San Francisco's “Blair Witch” mayor's race

Gay supervisor Tom Ammiano's insurgent write-in campaign will likely force incumbent Willie Brown into a runoff.

Topics: California, San Francisco,

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano became San Francisco’s Cinderella Wednesday, apparently heading toward a one-on-one showdown with incumbent Willie Brown in the race for San Francisco mayor. Ammiano, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a gay former stand-up comic, launched an 11th hour write-in candidacy just 21 days ago, moved by a strong push from his supporters, and what he perceived as despair among voters at the other mayoral choices.

Cheers erupted from Ammiano supporters at City Hall Thursday as the Department of Elections released new preliminary vote tallies showing the board president 159 votes ahead of former mayor Frank Jordan for the No. 2 spot. Since no candidate will receive 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will square off in a runoff election next month. Brown still leads all candidates with more than 40 percent of the vote.

Sacramento-based Brown protigi and political consultant Richie Ross called Ammiano’s campaign “the Blair Witch Project of politics. They took three weeks and $15,000 and put together a blockbuster.”

Naomi Nishioka, spokeswoman for the Department of Elections, said close to 35,000 ballots have yet to be counted. At least 8,000 of those ballots are write-ins, which almost guarantees they are ballots for Ammiano. Nishioka said there are also write-in ballots from 100 precincts that have been counted but not figured into the latest figures. There are an estimated 10,000 Ammiano ballots among the 35,000 yet to be counted, a number that his campaign manager Robert Haaland said should secure Ammiano a spot in next month’s runoff.

“Nothing is certain, but we were ecstatic to see that, given how difficult this has all been, he’s in the No. 2 spot,” Haaland said. “It’s amazing to see the number of people involved in this campaign that are not normally involved in the democratic process. This is the mother of all grass-roots campaigns.”

While Ammiano is one of the city’s most powerful politicians, his insurgent write-in campaign made him the underdog and the protest vote in a city that loves both. His three top rivals dumped more than $6 million into the race — including close to $4 million from political consultant turned candidate Clint Reilly and $2 million from the incumbent mayor.

Though his name did not appear on the ballot this time, Ammiano’s name will be on the December ballot if he is the second-place finisher.

If the current results hold, the December election will pit the city’s two most powerful politicians in a head-to-head matchup. The relationship between Ammiano and Brown has deteriorated steadily over the last couple of years. In 1998, Ammiano was one of the few politicians in the city who consistently challenged Brown, and used that image to become the top vote getter among all candidates for San Francisco supervisor. That made Ammiano the head of the 11-member board, and his subsequent clashes with Brown have filled the city’s newspaper headlines for the better part of the last year.

Ammiano is the city’s most liberal elected official, with strong ties to the gay community, tenant activists and organized labor. Brown has support from some liberal groups like labor as well, but also has strong ties to the downtown business community and developers.

In spite of the rivalry, Ammiano gave a tepid endorsement to Brown earlier this year in an effort to diminish speculation about his possible run for the city’s top spot. Ammiano later rescinded the endorsement and publicly flirted with the idea of entering the race last August. But he backed away from the race, citing the enormous spending by Brown and former political consultant turned candidate Clint Reilly as the main reasons for his decision not to run.

True, San Francisco may not exactly be a good political bellwether for the rest of the nation, but Ammiano said he hopes the country will take notice of one key fact as the current “money-soaked” presidential campaign wears on. “It shows that money is no substitute for shoe leather and ringing doorbells,” he said. “We are changing the face of traditional campaigning.”

Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston acknowledged that “the vote seems to be trending Ammiano,” but said the mayor would be ready for whomever his runoff opponent may be. “Mayor Brown is going to dust himself off, and show the voters of San Francisco that no matter who he is running against, he is the best candidate to lead this city.”

Johnston refused to comment on whether Ammiano would be a tougher opponent than Jordan, whom Brown defeated in 1995, saying, “You get into trouble when you start trying to handicap the race.”

Ammiano’s upset second-place finish is a startling development in what has been one of the nastiest mayoral races in recent memory. As Reilly’s campaign began to gain momentum, Brown hammered his rival on charges that he abused his girlfriend, a fellow campaign consultant, 20 years ago. Reilly tried to brush the charges aside by saying that he once had a drinking problem, which had led to other difficulties, and that he had stopped drinking years ago. But his campaign never recovered.

Reilly tried to hit Brown back with attacks on the mayor’s influence peddling, poor political ethics and broken promises on issues like solving the city’s homeless problem and its embattled public transportation system. He accused Brown of running “the most corrupt City Hall administration in my lifetime.”

Reilly, who was once one of the state’s top Democratic political consultants, running the gubernatorial campaigns for Dianne Feinstein and Kathleen Brown as well as Jordan’s failed 1995 re-election bid, took a big hit in the polls after the charges about his personal life were made public. But he was also the candidate hurt most by Ammiano’s late entry into the race. Reilly worked hard to cultivate many of the city’s working-class neighborhoods, which ended up being the base of Ammiano’s support. The gay supervisor’s last-minute run also cost Reilly the endorsement of one of the city’s most liberal weekly newspapers, the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Brown, meanwhile, parlayed support from the state’s Democratic establishment — including both U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, herself a former San Francisco mayor, and Gov. Gray Davis — into a strong showing on election night. Brown’s forces were aggressive in their mail and phone-banking, even enlisting an electronic phone message from President Clinton on Brown’s behalf that went out to the city’s registered Democrats.

Jordan, the centrist ex-mayor who is perhaps best remembered for posing naked with radio DJs Mark and Brian during his 1995 failed reelection bid, maintained a loyal core of voters, but was never able to rebuild the coalition that propelled him to office in 1991.

Election night brought a truly eclectic San Francisco crowd to Ammiano’s makeshift headquarters at Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint in the city’s Castro district, where Ammiano still performs comedy occasionally. “This campaign is rejuvenating San Francisco,” he said. “We just tapped into the frustration that people had, and they didn’t know where to put their energy.”

Some of those people gathered at Ammiano headquarters Tuesday night included members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in full face makeup, clad in habits, sipping Budweiser from a straw, and one supporter in a satin jacket with an Ammiano for Mayor pin on the front and “The Transsexual Menace” emblazoned on the back.

Knowing he was in for a long night, Ammiano offered words of encouragement to his enthusiastic group of supporters. “I don’t think we have many results yet, but what the hell, it feels good,” he told the packed house. “And remember, a little ice on the eyes keeps them from getting puffy.”

Brown spokesman Johnston said Ammiano certainly has “a lot of momentum” heading into the runoff, but that “a lot of his supporters are the true believers. Mayor Brown draws his support from a wide array of San Franciscans.”

Elections officials Wednesday said they did not expect to have a final tally until sometime Thursday or Friday evening.

The race to the runoff is likely to be nasty, brutish and short. Ammiano can be expected to draw funding from gay groups nationwide, while Brown returns to his corporate supporters, who are likely to dig deep into their pockets to stop the ultra-liberal Ammiano from taking over City Hall. The Chamber of Commerce strongly opposes Ammiano, who has sponsored living-wage legislation to raise local salaries and has tried to increase local business taxes.

A Brown-Ammiano race will also split the city’s reigning left-liberal coalition, and it could have racial overtones. Brown worked hard to turn out the city’s black vote, and his success will not be known until more votes are counted. Ammiano’s supporters come in all colors, but tend to be disproportionately white liberals and progressives. The pair will likely fight over the city’s growing Asian and Latino vote.

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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