February 19, 2003




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And the race is on ...
Can any of the leading candidates really win? Seven key questions in the S.F. mayoral campaign.

By Savannah Blackwell

SUP. TOM Ammiano stood before a gathering of activists who have been some of his strongest supporters over the years. His message was, by Ammiano standards and by the standards of his last mayoral race, decidedly subdued.

This campaign, he told the group assembled at the Haight Ashbury home of queer community leader Jerry Threet, would be unlike the one that made San Francisco history in 1999.

"I know there won't be the same kind of electricity," Ammiano said. "But that's fine."

With only some $45,000 in the bank in what will most likely be a big-money election, Ammiano must rely on a grassroots base he built in part during the phenomenal 1999 mayor's race, when the supervisor, stand-up comic, and onetime teacher galvanized the city's neighborhoods with a last-minute write-in effort that ultimately captured 40 percent of the vote.

But his campaign's energy level, so far at least, has not been anywhere near the same. Ammiano is no longer the one progressive voice standing against a city hall crew completely controlled by Mayor Willie Brown and the downtown establishment.

In fact, in the two years since the reform, antimachine San Francisco Board of Supervisors took office, Ammiano has made some moves that have disappointed and even upset members of his base. Last summer he pushed a watered-down public power initiative with the idea that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and the downtown corporations might go along with it. He declined throughout 2001 and 2002 to lead progressive supervisors in formulating a viable plan for dealing with the homeless issue – a failure that allowed Sup. Gavin Newsom, who is acknowledged as the front-runner in the race, to create major momentum around a successful voter initiative to take cash grants away from homeless adults.

Moreover, the candidates and measures he endorsed didn't fare well on last November's ballot.

So by any standard, under any analysis, the first big question that will define the 2003 mayor's race is this: Can Tom Ammiano reunite with his base and get enough grassroots energy to make up for his lack of money – and then expand his appeal enough to win a majority of the vote?

But Ammiano isn't the only candidate facing real questions. In fact, none of the three other leading candidates has anything resembling a lock on this election.

With the campaigns launching into high gear over the next two weeks, when the three leading candidates host formal kickoff events, the race is shaping up as a long list of uncertainties, among them:

Can former supervisor Angela Alioto, who was once one of Ammiano's few allies on the board, build credibility as a political player after six years out of office and pick up enough support from Ammiano's base to be a factor?

Can Newsom, who is only beginning to feel what could soon be withering media heat as the front-runner, hold up to the criticism and survive his image as a spoiled kid funded by the oil-rich Getty family?

Could former supervisor and current treasurer Susan Leal, a low-profile politician who in the past has stood with the discredited and crumbling Brown-Burton machine, find enough of a constituency to make it to the top of the list?

Will the new instant-runoff voting system be in place by November – and how will it change the electoral calculus?

Is there a person who hasn't come forward yet who could really generate some excitement and turn into a late-entry dark horse?

With the city heading for fiscal disaster, is there a progressive candidate anywhere who can get elected mayor of San Francisco?

Can Tom win?

Ammiano is the first to agree that some members of his traditional base aren't thrilled with everything he's done over the past couple of years.

Disappointment was so strong among some key supporters that after the last general election, when the Ammiano-backed candidates and issues took a pounding, there was talk among a handful of progressives of asking Ammiano to stay out (see "Beyond the Bad News," 11/13/02, and Hall Monitor, 1/22/03).

But that didn't happen. Instead, even those who felt disenchanted are starting to argue that there's a lot at stake in November, and that Ammiano – despite efforts to court a different set of voters – is still their best hope. And he's definitely in the race. His official kickoff is Feb. 19.

"I'm standing behind Tom," housing activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca said. "I think that ultimately Tom has been there for us all along. I think we've got to look at that and stand behind him. He has been there for us when absolutely no one else was. Gavin Newsom could become mayor, and that's too scary to even think about."

Indeed, there is a lot at stake in the 2003 race. After taking a beating at the last two ballots – with the loss of former supervisor Harry Britt to former supervisor Mark Leno for a seat in the state assembly, the loss of initiatives for public power and to raise taxes on the sale of property worth more than $1 million, and the defeat of progressive Eileen Hansen to former mayoral aide Bevan Dufty in the race to succeed Leno on the board – the progressive movement that peaked with the reintroduction of district elections in 2000 badly needs a boost.

As that realization starts to hit left-leaning voters, Ammiano strategists say, the old coalition will turn out and work for him. Moreover, many voters may get turned off by revelations in the San Francisco Chronicle that Newsom owes the fancy, Pacific Heights roof over his head and much of his start in his successful hospitality businesses to his relationship with wealthy oil heir Gordon Getty.

"Tom's challenge is to carve out a populist platform that everyday people can relate to," said Robert Haaland, the housing activist who coordinated the volunteer effort for Ammiano in 1999. "What's unique about Tom is that groups that have been disenfranchised in the past have felt he was one of the only supervisors they could go to. Now, they can go to other offices. That's a healthy thing. But what Tom needs to do is reach out to the taxicab drivers and waitresses who don't get house loans from the Gettys."

And then he has to get beyond the 40 percent ceiling that stopped him in 1999.

Jim Stearns, a San Francisco-based political consultant who is not working for any local mayoral hopeful, said Ammiano has a shot – if he can get out and connect with moderate voters.

And that's exactly what Ammiano has been doing. He's been sitting down for chats in the living rooms of homes in the Sunset and Excelsior Districts – those neighborhoods where he traditionally hasn't pulled so many votes.

"They want accountability," Ammiano said, "and they like district elections." Ammiano put district elections on the ballot.

Moreover, Ammiano argues, and political strategists acknowledge, that he may get a bounce from the antiwar movement. Ammiano spoke at the Feb. 15 peace rally.

"I'm really excited, and our people are really excited," he told us. "I think our shot is good."

The Angela factor

Since the early 1990s, Alioto's campaign slogan has pegged her as "the Heart of San Francisco." And her legislative record on the Board of Supervisors reflects that: she crafted some important anticorporate and pro-social welfare legislation (see "Kicking and Screaming," 1/8/97).

San Francisco has Alioto to thank for the ban on cigarette smoking in restaurants and bars. We have Alioto to thank for helping in the creation of the city's needle-exchange program. And we have Alioto to thank for pushing public power at City Hall when most of the board was content to protect PG&E's interests.

But six years is a long time to be out of the spotlight – and it will take a lot of work to remind voters of her record. She's certainly got the money ($250,000 so far), having succeeded in her law practice over the past several years. And she's hired New York City-based Doug Schoen, a heavyweight in the national political consulting industry.

She's also quick to identify Newsom and Ammiano with the budget fiasco and other disasters facing the city.

"There's a total failure of leadership going on with the present candidates, and the corruption at City Hall is totally out of hand," Alioto said. "The corruption, the contracts, the money going to people analyzing whether there should be an airport strip – that money could easily go to all the services that are so desperately needed. The bottom line: My candidacy is about making San Francisco the world-class city that it used to be, so we don't have all this crisis and corruption that is presently happening."

Alioto hopes to find support among African American voters, who may remember she won a major discrimination suit against the makers of Wonder Bread. As the only woman among the three top candidates in a city with a history of voting for women, she has an automatic boost. And she'll almost certainly get support in North Beach – and oddly enough, among conservative seniors. Older voters fondly remember her father, former mayor Joseph Alioto, and in some parts of town, her name is still magic.

Alioto's kickoff was scheduled for Feb. 18 at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club.

The rich kid

Newsom's greatest advantage at this point is the sophistication of his campaign machine. For a year and a half he's been working on the mayoral race. The Care Not Cash campaign was, in a way, a dress rehearsal.

Newsom, owner of the Plump Jack café and wine stores (and the Matrix Fillmore club), has raised the most money (about half a million dollars so far). His campaign, led by consultant Eric Jaye, may be the most effective at identifying new voters and getting them out to the polls. He is, by all accounts, the front-runner. (As Alex Tourk, one of Newsom's volunteer organizers said at a Feb. 15 training session, "The other candidates are running against Newsom. Only Newsom is running for mayor.") But he is not without vulnerability.

Since the beginning of 2003, the city's dailies have been giving Newsom a little grief. And he hasn't been handling it particularly well. When the San Francisco Examiner revealed Newsom had ordered the City Attorney's Office to work on legislation repealing the popular district elections, his aide, Mike Farrah, tried to take the blame. When the Chronicle revealed Newsom had failed to report the Getty loans on his home and business on his statements of economic interest, he blamed the City Attorney's Office. (Both City Attorney Dennis Herrera and former city attorney Louise Renne say Newsom's excuse is bogus.)

"Newsom isn't really ready for prime time. He's all flash, but when he's put on the spot, his first reaction is to shift responsibility to someone else," gay rights advocate Jeff Sheehy, who is supporting Leal, said. "There's some irony with someone who's gotten over $2 million in loans from one of the city's richest families taking $300 away from the poorest people in the city. I think his unwillingness to be honest about it is what will alarm people the most."

Jaye disputed the charge that his candidate is out of touch with most people. "Newsom's political career show's he's got the courage to make changes that matter to all San Franciscans," he said.

Bob Henderson, who managed Public Defender Jeff Adachi's campaign and is now handling Ammiano's, said Ammiano will seek to remind voters that Newsom is part of a corrupt political system voters rejected with the victory of Adachi last March.

"This guy was appointed to the board by Willie Brown and is his handpicked successor," Henderson said. "But he's never worked for ordinary people."

Newsom's kickoff is scheduled for March 8. Having booked the 7,000-seat Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, he is clearly looking to make a big statement.

Is Leal real?

Former supervisor and current treasurer Leal would greatly benefit if instant-runoff voting is in place by November. She would likely be the second choice of many Newsom voters, and her status as a lesbian Latina could make her the second choice of some Ammiano voters, analysts say. She's clearly positioning herself as the calm, reassuring presence who can manage the affairs of government well.

"Ammiano has grassroots support all over city, but I don't think he's expanded his base. I don't see ways for him to grow," campaign consultant David Spero, who is not backing anyone for mayor, told us. "Both Alioto and Leal appeal to a wide variety of different ethnic communities. Leal brings the fact that she's run a city office very well. So she can run on the theme of competence and maturity."

Leal was appointed to the Board of Supervisors in 1993 by Mayor Frank Jordan but quickly turned on her political mentor. She endorsed Brown for mayor in 1995 and even voted against putting district elections on the ballot (see "The Real Leal," 10/1/97).

She has called herself the "practical progressive," but others say she is little more than an opportunist with no coherent ideology. And the office she runs is so low-profile that a lot of San Franciscans have no idea she's even an elected official.

It's all about IRV

Beyond the candidates, there's a huge sleeper issue in the running: will instant-runoff voting be in place for November?

In March 2002 voters approved a new system for electing their representatives, a program that would eliminate the need for runoffs. Instead, voters would make a first choice for mayor, and then a second and a third. A candidate would have to be careful about not bashing other candidates, for fear of offending voters who potentially might make that candidate his or her second choice. IRV, in theory, will greatly reduce the cost of elections and reduce the need for big expenditures of soft money – much of which goes to whacking the opposition.

According to some analysts, if IRV is in place by November, as is required by the initiative, that's good for Alioto and good for Leal. Some say it's also good for Ammiano – and could be his only real shot at victory. But Alioto, for one, doesn't think it's going to happen.

"IRV isn't going to happen,'" Alioto said. "It's not ready. And I don't think it should be tested on a mayor's race."

But some progressives say it's up to activists to push officials to get the system ready and comply with the law. They also say they think the new process will help Ammiano get elected.

"With IRV, I think it's a whole different dynamic," Haaland said. "I think it's totally unpredictable."

"Remember that this is San Francisco. It's early, and anything can happen," Stearns said. "But in an IRV situation, the more the merrier on the left. That's because every group is going to reach out to people. And more people on the left will find people they truly care about. That tends to up turnout. I think Tom's got really loyal people who respond to his long-standing reputation as a person of integrity. That and the personality have been the Ammiano hallmark. He really needs to go to that strength, and maintain his confidence. And he needs to convince. It's [a matter of] going to his positive and making sure that for people for whom he's not their first choice, he's their second."

Meanwhile, some say the next mayor may not even be in the race yet. If Newsom self-destructs, will the machine find another horse? If Ammiano can't gain any traction in the next few months, will there be pressure on, say, Carole Migden (the popular former assemblymember now biding her time on the state Board of Equalization) to step in? Is there a late entry who isn't yet on anyone's radar?

Hold on to your seats, folks: this ride has only begun.

E-mail Savannah Blackwell at savannah@sfbg.com.