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 Ammiano’s 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.
You’d 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 people’s” transportation—public transit—has
been allowed to deteriorate. Great numbers of homeless still wander the
streets, subject to the Brown administration’s increasing harassment and
low intensity conflict. Most people can’t afford to attend a 49ers or Giants
game, let alone a high roller New Year’s 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
Once the campaign began for the December runoff, the dynamics turned truly
strange. For one measure of how well Ammiano’s 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.
Reagan’s 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 Francisco’s 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. Here’s why: Ammiano’s 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, Ammiano’s 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 Ammiano’s 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).