By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Later that night, at his own election-night party, where the casual style of the late ’70s predominated and there was scarcely a suit in sight, Ammiano insisted that he wasn‘t that clever. Indeed, he seemed somewhat apprehensive about the prospect of being in the runoff, protesting that he wasn’t even all that sure that he had made it.
Perhaps he knew that he and his campaign weren‘t quite ready for their new heights. In a San Francisco Examiner poll just a week after the first round of voting, Brown regained the edge over Ammiano by a 43-percent-to-33-percent margin. Tellingly, Brown’s numbers hadn‘t really gone up from the tracking poll, but Ammiano had dropped nine points.
It seemed that Ammiano’s new media exposure actually worked to his detriment. Though he was actually viewed more favorably by likely voters, he was not coming across as a strong executive. As one Democratic consultant put it after an Ammiano television appearance, “He comes off distractingly effeminate, even for San Francisco” -- in contradistinction, he might have added, to such onetime leading local gay elected officials as Supervisors Harvey Milk and Harry Britt. Campaign focus groups soon confirmed the consultant‘s observation: The candidate lacked what many participants considered a proper “executive presence.”
Ammiano had a further problem: Though he was running to Brown’s left, most of the large number of undecided voters, a quarter of the likely electorate, were moderates and conservatives. While Brown‘s more conservative challengers, Jordan and Reilly, were loath to support Brown (Reilly actually endorsed Ammiano), the wily mayor moved to lock up the right, adding the endorsement of the local Republican Party to that of the Democrats.
The failure of Ammiano to broaden his base of support enabled Brown to reclaim the lead. Insurgents often prove to be temperamentally unsuited to the task of taking ultimate advantage of the cracks in the political system that they have helped create, and Ammiano proved no exception to this rule. Brown was free to feint to the right, moaning to columnist George Will about the “heavy left” (which would presumably make him the light left), and promising to support a review of rent control. But he was also free to revert to old form.
He began, on primary night, by, in essence, apologizing to the city for his arrogance and inability to solve the high-profile problems of the homeless and the blundering public-transit system. Right after that, he went to Las Vegas for a few days to relax and to attend a fund-raiser on his behalf hosted by that city’s new mayor, former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman. Upon his return, Brown complained that Ammiano‘s write-in candidacy had played havoc with democracy -- depriving him of victory in the primary and costing the city money to hold a runoff election.
Despite Ammiano’s grassroots appeal, virtually every major left-liberal organization stuck with Brown. The venerable Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club placed an ad on TV, featuring a gay couple fretting over Ammiano‘s “far-out tax proposals.” And even though Ammiano champions labor’s cause on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, 103 of the city Labor Council‘s 104 affiliates have backed Brown -- an amazing figure that neatly matched the near unanimity of Brown’s backing from financial interests.
In the primary, Brown, who mustered $2.5 million for his campaign, was also aided by over $600,000 in “independent expenditures” on his behalf from major business and labor interests and the state Democratic Party. For the runoff, both Brown and Ammiano were limited to $400,000 by the city‘s campaign-finance-reform law, a total that Brown reached easily but Ammiano was unable to achieve. But that law does nothing about independent expenditures, and Brown’s allies acknowledge spending another $1.3 million on his behalf.
Thanks to a ruling from the state‘s compliant Fair Political Practices Commission, the source of most of these funds won’t be disclosed until next month. It was veteran political lawyer Joe Remcho who successfully argued before the FPPC that such “independent expenditure” committees shouldn‘t have to disclose their contributors in a timely fashion, and who won another ruling that allowed these committees to escape the city’s limits on contributions to candidate committees. Remcho works for Willie Brown and for San Franciscans for Sensible Government, a group that spent massively on Brown‘s behalf, controlled by super-rich San Francisco developer Walter Shorenstein.
Willie Brown’s victory doesn‘t make his core Democratic and liberal supporters all that happy. The mayor had to move rightward to win. Worse, he had to further indebt himself to big-money interests.
Though Ammiano’s challenge fell short, the power of his write-in insurgency was another reminder that big-money machine politics, even big-money liberal machine politics, is turning off voters in the Bay Area, California‘s liberal heartland. The defeat of longtime Brown ally and former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris by a little-known Green candidate in a special election for the Assembly early this year was the first wake-up call for the Bay Area’s Democratic establishment. Brown‘s tribulations and Ammiano’s rise should be the second. But is anybody listening?
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