Chicken and the pot

Marginalized mayoral candidate Chicken John raises big bucks to emerge as a force in the race

Chicken John Rinaldi — the fake-mustachioed showman and arts facilitator who is running for mayor — was late for our Sept. 7 interview, but his roommate let me into the candidate's César Chávez Street home–office–performance space to wait for him.

Rinaldi was busy at the Ethics Commission office, trying to become the first and only mayoral candidate to qualify for public matching funds, a goal that requires raising at least $25,000 from among 250 city residents — and having the paperwork to prove it, which is proving the hard part for someone traditionally more focused on big ideas than small details. (See sidebar.)

He says he's raised about $32,000 since getting into the race last month, including $26,700 from city residents, $12,000 of which came in on the deadline date, Aug. 28. It's an impressive feat that could transform this marginalized, improbable candidate into one of the leading challengers, despite his enigmatic persona, maddeningly elusive platform, and admission that he can't possibly win.

But Rinaldi, 39, who makes his living from his many performances and projects, isn't your typical politician, as his history and home demonstrate. The high ceilings hold rigging and pulleys for the regular performances he hosts, although his bar and a pair of church pews were pushed back against one wall this day to make more space for campaign activities. Dammit the Wonder Dog, one of many characters Rinaldi has promoted over the years, slept on a deflated air mattress still dusty from Burning Man.

The red brick walls of his main room looked like an art gallery, with paintings by Ani Lucia Thompkins listing prices of at least $2,000 each and pieces by James McPhee going for less. On another wall hung the massive sign for the Odeon Bar — which Rinaldi owned from 2000 to 2005 — with Odeon spelled diagonally from right to left.

In the kitchen area, just inside the front door, the walls held framed posters from many of his projects — the Life-Sized Game of Mousetrap, Circus Ridickuless (the poster for which, at its center, has Rinaldi's face and the label "Chicken John, Ringmonster"), the Church of the Subgenius (in which Rinaldi's eponymous partner on The Ask Dr. Hal Show is some kind of high priest), and "The Cacophony Society Presents Klown Krucifixation" — as well as a framed poster of Pippi Longstocking.

Suddenly, Rinaldi blew in the front door, apologized for his tardiness, and declared, "The fucking Ethics Commission. I'm in so much trouble. I've probably already racked up $5,000 in fines."

Nonetheless, he may still qualify for at least $50,000 from the taxpayer-funded mayoral public financing program that debuted this election season, giving his campaign ample resources to promote his message of nurturing San Francisco as a "city of art and innovation."

My first significant interaction with Rinaldi happened about three years ago, when he and fellow Burning Man artist Jim Mason launched a lively rebellion against Black Rock City LLC's control over the countercultural event (see "State of the Art," 12/1/04) and created a shadow organization, dubbed Borg2, to promote art.

Rinaldi's focus and rhetoric then — arguing for a "radical democratization" of the art-grant selection process and the creation of a more inclusive discussion of the direction and future of both Black Rock City and San Francisco — are echoed in his current mayoral campaign.

"What I'm talking about now is the same thing I was talking about with Borg2.