way to the podium to read the latest, almost final, results to a breathless crowd.
“Willie L. Brown Jr. — 67,912 or 38.7 percent,” Nishioka announced, reading down the list in a monotone voice. “Tom Ammiano — 44,539 or 25.7 percent …”
Boisterous cheers broke the suspenseful silence. Ammiano and Brown were headed for a runoff. As chaos erupted, Ammiano strode into the center of it all, electrified by a glare of television lights and the din of his admirers. Making his way through the massive, pulsing crowd like a rock star taking the stage or a religious crusader heading for the pulpit, Ammiano greeted his supporters, calling their efforts “the mother of all grass-roots campaigns.”
Ammiano's defiant candidacy had awakened San Francisco's politically disenfranchised like never before. A class of outsiders, led by their favorite teacher, had excelled beyond anyone's wildest expectations. “Win Tom, Win!” chanted the hundreds of Ammiano supporters, who only weeks before had been begging their candidate to “Run Tom, Run!” To the jumble of young and middle-aged, frustrated, financially struggling voters who felt shut out of City Hall by the wealthy and popular “in crowd,” Ammiano was more than a candidate. He was a cause.
The gutsy, political underdog role is not new for the 56-year-old Ammiano. A former special education teacher, he effectively outed himself by forming a gay teachers organization in the mid-1970s. After losing twice, he won a seat on the Board of Education in 1990, and then became president. In 1994, he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors and, last year, was elected that board's president.
He was a reluctant candidate for mayor, initially declining to be on the ballot, but finally entering the race as a registered “write-in.” In short order, the movement caught fire, and propelled Ammiano into the national spotlight. Now, he faces a Dec. 14 runoff against one of the most formidable political forces in California history, an incumbent mayor so brash that he declared it would be a good thing for San Francisco if no one challenged his bid for a second term.
An Ammiano victory, if it comes, will be a momentous repudiation, an unparalleled citizen revolt against the Brown political machine, which has held City Hall tightly for four years. Business as usual will likely end for the political economy that rotates around the mayor.
But to win, Ammiano must marshal even greater forces, and expand his appeal to new voters. Therein lies this odd campaign's greatest challenge: how to win the race without betraying the movement that brought Ammiano this far; how to tap the haphazard political passion that his campaign has shown is still alive and well in San Francisco.
One morning last spring, Robert Haaland and Jerry Threat were on the phone lamenting what had become a recurring theme in their circles. The mayoral election was shaping up to be a race between dismal candidates. Haaland, who works for the San Francisco Tenants Union (SFTU), was particularly familiar with the housing crisis afflicting the city. Threat also has been an activist, here and in his former home of Austin, Texas.
The more the two talked, the more obvious it seemed that the perfect candidate was Tom Ammiano — a progressive ideologue who'd just been elected president of the Board of Supervisors and who had been friendlier to tenants than any other politician at City Hall. Neither reformer had any keen sense that this was the birth of a historic draft movement that might change the city forever. It was just wishful thinking.
Haaland and another activist friend, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, first floated the idea in an opinion piece for the SFTU's Tenant Times titled “Run Tom, Run.” No one had bothered to ask Ammiano what he thought, but whether he knew it or not, his name was in play. Haaland and Threat began to do what they know best: collecting signatures, this time on a petition drafting Ammiano to run for mayor.
San Francisco has its own informal public address system, centered at certain intersections, where news of the day is delivered through word of mouth, news vendors, and political canvassers. So, on various weekend days throughout the spring, Haaland, Threat, and a handful of others took their petitions to the corners of 18th and Castro streets, Ninth and Irving streets in the Inner Sunset, Dolores Park, and the Upper Haight. They showed up at performances of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and rallies supporting convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Finally, they took the petition to meetings of the Harvey Milk Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Club, where Haaland and Threat are members (as are a fair number of Brown's supporters).
The first time Threat ever met Ammiano, in fact, was on the way to one of the Milk club events. Threat introduced himself to the man he was trying to enlist for the mayoral race. Ammiano had gotten wind of what was happening, but remained decidedly coy.
“He shook my hand and said something like, 'Oh, you've been very busy, haven't you?'” remembers Threat.
In the absence of a definitive “no” from Ammiano, the pair continued to collect signatures and pass out buttons reading “Run Tom, Run.” It was an odd situation, to be sure. When people asked if Ammiano was really going to run, the petitioners had to explain that they didn't know. But the buttons went like hotcakes. Even people who thought the petitions were silly liked the buttons. “Some people gave us money, even though we didn't ask for it,” Threat remembers. [page]
Others were more patronizing.
“People thought, 'Oh, isn't that cute. Look what they're doing,'” Haaland remembers. “I think Tom kind of thought it was cute too.”
The fledgling movement encountered numerous people who said they liked the idea of an Ammiano for Mayor campaign, says Haaland, but feared writing down their names. Most worked for the City and County of San Francisco, or for organizations that do business with it, and did not want to risk Willie Brown's wrath.
“The fact that all these people live in fear — that's machine politics,” Haaland says. In late May, Ammiano held a fund-raiser to retire his campaign debt from his 1998 supervisors race. Haaland showed up with his petitions and buttons, eliciting a combination of interest and unease. A lot of folks who helped Ammiano win the board presidency, also supported Brown. They were not sure where this “Run Tom, Run” thing was going. “I saw high-ranking bureaucrats looking around and then sneaking a button off the table,” Haaland remembers.
Ammiano and his entourage make their way through Chinatown to campaign.
At some point, the draft Ammiano movement achieved something that candidates pay huge money for: “buzz.” People were asking Ammiano about a run. The press was including Ammiano in its lists of potential candidates. “Run Tom, Run” had been burned into local pop culture, as was evident at the Gay Pride Parade on June 27. Ammiano was in the parade, as is tradition. Along the route, people were wearing “Run Tom, Run” buttons. A shirtless man had painted the slogan on his chest. People began chanting, “Run Tom, Run,” as Ammiano passed.
Brown heard the buzz, and was none too pleased. Nor were his supporters.
A month after the parade, Ammiano received a phone call from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime Brown ally, asking Ammiano not to run for mayor. Jackson was a strategic choice. Both Brown and Ammiano have supported Jackson for years, even working on Jackson's presidential campaigns. Jackson was a special guest when Brown was sworn in as mayor.
But locally, the pressure on Ammiano mounted. The race was shaping up as a fight among Brown, political consultant Clint Reilly, and former Mayor Frank Jordan. And it was bound to get ugly. Reilly would try to buy his way into City Hall with a $4 million campaign. Brown, too, had amassed a big war chest, and had been muscling labor and the city's political clubs for endorsements since mid-1998, mostly to scare off would-be challengers.
With only a few months left before the election, polls showed unusually large numbers of “undecided” voters. It seemed as though a quarter of the city had no interest in anyone offering to lead it.
In late summer, Ammiano called meetings with about 15 people. Some, like Esther Marks and Ray Vitale, had worked on his previous campaigns. Some were neighborhood activists like Aaron Peskin and Gerri Crowley. Others were Milk club members, community organizers like Giuliana Milanese, and, of course, Haaland, who had been promoting the “Run Tom, Run” campaign. He and his fellow petitioners had collected nearly 3,000 signatures encouraging Ammiano to enter the race.
The group had three potluck dinners at different homes, including Ammiano's. Many of these people had never met each other. Most wanted Ammiano to run, but some weren't sure. At each dinner, the group discussed the pros and cons, reviewed the numbers and geography of Ammiano votes in previous elections, and discussed the money Ammiano didn't have, and how much he might get. They debated the retribution that would surely come from Brown supporters at the end of an unsuccessful campaign. And, frankly, they talked about how much a potential loss might hurt Ammiano's political future.
“It was actually a very frank discussion,” recalls Peskin, a neighborhood preservation activist. “I was really quite moved by listening to how much these people knew about the issues and cared about him [Ammiano].”
At the first dinner, Ammiano took it all in but gave little indication what he might do. By the third, however, things seemed different. At least three people left that last potluck convinced that Ammiano was about to announce his candidacy.
And then, he didn't.
Instead, during the first week of August, only days before the legal deadline for registering as a candidate, Ammiano called Haaland to say he had decided not to run. The time didn't seem right, and Brown and Reilly had so much money. Ammiano said he would rather continue pushing his pet issues on the board. Haaland was devastated.
The news was relayed over phone wires throughout San Francisco, as Ammiano called Threat, Peskin, and others, thanking each for his or her support, and explaining that he didn't think his candidacy for mayor was a good idea.
“A lot of the time for the candidate, it has to be on your terms, too,” Ammiano says, in retrospect. “You have to sort out who you are, your personal life, your personal goals, and the idea of being mayor — particularly having to work under Brown and his six appointees [if the challenge failed].”
Ammiano invited some of the potluck advisers out to dinner to thank them. “Everyone put on a good face,” says Haaland. “We said, 'This is your life and you have to make choices.' But the deflation level was amazing.”
After months of hope, the “Run Tom, Run” campaign was over. Meanwhile, the nasty fights among Brown, Reilly, and Jordan were repelling voters. [page]
Sometime in September, Hank Wilson started thinking about politics, and street fairs.
A former classroom teacher, Wilson has known Tom Ammiano since they founded the Gay Teachers Coalition together to fight discrimination in the mid-1970s. “I was watching the news, watching the polls with large numbers of people being undecided,” Wilson remembers. “And I watched the headlines with different problems of the Brown administration.”
A steady drumbeat of news stories trumpeted FBI investigations and conflict-of-interest questions that made Brown's machine increasingly unpalatable. Meanwhile, Wilson knew that the end of summer always brings with it some of the city's largest street fairs, including the Folsom and Castro street fairs, which draw more than 250,000 people and might be a perfect place to test the political waters.
By this time, of course, the deadline had passed for Ammiano to appear on the ballot as a candidate. But the deadline for registering as a write-in candidate was still on the horizon. Without Ammiano's official imprimatur, Wilson spawned a second draft movement.
He registered for booth space at both street fairs so he could try to collect signatures for a campaign to write in Ammiano for mayor. Wilson told Ammiano what he was up to, but didn't ask for permission. “I called him and started leaving a voice mail about that I wanted to do the street fairs,” recalls Wilson. “He picked up and we talked. I told him that I thought he had potential for volunteers and I thought that was worth a million dollars. I told him I was going to do the booths whether he decided to run or not.”
Except for a handful of friends who kept him company at the street fairs, Wilson was alone in his quest. Haaland and Threat did not join him, nor did any of the others associated with the earlier, “Run Tom, Run” effort. “I wasn't going to discourage Hank, but I'd just invested months of time for something that didn't happen,” says Haaland, echoing the letdown of other “Run Tom, Run” organizers.
The Folsom Street Fair was held on Sept. 27, a drizzly Sunday that, despite the weather, brought out thousands of people. Wilson was there with his booth. The would-be candidate was master of ceremonies for one of the shows. He passed by the booth and waved, but did not linger.
The reaction was mixed. Some took it seriously, some didn't. A lot of people were angry at Ammiano for not just running in the first place, and wouldn't put their names down to volunteer again.
A man of tall stature and kind voice, Wilson was struck by the people who seemed drawn to his cause. “The diversity of people who come up is always interesting to me,” he says. “I had a husband and wife — an older Filipino couple, a couple of African-American young people, a single mother with her baby in a stroller, a young married couple with a child, worried that they were not going to be able to stay in San Francisco.”
At the end of the day Wilson had collected about 100 signatures. He left a message for Ammiano letting him know how it went. But they didn't talk.
The next week, Wilson manned his booth at the Castro Street Fair, encountering the same mixture of hope, dismay, excitement, and anger. Again, he collected about 100 names. And, again, Wilson left Ammiano a message about the outcome.
Meanwhile, the election was in full swing. While Brown, Jordan, and Reilly slung mud, polls continued to show large numbers of undecided voters. None of the big three candidates drew more than 50 percent support. Brown had a clear lead, but with only 37 percent of the vote.
And people still constantly seemed to be talking about Tom Ammiano.
Friends and strangers alike availed themselves of the Internet, sending e-mail messages to Ammiano about a possible run. Some called his Board of Supervisors office. Politicos and others who knew Ammiano stopped him in the hallways, and on the streets.
“At some point, I remember seeing Tom at City Hall,” recalls one Ammiano supporter. “I was [teasing] him, giving him a hard time about not running. He got very serious and said, 'I know a lot of people are angry and hurt, but I felt it was the right thing to do.' I actually felt kinda bad for him.”
What began as curiosity evolved into serious hounding, as Ammiano continued to push his pet issues on the ballot — ATM fees, the Central Freeway, Muni oversight, and the Sunshine Ordinance.
One political insider recalls the scene at a fund-raiser for one of the propositions in early October: “People kept coming up to Tom and saying, 'You have to put your name in the ring.' Tom kept saying, 'Thank you, that's very flattering,' and stuff like that. I remember looking over and thinking, 'Poor bastard.'”
As the deadline for filing a write-in candidacy approached in October, Wilson called Ammiano with another not-so-subtle attempt at persuasion. “I just told him, 'Just in case you are thinking about this and decided to exercise that option, know that the absentee ballots are coming out today and people need to know.'”
Wilson wasn't alone. In the week before the write-in deadline, Ammiano spoke to a handful of advisers, campaign strategists, and longtime political activists, including David Spero, who runs a business collecting petition signatures, and, of course, Esther Marks, who ran Ammiano's successful supervisorial campaigns.
“I didn't really know if it would produce or not produce,” Ammiano says of the write-in. “But it certainly was in the back of my mind as something that might come in handy if things really got bad.”
And they did get bad. Brown was not budging on neighborhood issues, and Ammiano felt that the mayor was stalling one of Ammiano's political babies, an $11 minimum wage requirement for city contractors. [page]
From the beginning, the mayoral campaign embodied a theme throughout the city: rage against the machine.
Machine politics is certainly not new to San Francisco, existing in one form or another as far back as anyone can remember. Elected leaders have come and gone based, in part, on the city's ability to stomach their quid pro quo relationships.
But things changed a few years ago. The New Economy came, and brought with it a financial boom, turning out millionaires and bringing new business to the city as if gold had been rediscovered. About the same time, Brown, king of the deal and veteran leader of a well-crafted Democratic Party megamachine, returned from Sacramento to become mayor.
“San Franciscans may have been shocked in the latter years of Brown's first term to learn about insider development deals that benefited his chums or giveaways to city unions, but nobody who knew him as speaker of the Assembly was the least bit surprised,” observes Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters. “As mayor, Brown was simply operating as he had done in Sacramento.”
Indeed, Statehouse lobbyists followed Brown to the city. True to form, Brown brokered deals for his business and developer friends. Some speculated that Brown figured he had a lock on the left, and so was free to court downtown business interests like the Committee on Jobs.
Hank Wilson pushed the idea of a write-in candidacy, while Esther Marks would have preferred a more traditional campaign. Together they're leading Ammiano's runoff campaign.
Meanwhile, housing prices soared into the stratosphere, homeless people continued to huddle in the streets, and the public transportation system that Brown boasted he would fix remained broken. Big business forever changed old neighborhoods — some of which were, frankly, decaying — without regard for the people who make their home there. Increasing numbers of folks, from both the progressive and conservative ends of the city, started to feel they were not welcome at City Hall. The clique of popular kids, it seemed, was running San Francisco. Everyone else was somehow an outsider.
There were plenty of signs that Brown and his crowd at City Hall had gotten too big for their britches. Even his early, heavy-handed efforts to squelch competition bred some of the animosity that would come back to bite him in the general election.
One watershed came when longtime political activist Jane Morrison challenged incumbent Natalie Berg for the position of chair of the Democratic Central Committee. Morrison's supporters saw her as a reform candidate for the city's most influential political club, and her supporters included heavy hitters like the San Francisco Labor Council, the Milk club, and some Asian political leaders.
But the mayor wanted Berg to continue running the organization, and flexed his political muscle to make that happen. Berg represents Forest City Enterprises, developer of the Bloomingdale's store project on Market Street (Berg's brother-in-law is co-chairman of Forest City in Cleveland), and serves on the Community College Board of Trustees.
After a hostile debate among committee members — including those representing state and local elected officials — Berg won by a narrow vote of 16-15. Almost immediately, the vote was challenged in court, when critics alleged malfeasance. A Superior Court Judge first nullified the results and then ordered the committee to hold another election. It produced the same result, with Berg elected chair.
The committee issued an early endorsement of Brown for a second term, and set about raising money to pay for things like campaign literature promoting the mayor — the committee raised more than $400,000 in soft money contributions by Election Day. The move left a bad taste in the mouths of many would-be Brown supporters.
As the year wore on, the taste only got worse.
Toward the end of the summer in 1998, Brown asked the San Francisco Labor Council for an unheard-of early endorsement for his re-election. Tension at the council's meeting was tremendous, according to those present for what was, again, a contentious vote.
Under pressure from Brown, labor leaders moved forward with the endorsement vote despite objections from some representatives who said they wanted to discuss the matter with their own union members first. A growing number of people felt as if they were being strong-armed into supporting the machine, and they didn't like it. But Brown won the endorsement.
By summer of 1999, nearly every Democratic club in the city had endorsed Brown, except the Milk club. When that club voted in August, Brown failed to win its backing. The mayor received only 35 percent (60 percent is required for an endorsement), a clear vote of no confidence from the left side of San Francisco.
At the same time, newspapers — including SF Weekly — continued to break stories on the Brown administration's back-room deals and corrupt contracting. Not surprisingly, people in the business of collecting petition signatures for one reason or another — many of whom supported Ammiano early on — heard a theme develop on the streets: People were disgusted with City Hall.
And, when pushed too far, San Francisco always seems to snap back. Look no further than Ammiano's late political mentor, Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay supervisor. When the popular kids were running San Francisco in the 1970s, Milk led the outsiders to City Hall. His political campaigns started around 18th and Castro streets, and his gay voter base (gay leaders committed to the Democratic political machine at the time were not among them) grew to include progressives concerned about housing and social justice issues.
Not coincidentally, Hank Wilson, and a handful of others now drawn to Ammiano, also worked on Milk's campaigns. Many would argue that the city hasn't seen a truly progressive leader since Milk and his ally, former Mayor George Moscone, were assassinated in November 1978 (Harry Britt and Nancy Walker notwithstanding). At least not one who could be elected mayor. [page]
Ammiano has increasingly become viewed as the savior of the progressive movement, the next to carry the torch. He seems to like the comparison to Milk.
“A lot of people keep remarking that Harvey would love this. He gets brought up a lot,” Ammiano says. “I can see why they see him in me. Because I knew him when he was starting out and the gay establishment was against him, and he was made fun of, and I knew all that underdog stuff about him — and he did prevail, even with his shortcomings.”
And Ammiano has seen his own rough political times. Despite his overwhelming showing that won the board presidency, Ammiano has constantly battled the Brown-appointed supervisors who make up the majority of the board.
“They treat him like shit at the Board of Supervisors,” observes one City Hall insider who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “They all gang up on him. It's like a fraternity house gone awry. It's like your worst moments in high school, this clique run by the mayor.”
Hank Wilson crossed paths with Tom Ammiano on Monday, Oct. 11. Ammiano, on his way to an appointment, quickly, and matter-of-factly, told Wilson, “I'm going to do it on Wednesday,” and went on his way.
Wilson smiled to himself and kept walking.
Robert Haaland got the phone call from Esther Marks, and then he called Jerry Threat and Tommi Avicolli Mecca. “I remember Robert called me the day he was going to declare and said, 'Tom's going to announce and I'm going to file papers. I thought you might want to come with me,'” Threat says.
Threat wasn't sure he believed it. And, he wasn't sure how he felt about jumping into another campaign, until he got to Ammiano's office, and saw that, this time, the supervisor was serious. Ammiano had come to believe that a write-in campaign might spur some enthusiasm in the progressive left, and that couldn't hurt.
Ammiano was visibly nervous in his first debate with the mayor, but warmed up as the campaign unfolded.
“Certainly, the tenacity of the 'Run Tom, Run' had an effect,” Ammiano says. “Because in the beginning it was interesting, it was flattering, and it gave me fuel for some of the battles we were doing. But then it really started to penetrate my thinking about, 'Gee, maybe that's something I could do.'”
There was a quick meeting, and, with little fanfare, Ammiano signed papers that officially made him a write-in candidate. Legally, it meant that any write-in votes Ammiano received would be officially counted, instead of ignored the way most write-in ballots are.
Haaland and Threat filed the papers at the Department of Elections. Marks started strategizing. Everyone made phone calls to people, who called other people. Word spread like wildfire. However, it wasn't all positive.
“I was a naysayer,” says Peskin, who remains a supporter. “I thought, 'Oh no, what an idea. This is like political suicide.' I thought, 'Hey, I've been voting for a couple decades and don't even know how to write in a candidate. This is going to be really bad for him.'”
By Saturday morning, Oct. 16, a kickoff was planned at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. Avicolli Mecca arrived early to sweep the leaves off the patio. He remembers wondering if anyone else would show up.
They did. By noon there were about 40 to 50 people, all learning how to write in Ammiano's name on a ballot, ready to go out and teach the masses. A small but committed force, they left armed with fliers that demonstrated the legally correct way to write a candidate onto the ballot, and three words in large type: “Write Tom In.”
Ammiano's campaign immediately tapped into the network of social activism that runs through San Francisco like Muni cables, regardless of the economy or who's in power. Most of Ammiano's early and key supporters were already players in that network, activists who can connect huge numbers of people at the drop of a hat. For instance, Wilson is a member of ACT UP Golden Gate, whose members jumped into action for Ammiano. Giuliana Milanese is a professional community organizer, currently for the California Nurses Association. Eileen Hanson, another longtime Ammiano supporter, is director of public policy for the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. Jeff Sheehy, who also jumped on board, is a leader of the Milk club, and veteran of all sorts of campaigns. Haaland organized tenants in droves last year for Proposition G, which toughened eviction restrictions.
Whether or not he realized it, this was Willie Brown's worst nightmare. Phones were ringing all over town. Highly motivated people were walking the streets. Within days, there were fliers tacked across San Francisco, and a handful of people like Haaland, Milanese, and Hanson took leaves of absence from their jobs to campaign full time. Moreover, they were armed with thousands of names and phone numbers of people who had supported the “Run Tom, Run” campaign.
Within a week, the Ammiano for Mayor campaign had set up shop inside Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint on 16th and Market streets, which seemed to make a lot of sense. Ammiano has performed stand-up comedy routines at the cabaret for years, and the place is strategically located on a major thoroughfare at the edge of the Castro. Proprietor Ron Lanza offered the space for free, provided the volunteers packed up every night before the 7 p.m. show. (Later, the campaign got the place for itself and started paying rent after the general election.) [page]
News coverage of Ammiano's write-in campaign also helped the idea catch fire. On Oct. 20, the Bay Guardian trumpeted Ammiano's candidacy with the headline: “See Tom run, at last.” The same day, SF Weekly Editor John Mecklin's column titled “Ammiano's Surprise, and Promise” advised voters to write in Ammiano's name.
The following week, some 150 people turned up for a “mobilization” to get the word out. The idea of writing in Ammiano appealed particularly to the young. It was defiant. A form of protest. The campaign quickly took on a life of its own.
One of the best campaign moves occurred spontaneously, when someone showed up with homemade, bright orange stickers bearing the slogan: “I'm a Tom boy.” Soon, the stickers were seemingly everywhere.
Transportation activist Michael Smith, who has built Web sites for the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations in which he's involved, called the Ammiano headquarters and offered to build a Web site. Within 24 hours, the site was up and running with a one-page instruction sheet on how to write in Ammiano's name. It grew from there, as Smith gathered information and continued to update the site.
A couple of weeks before the election, Web surfers could download “Write In Tom” campaign posters and fliers, make copies, and distribute them without ever having to talk to anyone. This was also key to quickly moving the write-in campaign — people took off on their own with it.
“For the first time in about 22 years, I had made a conscious decision to sit out an election and not vote,” recalls Dan Cusick, who has devoted the past month of his life to Ammiano's campaign. “I heard about the write-in campaign on the news. And I thought, 'You know what, I've got to do this.'”
Cusick hit the streets. A week later, he walked into Josie's, predicted that Ammiano would be in the runoff, and began the habit of literally wearing a pair of rose-colored glasses.
Pundits and politicos dismissed the write-in campaign as a blip on the radar screen, and concentrated on the debates among Brown, Reilly, and Jordan. Meanwhile, a number of things were evident about the write-in movement: Ammiano's campaign seemed to constantly run out of fliers and supplies. Droves of new people streamed in and out of Josie's. Random citizens cheered campaign volunteers on the streets. By about a week before the election, Ammiano's campaign was most certainly more than a blip. It was, among other things, a revolt against a housing crisis.
“Even people who haven't had problems [with eviction or rent increases] know someone who has,” observes Haaland.
The Election Day strategy was simple: pens.
Campaign workers darned near cleaned out the office supply stores. Ammiano campaign workers were outside the polling places offering pens and reminding citizens how to write in Ammiano. Inside, the campaign had negotiated an agreement with the Department of Elections to have monitors watching the votes.
As the polls began to close, monitors called in their informal counts to Josie's. The cabaret filled with excitement. The campaign sensed what the rest of San Francisco would wait days to learn from the official count: Ammiano was in the runoff.
However, no one, including Ammiano, expected that 48,500 people would actually write his name on the ballot. Progressive politics in San Francisco had, once again, made history. Yet, an exhausted Ammiano camp had only made the playoffs. A whole new mayor's race was about to begin.
One of the signs adorning the walls at Josie's Juice Joint is a banner for the Milk club, which normally holds its meetings there. While the gay and lesbian democratic club endorses Ammiano, some of its members are staunch Brown supporters.
The club's November meeting, the first since the general election, afforded gay Brown supporters their first look inside the Ammiano camp. Some openly made fun of the operation, noting the dog hair on the floor, shed by the pets that roam through the office. The vaunted Ammiano apparatus looked sophomoric, like the war room of a student council election.
“They laughed, and held their noses up, belittling our campaign office,” says Milk club president and Ammiano supporter Criss Romero. “They were saying, 'We wouldn't do anything like that.' No, we don't all wear suits like they do, but for them, it's just an image thing. There's no pretense here. We're here to do work and not impress anyone; just get Tom Ammiano elected.”
Political consultants and pundits acknowledge that Ammiano's write-in campaign put him on the threshold of the Mayor's Office by breaking every accepted tenet of professional politics. It had no money, no television ads, no paid staff, little organization, and — – seemingly — no prospects for success. “The Monday morning quarterbackers, who were at first troubled by it, now see it in their words as brilliant,” Ammiano says of his unorthodox campaign.
From its headquarters at Josie's, amid a tumble of folding tables and homemade signs, the entire operation is makeshift. Volunteers work in a cramped little vegetarian restaurant and cabaret, with theater lights hanging overhead and stacks of pots and pans still in the kitchen. The campaign's infrastructure is seemingly built with Magic Markers and poster board. “We need data entry people and a morning kitchen queen” reads one of the signs that plaster the walls. New messages appear every day: “Be an angel — donate a cell phone/lap top for the campaign.” “Free Massage (neck/shoulders) for tired volunteers.”
Before the general election, volunteers had a simple, if daunting, task — educating voters on how to write Ammiano's name on the ballot. They could immerse themselves in the giddy surge of adrenalin that comes with guerrilla politics, and hope for the best. There was really little to lose.
But all that changed on Nov. 4, when a weary Naomi Nishioka read off the results that confirmed Ammiano's stunning showing. [page]
Suddenly, there was a lot to lose. Ammiano had just six weeks to take on Willie Brown, one on one. Magic Markers weren't going to cut it anymore. Ammiano needed an organization, and money, and someone to handle the flood of press inquiries. Voters had to be registered. Position papers hammered out. Campaign literature printed and distributed. Phone banks manned, and precincts walked. Ammiano needed a real campaign, and the setup at Josie's sure didn't look like one.
Certainly, Josie's remains the campaign's spiritual headquarters. But as Dec. 14 approaches, Ammiano has continued to build a more traditional campaign apparatus. The challenge has been keeping his core supporters while scouting for votes among the city's more conservative territories.
“We have a wide spectrum of skills and interests; I like to think of it as a volunteer buffet,” says Hank Wilson, who continues to serve as a key organizer for the runoff campaign.
The buffet includes a large gay contingent for sure. But the number of straights over 50 is just as visible as transgenders under 30. Many volunteers are white, but plenty — including key campaign staffers — come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. “There are people from all walks of life on this campaign,” Romero says. “This is a San Francisco campaign, and Tom represents everyone.”
But to prove that, Ammiano must get his message out to everyone — telling voters who he is, and how he plans to run the city. He's not the stealth candidate anymore.
That's why, within days after Ammiano made it into the runoff, Esther Marks officially took charge.
Marks, who oversaw Ammiano's successful Board of Supervisors campaign last year, and helped run Art Agnos' successful underdog campaign for mayor in 1987, is a seasoned local political consultant and past president of the city's League of Women Voters. She is a hired gun, but she tends to work for politicians whose political views mesh with her own. Marks was fired by Brown as a planning commissioner when the two clashed on development issues. “My interests are planning and open government,” Marks says. “I may disagree with specific issues of Tom's, but I feel at one with him. He's a man of integrity.”
As the Ammiano campaign director, the middle-aged Marks is a bit of a den mother to the often ragtag volunteers who gather at Josie's. Always impeccably dressed — red cashmere sweater, pressed black slacks, string of pearls — she knows she stands out in the crowd. “Yeah, they're a little grungy,” she acknowledges. “But everyone is so sincere in their efforts, and a lot of professional political consultants can't emotionally appreciate how much that benefits a campaign.”
Under Marks' direction, Ammiano's campaign signed up nearly 10,000 new voters for the runoff election in the nine days before the Nov. 15 registration deadline. Marks was up to the challenge, but she is a recent convert to the cause. Initially, she says, she did not think Ammiano's write-in campaign had a chance. She would have preferred he file and run as formal candidate. “I said, 'No, it couldn't be done,' and now I see what's happened is phenomenal,” Marks says.
Ammiano has reassembled the core campaign staff of past, more traditional races, and integrated it with the unconventional grass-roots volunteers of this mayoral race. Some of the full-time campaign staffers are now paid. Though ultimately in charge, Marks rolls with the freewheeling atmosphere, and doesn't impose a strict management style.
A mostly pro-Brown crowd gets the first look at the mayor and his challenger in an early debate.
“People have the frame of reference that a manager will run things like a Clint Reilly campaign,” Marks says, alluding to the campaigns that operate with elaborate corporatelike structures and spend millions of dollars. “But with the grass-roots effort, everyone helps out. Our volunteers are the base of our strength. I want to build on that, rather than proclaim a professional campaign.”
Marks allows much of the responsibility for the campaign to remain with the original organizers, like Haaland and Wilson, the people who launched Ammiano into the runoff in the first place. They take chances, and their gut instincts have been right so far. (Haaland even tied for a win in a betting pool with Chronicle and Examiner reporters, correctly predicting that Ammiano would get 25 percent of the general election vote.)
With Marks taking over, Haaland is left in charge of field operations; he also plays a role in shaping Ammiano's message by editing campaign literature. Wilson runs the campaign office.
But the potential for clashes is great — not only between the professional and grass-roots worlds, but among the volunteers themselves. Meltdowns are neither unexpected nor unheard of.
“We're giving each other enough space to not be perfect,” says Haaland, who later ends up in a volatile, obscenity-laced shouting match with Giuliana Milanese on the sidewalk outside Josie's. Romero, standing nearby, intervenes, but later downplays the situation. “That blowup was about housing issues and tenants' rights. Not, 'You're taking my job!'” Romero says. “They were fighting about a difference in opinion about how to handle an issue, not petty stuff. The future of this city is too important for us to waste time bickering about silly things like who's running what in the campaign.”
After things cool down, Haaland shrugs off the incident as a necessary release. “Obviously, things are running on a lot of energy here, and I'll have a few more gray hairs before it's over,” he says, with a grin. “We just have to realize the stress will get to people; it will get to me tomorrow and someone else the next day. People are working really hard, and we have to be patient and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.” [page]
Despite his law degree, Haaland doesn't look the part of a potential mayor's point man. Always dressed in Levi's, work boots, sweat shirts, and an ever-present green baseball cap, the 35-year-old, chain-smoking Haaland — slightly pudgy with a boyish face — exudes a youthful and rebellious presence. He is the consummate outsider, a self-proclaimed progressive who likes to mix things up. But on the cusp of the election, charged with engineering a win and realizing what that could mean, Haaland finds the gravity of such responsibilities is sometimes at odds with his natural tendencies. The change has already manifested in how Haaland conducts himself on the campaign, which has evolved tremendously since the early days.
“It's still grass-roots, but a little more grown-up,” Haaland says. “We've had massive growing pains.”
When an eager volunteer suggests defacing the giant Brown billboard that looms over the Castro District near the Ammiano headquarters, Haaland squelches the idea, much as his heart loves it. “Usually I'm the one to do stuff like that, but now I find myself saying, 'No, that wouldn't be prudent,'” he says. “Things have gotten a lot more serious.”
Indeed, when a group unaffiliated with the campaign meets at someone's home to plan pro-Ammiano publicity stunts, a campaign representative shows up to implore the crowd — some schooled in the attention-grabbing traditions of Greenpeace and ACT UP — to keep everything positive and legal. The Ammiano campaign asks the group to obtain all necessary permits and to have its ideas approved by campaign staff before engaging in any street theater.
“There is a role for it, in the same spirit of AIDS activism in the early '80s that worked very well to educate the public about important issues,” says campaign aide Cusick, who is dispatched to the stunt meeting. “But this is a positive, issues-driven campaign, and we just want to make sure it doesn't go anywhere else.”
Three days after the general election write-in, the Ammiano campaign hired a full-time scheduler to keep track of his appearances, and a press liaison to feed reporters the day's message. The organization began taking shape, though there were some initial bugs to work out. Former Bay Guardian reporter Belinda Griswold, who volunteered to handle press during the write-in effort, had planned a weeklong Palm Springs vacation immediately following the general election. When Ammiano made the runoff, she was absent from the first week of the campaign, even as media demands reached a crescendo.
Upon Griswold's return, her learning curve was immense, but she quickly hit a stride, often returning calls on her cell phone while riding her bike to the next event. Nonetheless, there was no mercy from surly journalists. On the day Ammiano was to go to City Hall and deliver the thousands of voter registration cards his campaign had collected, Griswold sent out a press release announcing the event.
It should have been a made-for-TV moment. But at the designated time, reporters arrived to find Ammiano speaking on the steps of City Hall. The voter registration cards had already been delivered. The easy photo-op was lost. Television reporters were livid.
“I'm sorry, it was a logistical mix-up,” Griswold told angry Channel 2 correspondent Randy Shandobil.
“Yeah, a big one,” he snapped back. “You'll maximize your TV coverage by being more organized.”
“Yes I realize that,” Griswold replied.
“So, did you have a good vacation?” Shandobil asked sarcastically, leaving in a huff.
Two weeks into the runoff, the Ammiano campaign expanded by opening a $6,000-a-month office in the Mission — the former campaign headquarters for Clint Reilly, who had renovated an old corner department store into a snazzy and very functional work space. Ammiano's camp salivated over the already-installed 50 phone lines. Pacific Bell workers were constantly adding lines to little Josie's, first six, then 11 more, compounding the congestion. At the Mission office, Marks is able to keep a desk, and conference rooms allow for private strategy meetings. At Josie's, the bedlam forces people into powwows on the club's backyard patio, in the alleyway around the corner, or at nearby coffee shops on Market Street.
Of course, Ammiano also carries on other campaign-related meetings in private. Among them, the supervisor is speaking with former Mayor Frank Jordan, who came in third in the general election, seeking Jordan's endorsement in the runoff.
At the Mission office, things look decidedly grown-up. Volunteers aren't allowed to bring in their dogs, and the signs are glossy printed ones, not homemade. Ray Vitale, an Ammiano phone bank coordinator and strategist, can spread out voter demographic charts at a conference room table and prepare for a precinct organizational meeting. “To get this kind of work done, you need this kind of place,” Vitale says.
More and more of the brain work of the campaign is now taking place under the fluorescent lights in the carpeted Mission office. And as the weeks wear on, Josie's is beginning to take on an air of maturity that even Ammiano notices. “I was at Josie's yesterday and it was a working, humming place and you didn't have the feel of organized chaos anymore,” he says. “It was more focused and task orientated, and it felt great. It really felt professional, as it should be.”
At the new Mission office, Marks flips through stacks of $250 checks, the campaign's voluntary individual donation limit. In a short time, she's managed to infuse a healthy amount of money into the campaign.
There is a quiet financial pipeline from City Hall. In the days before the general election, Ammiano's campaign chiefs say, they received a lot of “verbal” support from people, along with $99 contributions, just shy of the $100 level that would compel the campaign to disclose the source of the funds. The $99 checks have increased during the runoff, Ammiano staffers say, most coming from government employees who don't want Brown to know they have contributed to Ammiano's campaign. [page]
Compared to the mere $20,000 spent in the entire write-in campaign, Marks' goal is to raise and spend a quarter-of-a-million dollars during the six weeks leading up to the runoff. But even that is not enough. By Thanksgiving, Marks realized she would need $300,000, even though the campaign had already taken in more than $200,000. “She's one of the best damn fund-raisers in this city,” Haaland says. While Haaland says he's happy to have the money, he warns that dollars alone cannot win an election.
A handshake is always better than a recorded phone call or door-hung literature, Haaland says, but he recently found himself preparing the campaign's first glossy mailer. The target audience is much different now. “In terms of message development, now I have to try to think how a 68-year-old homeowner thinks,” he says.
Still, an overwhelming number of volunteers continue to pour into Josie's asking for something to do. They are dispatched to walk the precincts, make live phone calls, and engage in the one-on-one interaction Haaland and the guerrillas believe in.
“Coming from my activist background, it is a stretch to have to think about the other stuff, but it's worth it because I want to be effective and I want to win,” Haaland says. “A smart campaign is going to use a little bit of everything, and we need to adapt because we're going up against one of the strongest political machines in California.”
In just a matter of weeks, the Ammiano campaign has grown up. “People are now somber, in a good way, about their responsibility that we could in fact win this, and that's made people somber about how real it is and that some structure is needed,” Ammiano says. “So in that way, we've gone from junior year to senior year, and we're hoping to graduate.”
During the campaign, sleep never comes soon enough. Before going to bed, Ammiano's last thoughts are about relaxing and gaining strength for the next day. “Usually I try to put the campaign out of my mind, and try to think of things that give me peace of mind,” he says. Often, he thinks of his late partner, Tim Curbo, who died five years ago. They were together nearly 20 years.
“I think about him a lot. In fact, last night I had a very impactful dream about him, and the physicality was great; I felt he was present even after I woke up,” Ammiano says. “There have been a lot of dreams about Tim, but this one was particularly powerful.”
Amid the chaos at Josie's, Ammiano makes the backyard deck his office. Not allowed to campaign from City Hall, this is his retreat, where he holds court under an umbrella at a little round table, meeting with aides, volunteers, reporters, or whomever he wants to see behind Josie's sliding glass patio doors.
Sitting at the table, Ammiano's papers, Calistoga water bottle, and funky electric blue or ruby red reading glasses are always within reach. Normally during interviews, television cameras position tight shots of Ammiano to avoid all the clutter. Out of the camera's frame, during one TV interview, Ammiano begins nervously bouncing his leg under the table. Before long, his gold-toe socks are exposed as he rapidly shuffles his feet in and out of his loafers while he continues to talk.
It is not the first time Ammiano has been visibly nervous. Despite his very public past, the supervisor has never been in such an intense media glare before, with such high stakes riding on his performance.
The anticipation is never more palpable than before the first debate between Ammiano and Brown on Nov. 16. The scene at the Lincoln Park golf course clubhouse is a circus, at best. There is a feverish energy in the air as reporters swarm the private event staged by a neighborhood planning association. A half-dozen microwave trucks sending feeds for the evening news are parked outside, a bank of television monitors and cords line the cramped foyer, while an incredible number of police officers surround the grounds and patrol inside. Everyone is expecting a showdown.
Ammiano arrives first, barely getting through the front door before being mobbed by a pack of reporters with blinding lights. He quickly ducks into the clubhouse's locker room, surrounded by golf clubs and dirty cleats. Someone gets him a glass of water, and Ammiano asks to be left alone.
Meanwhile, the mayor shows up with his entourage, grinning and glad-handing for the cameras as he makes his way through the crowd in his trademark fedora.
Ammiano aides hover outside the locker room door. Their candidate meditates for a few minutes, much like he used to prepare before going onstage for his stand-up comedy routines. He thinks about his opening remarks, his one-liners, and his timing. Then Ammiano leaves the solitary room, swipes off his glasses, clears his throat, and boldly strides up to the podium next to Brown.
The debate itself is far from the showdown the crowd is hoping for. Both candidates are polite and avoid direct attacks. Brown stands cool and composed, sharply dressed, as usual, with a red rose boutonniere. Ammiano looks a little more restless, speaking through a touch of cotton mouth, often licking his lips between answers. But he does manage to deliver one especially crowd-pleasing line: “If you decide to cast your ballot for me, as Martha Stewart said, 'It's a good thing.'”
It is obvious though, to the mostly pro-Brown audience and even Ammiano's campaign staff, that the first debate is not a breakout performance for Ammiano. “He didn't do great, but he did all right. It's not like he bombed,” says Haaland. “He was a little nervous and it was an unfriendly crowd.” [page]
Back on Ammiano's turf at Josie's, the candidate's confidence rises. An energetic crowd of 200 packs the little club for a Saturday morning rally, chanting, “Win Tom, Win!” Ammiano takes the stage and stirs the volunteer troops into a frenzy. “There's a poll coming out tomorrow that says we're within 10 points of the mayor,” he announces, his voice steadily rising in pitch and excitement. “I think we're in a race boys and girls!”
Pumped up by the cheering Josie's crowd, Ammiano embarks on a campaign swing through Chinatown, where Brown signs pepper the landscape.
Ammiano knows the stereotype that all Asian voters are part of a monolithic block who will vote for Brown is not true. He's found strong pockets of support among San Francisco's diverse Asian community, and even nabbed an endorsement from the Chinese American Democratic Club.
“Jo Sun!” Ammiano says in Cantonese, telling passers-by “Good morning” as he walks through Chinatown, up and down the narrow alleys, poking into the little stores and noodle shops. Then he switches to Tagalog, uttering, “Mabuhay.”
“It's what Filipinos say for good luck, or good morning, or something like that,” says Sharon Bretz, who has worked Chinatown many times as Supervisor Leland Yee's former campaign manager. She now serves as Ammiano's treasurer, and is teaching the candidate various phrases — when she can remember them herself. “I had 12 phrases down when I worked for Leland, and they're easy to forget when you don't use them. But Tom is picking them up; he knows about 10 now.”
Shopkeepers are glad to see Ammiano, offering him warm fortune cookies and, at times, their opinions. “It's outrageous the politicians waste so much money,” Mary Chung of the Superior Trading Co. on Washington Street tells Ammiano. “Don't waste my money.”
“I won't, I promise you,” he replies. “Because I know you are a hard worker.”
At Anthony Wong's beauty salon, Ammiano's picture is taped on a mirror. “Oh look, there I am!” Ammiano says, surprised to see his image when he enters the business. The patrons clap and cheer.
A few minutes later, activist and staunch Brown supporter Rose Pak chases him down. “Look, she's following us like a dog,” Bretz tells Ammiano, as they walk down Grant Avenue near Portsmouth Square.
“I know, let's keep going,” Ammiano says, quickly finding refuge in a jewelry store.
But outside, Bretz and Pak vociferously hold their ground, hardly mincing any words.
“The guy has never set foot here in all the years he's been on the board,” Pak complains. “You can't at the last minute come in and get support.”
A few days later, Ammiano meets Brown in the County Fair Building for a second debate.
“Hey, new suit!” Haaland exclaims, with approval, when Ammiano steps out from backstage. The sharp olive suit is a marked improvement over the ink-stained jacket Ammiano has worn a few times in recent weeks, but he still hasn't given up wearing his Mickey Mouse wristwatch.
Haaland isn't the only one to notice Ammiano's new clothes. The Chronicle's style editor has put in a call to the campaign's press liaison. Griswold is amused by the inquiry, but at a loss to explain the candidate's fresh look. “I know Tom hasn't had any time for shopping,” she says. “Maybe it's a surrogate suit, borrowed from someone with the same build.”
The second debate is another lesson in civility between the two candidates. In comparison to the first matchup, Ammiano looks more relaxed, strong, and sure of himself — more mayoral. “Tom hit his stride,” Haaland says. “He really came across as authentic.”
The campaign staff sees it as a turning point. “There's been a lot of stress; I feel like I've been through the war,” says Ammiano scheduler Victor Valdiviezo, who has been struggling to fit what could have been months of campaigning into one six-week blitz. “But standing there watching that second debate has been the high point so far. He was confident, he knew his issues, and I could feel the enthusiasm in that room.”
Limited to the few hundred people in attendance, a cable channel rebroadcast, and snippets on the evening news, the first two debates do not reach a large audience. They are good practice for the third debate, aired live on television at the dinner hour. Ammiano's campaign knows this debate will be watched by tens of thousands and that a lot is riding on their candidate's performance. “This is the big time, and we're all nervous,” Haaland says. “You have a gut feeling how someone is going to do, but don't know for sure until it happens.”
Much of the campaign staff gathers at Josie's to watch the televised sparring match, during which the candidates' gloves finally come off. Brown starts the attack and Ammiano hits back, deftly. “Tom was a lot more feisty, and he landed some solid hits,” Haaland says. “My favorite line was about the mayor's hand being caught in the cookie jar; everyone cheered. Brown kept waiting for Tom to fall down, and he didn't.”
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Ammiano and Brown join a few hundred others outside Harvey Milk's old camera shop on Castro Street for the annual candlelight march in Milk's honor, which moves down Market Street to City Hall. The two candidates greet each other warmly in front of the press, but the atmosphere is tense at what has become a highly politicized memorial. During the march, a small group of Brown supporters surround the mayor at the front of the procession, while Ammiano and the rest of the crowd walk behind. Brown doesn't stay long at City Hall. But Ammiano takes the stage for a rousing speech. While he hasn't been widely regarded as the most masterful speaker throughout the campaign, even ardent Ammiano supporters are taken aback by the eloquence of his tribute to Milk. [page]
No longer a reluctant candidate, Ammiano proves he is a contender and that he wants, more than anything, the office of mayor. “I had the embers then,” Ammiano says. “[But] I have the fire in the belly now.”
A newspaper photographer leads Ammiano to the upstairs dining room of a Chinatown restaurant for a quiet, private portrait session, away from the noisy press conference below.
“The light's better by the window,” the photographer says. “I'll shoot you there.”
“Oh God, please don't say 'shoot,'” Ammiano mutters, only half-jokingly, as he gets into position.
Security is a serious issue for the Ammiano campaign. Everyone remembers Harvey Milk's assassination as much as they remember his politics. And if elected, Ammiano would not only become the city's first openly gay mayor, but the first of any major U.S. city. Ammiano's campaign Web site has received vitriolic and homophobic e-mail messages. “I'll never vote for a faggot,” said a typical one.
Only days after the general election, a more serious message was posted on Internet bulletin boards owned by two San Francisco newspapers threatening Ammiano's life, giving explicit details about Ammiano's daily routine and calling the supervisor a “sitting duck.”
Ammiano initially balked at the notion of security, wanting to retain some sense of a normal life. He regularly rides Muni to work, and given the transportation issue's stature in the campaign, was adamant about continuing that practice. But his aides — and the police — insisted on protection. Now he is trailed everywhere he goes by uniformed and plainclothes police officers. “It's a very unfortunate aspect of public life,” Ammiano acknowledges.
Early on a Monday morning, Ammiano stands at a Muni stop — with an undercover police officer — waiting for the bus near his Bernal Heights home.
The bus, not terribly late this morning, pulls up and Ammiano boards, flashing his Fast Pass. He's on his way to City Hall, but as a candidate he finds himself juggling jobs. No matter how much campaigning the night before, he must still put in a full day's work tending to his duties as president of the Board of Supervisors.
“How are you holding up?” a bus passenger asks Ammiano as he passes by looking for a seat.
“Pretty good,” Ammiano replies, yawning.
Few on the crowded bus pay much attention to Ammiano. They see him on this route every day. Ammiano finds a seat next to someone he knows and the two chat as the bus lurches along Mission Street. The friend does most of the talking; Ammiano is tired, letting out long, wide yawns and rubbing his eyes.
Ammiano is typically an early riser, often making calls to aides and associates as early as 6:30 or 7 a.m. But lately, Ammiano has reserved the days' first moments to collect his thoughts. “Mostly I'm reminding myself where I'm at, not only physically, but in terms of the campaign,” he says. “And then thinking, 'I wonder if I'll have time today to spend with a friend or how late I'll go.' But mostly it's the schedule, what lies ahead, and how to brace for it.”
Law dictates that Ammiano's city and campaign staffs remain separate. Valdiviezo, the campaign scheduler, bears the brunt of navigating both worlds. He'd love it if Ammiano were available to campaign 24 hours a day to accommodate everyone who wants him to speak, give an interview, attend a dinner or a fund-raiser. Even then, there still wouldn't be enough time to do everything Ammiano's burgeoning schedule demands.
Young, brash, and smart, Valdiviezo is looked to by Ammiano for more than just scheduling information. The 35-year-old Federal Emergency Management Agency employee, who took leaves of absence to work on Ammiano's campaigns this year and last, is always by the candidate's side. And when Ammiano is at City Hall, the two are connected by cell phone. “I've gotten at least 10 or 15 calls today [from Ammiano],” Valdiviezo says, noting that it is only midafternoon. “Tom wants to touch base and make sure everything's OK.”
Unable to travel across town to Josie's during the workday, Ammiano often has campaign events staged a quick walk from his office — on the front steps of City Hall. But even inside, he at times can't help but act like a candidate.
Rushing to a recent weekly Board of Supervisors meeting, Ammiano is caught in the hallway by a Chronicle sports reporter and Channel 2 camera crew, begging him to do a quick bit for the morning sports segment. Chuck Nevius wants to record what a mayoral candidate thinks of the 49ers for his KTVU guest spot. Balancing a thick three-ring binder under his arm, Ammiano protests, saying he is late for a meeting at which he must preside. But Nevius convinces Ammiano it will only take a minute. The chance to reach a sports audience appears to be a savvy political move.
First, before the tape rolls, Ammiano has a question for Nevius: how to pronounce the name of the 49ers' new quarterback.
“Is it Stenstra?”
“No, Stenstrom,” Nevius corrects.
“Everyone is talking about the 49ers — even Tom Ammiano,” Nevius barks into his microphone, the camera rolling. “So Tom, what is the problem with the 49ers?”
Aging and defense, among other things, Ammiano concludes. And after three takes, he offers a solution destined to make the morning news: “I might have to suit up.”
Ammiano then rushes to his seat at the supervisors' meeting with a minute to spare. Banging his gavel, he calls the meeting to order and it is business as usual. Except for the yawning. But Ammiano is far from asleep on the job. After a long-winded reading of an item of new business awaiting a vote, Ammiano catches a mistake, questioning Supervisor Gavin Newsom if he forgot about an amendment.
“Yes, there is one,” Newsom replies, realizing the oversight. “That's why you're president of the board.” [page]
Laughter fills the chamber. Everyone knows the subtext to the joke: If Ammiano has his way, he won't be president of the board much longer.
Later, the supervisor admits he has already started thinking about moving into the Mayor's Office. Though it is uncertain that Ammiano's rage against the Brown machine will prove successful, his relationship to City Hall will never be the same, whatever the outcome.
“I tend to think this is, if anything, an ibid.,” Ammiano says. “History is not linear. I would just like it to mean that this was a seed, which grows into telling establishment corporate campaigning to get a grip. But there's no guarantee.”