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San Francisco Mayoral Race
In an otherwise off political year, the San Francisco mayoral race in December 1999 commanded national attention. The quintessential only in San Francisco story line of the mainstream media set Willie Brown, the powerful, liberal African American incumbent, against Tom Ammiano, an openly gay male who was a teacher and stand-up comedian before becoming president of the Board of Supervisors last year.
But the real story was not about race, sexual orientation, or who can crack the best jokes, but about that other political dividing line: economic class. In fact, now that the election is over and pundits are sifting carefully through the political middens, it becomes clearer that Ammianos surprisingly strong challenge amounted to nothing less than a protest against neo-liberalism and the rampant process of globalization.
San Francisco, a busy commercial and Internet center riding the crest of nearby Silicon Valley, is the poster city for the globalized economy. Local startups, IPOs, and surging stock prices are the latest embodiment of the American Dream, dangling the bait before a wide-eyed generation. Signs of hyper-affluence are everywhere, as San Francisco has become a playground for the very rich.
Youd think San Franciscans would be grateful to Mayor Brown for the surging economy, and his re-election would have been a shoo-in. But while some San Franciscans have done extremely well in the globalized milieu, others are treading water, and too many have been left behind. Costs of housing, in a city that is two-thirds renters, has skyrocketed, driving some low and moderate-income people. Poor peoples transportationpublic transithas been allowed to deteriorate. Great numbers of homeless still wander the streets, subject to the Brown administrations increasing harassment and low intensity conflict. Most people cant afford to attend a 49ers or Giants game, let alone a high roller New Years Eve party.
For many residents, Brown and his brand of politics have come to represent the worst of neo-liberalism and globalization. The mayor and his cronies represent the perks of those on the inside track.
Tom Ammiano mounted an electrifying write-in campaign only three weeks before the November general election, rapidly mobilizing hundreds of volunteers (who called themselves Tom- boys and Tom-girls), seizing the parameters of the political debate and hauling it leftward. He championed open honest government, campaign finance reform, neighborhood empowerment/ anti-chain stores, public transit, affordable housing, and compassion for the homeless. His campaign provided hope and inspiration not only to those left out of the economic boom, but also to those who have gotten a piece of it but are nonetheless troubled by things like secretive WTO proceedings, fast- track NAFTA deals, and local machine politics funded by Silicon Valley and big developers. The Brown machine received a dent in its fashionable chapeau when Ammiano finished in second place, vaulting him into a runoff with Brown.
Once the campaign began for the December runoff, the dynamics turned truly strange. For one measure of how well Ammianos class-tinged, little guy vs. big guy brand of politics played with the powers that be, consider this: Willie Brown, during his two decade tenure as Speaker of the California State Assembly, was vilified by the Republican Party. When California voters passed term limits for state legislators, many Republicans labeled it the Willie Brown Retirement Act. Despite the bitter history between Republicans and Willie Brown, the San Francisco Republican Party actually endorsed him. Not only that, leading Republicans like former governors George Deukme- jian and Pete Wilson doffed their caps in support of their old nemesis. Reagans Secretary of State, George Shultz, also endorsed Brown. Apparently the Republicans loathed Willie Brown less than they feared Tom Ammiano.
The Democratic Party establishment also went to bat for Brown, including President Clinton, the California governor, and both U.S. Senators. The leadership of organized labor, after having its arm twisted by the Brown machine seeking to short circuit any electoral insurgents like Ammiano, caved in and endorsed Brown a full year and a half before the election, despite heated opposition from the rank-and-file who supported the more labor-friendly Ammiano. San Franciscos organized labor seemed to show no signs of blushing over the fact that they, the Republican Party, and the downtown business establishment were all backing the same horse with massive independent expenditures.
Fully armed for conventional political warfare, Brown and his machine outspent Ammiano 12-1 in the December runoff. Brown won the election by a 60-40 spread, a landslide margin to be sure, yet the Ammiano forces insist that they were winners too. Heres why: Ammianos electrifying late entry into the November general election boosted turnout of his supporters, causing every ballot proposition that Ammiano supported to pass, including ones for campaign finance reform, open government, public transit reform, health care, and a ban on ATM fees. For the December runoff, Ammianos campaign registered over 14,000 new voters in an astonishingly short period of time and gave shape and direction to the inchoate grassroots, particularly a lot of young people and others previously uninvolved. In the process, a voice and a movement rose up in opposition to the the Willie Brown machine. The Tom boys and the Tom girls are fired up, saying they will take their energies into the next electoral effort, as San Francisco begins using district elections in November 2000, with all 11 seats for the Board of Supervisors up for grabs. In his concession speech on election night, Ammiano declared to throngs of his unwavering backers, I am not conceding the war, but I am conceding the battle.... I may be gay, my politics may be left. But we are right.
Protests like those against the WTO in Seattle and like Tom Ammianos insurgent campaign may be a harbinger of a coming backlash against globalization. Time will tell if this is the beginning of a new era of class-tinged politics in the United States. Z
Steven Hill is western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy and co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press, 1999).