Happy hooker on the hustings

An only-in-San-Francisco story that could have legs

By Lori Leibovich

Published November 4, 1996 11:28AM (EST)


Spanking booths, leather whips and a live donkey — not the kind of
props normally on display at a political fundraiser. But this was no
ordinary "Get Out The Vote" pep rally. This was the Hookers Ball, and
the guest of honor was Margo St. James, ex-prostitute and candidate
for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.

"Kiss my ass," St. James called cheerfully to the crowd from her perch
atop the burro. Not the kind of rhetoric usually associated with a seeker of public office.

But then, St. James is no ordinary candidate, even by the rococo standards of a city that still likes to refer to itself as Baghdad-by-the-Bay. The 59-year-old St. James, who bills herself a human rights organizer, has been a San Francisco mainstay for more than 30 years,
notably as the founder of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a sex-workers' rights organization. According to local polls, she has a good shot at filling one of the six open seats on the city's Board of Supervisors — and she wants you to know that she is more than just another San Francisco novelty, like Emperor Norton, Sister Boom-Boom and other eccentrics who periodically inhabited the edges of the city's politics. "It's the whole whore stigma," St. James says with a shrug, alluding to the media's fascination with her past forays into the world's oldest profession.

If elected, St. James pledges she will continue to fight for an end to prohibitions on prostitution — which she estimates cost the city $8 million last year to enforce — as well as pushing for more traditional progressive issues, like affordable housing, child care and drug prevention programs. "I'm of the working class," St. James says. "I know first hand that making $5.25 an hour is not a living wage."

The candidate's own job history is rather eclectic. She began turning
tricks in 1962 but stopped after four years, unimpressed with "the management end" of the business (read: pimping). Since then
she has worked as a housekeeper, deck hand, construction
worker, private investigator and parking-lot attendant. Even during
the hectic campaign season St. James maintains her night job as
hostess at Capps Corner, a popular North Beach hangout.

"I know what power looks like," St. James says when asked why she
is qualified for the job. "I've seen it from the underbelly."

At a recent event at San Francisco's tony Concordia Argonaut Club, St.
James addressed a group of middle-aged men with a coy one-liner:
"It's nice to see so many familiar faces." St. James' biting sense of
humor, the international press coverage her candidacy has received
and her stint as a lady of the evening have bolstered her name
recognition and put her in contention. A recent poll by the San Francisco Chronicle has St. James in third place behind two incumbents in a field of 27 candidates vying for six supervisors seats.

Even San Francisco's political bigwigs — including Mayor Willie Brown
and District Attorney Terrance Hallinan — have endorsed St. James. "People in San Francisco have always liked candidates with style and
flare," says Leslie Katz, an incumbent supervisor who has endorsed St. James. "As someone jokingly said, 'What kind of dirt could they find on Margo?'"
The San Francisco Police Department declined to
comment on St. James' candidacy, citing a no-endorsements policy.

Pounding the pavement in North Beach on a recent morning, St.
James kisses old friends on the lips, gives out posters bearing her
slogan "Lady is a Champ," and even stops to schmooze with a
homeless man before putting some change in his cup. Dressed in a
beige knit suit, an elegant silk scarf wrapped around her shoulders
and donning a felt hat complete with a feather, St. James looks
more like a matron than a harlot.

St. James runs a bare-bones, grassroots effort from her two-
bedroom apartment in Potrero Hill. She has no
paid staff and says her campaign coffers, estimated at $35,000, have been
filled mostly by small donations — including some from former clients.

"What she's doing is nothing short of historic," says Carol Stuart, who is both St. James' roommate and campaign manager. "In a few years a sex worker will want to be a CEO and it won't be as difficult for her because Margo came first."

Is St. James ready for such heady responsibility?

Sure, she says. "I'm a woman of experience."

Quote of the day

The new boss, same as the old boss

"The paradise of shared knowledge and a more egalitarian working environment just
isn't happening. Knowledge isn't really shared because management
doesn't want to share authority and power."

— Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at the Harvard Business
School, who studies trends in information technology (From "And Now, the Computer's Evil Twin, the Network Computer," in Monday's
New York Times

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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