Power of the pen

In San Francisco, write-in candidate Tom Ammiano could become America's first openly gay big-city mayor.

By Anthony York

Published November 4, 1999 2:30PM (EST)

San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano solidified his hold on the No. 2 spot in San Francisco's mayoral election Thursday, darting 15,000 votes ahead of former Mayor Frank Jordan. Ammiano's amazing write-in campaign forced incumbent Mayor Willie Brown into a runoff, because Brown, with 39 percent of the vote, failed to get the 50 percent plus one he needed to win on Tuesday.

Brown said that without Ammiano in the race, he would have won the election outright and "the citizens would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The pair will square off again Dec. 14.

It was only three weeks ago that Ammiano, the gay president of the board of supervisors, announced a write-in candidacy, spurred by his own disdain for Brown and his sense that San Francisco voters were tuning out the election. With votes still left to count in San Francisco's notoriously inefficient Department of Elections, Ammiano already has just under 45,000 votes, a staggering number for a write-in candidate.

The 15,000-vote gap will be impossible for Jordan to overcome. "This is quite a victory against corporate campaigning," Ammiano said after the new vote totals were announced. "Now it's time to bring it home."

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. Ammiano was one of the few politicians in the city who consistently challenged Brown, and in 1998 he used that image to become the top vote getter among all candidates for San Francisco supervisor.

Ammiano is the city's most liberal elected official, with strong ties to the gay community, tenant activists and some segments of 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.

Despite the rivalry, Ammiano gave a tepid endorsement to Brown earlier this year in an effort to head off speculation about his possible run for the city's top spot. In August he rescinded his endorsement and publicly flirted with the idea of entering the race. But until the last minute he stayed out, citing the enormous spending by Brown and former political consultant turned candidate Clint Reilly.

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.

"Tom Ammiano has led a charmed life politically, and it's time for him to get the scrutiny he deserves," says Mark Mosher, executive director of the Committee on Jobs, the lobbying arm of San Francisco's largest corporations. "He got into the race late in order to duck the debates, but now he'll have to answer for his record. And he's proposed more taxes and spending than any politician in the history of San Francisco, and this is a liberal city."

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. Ammiano's supporters come in all colors, but tend to be disproportionately white, liberal and progressive. The pair will likely fight over the city's growing Asian and Latino vote. Exit polls reportedly showed Brown doing best among minorities -- who make up a majority of voters in this city -- with Ammiano's strongest support among whites.

They will also fight over Jordan and Reilly's 50,000 voters, and it's hard to know where those constituencies will land. Jordan's voters tend to be more conservative, and thus less likely to go for Ammiano, but the bitter former mayor has said he will never endorse Brown.

"It depends on whether they base their vote on values, or vendetta," Mosher quipped. "Jordan and Reilly voters are probably closer to Brown on values, but if they go on vendetta -- well, you know who they go to."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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