San Francisco Bay Guardian - November 11, 1998
By Savannah Blackwell, Tim Redmond, and Gabriel Roth
San Francisco voters delivered a strong, swift kick to the broadside of the political establishment Nov. 3, saying, in essence, that the main directions of Mayor Willie Brown’s administration – privatization, secrecy, and imperial rule – are unacceptable.
By electing Tom Ammiano overwhelmingly to the top spot on the Board of Supervisors, voters picked a candidate known not only for his progressive politics but also for his political independence and commitment to open government. And although Mayor Brown had endorsed all of the incumbents, it was clear that Ammiano was not by any means his first choice.
Meanwhile, incumbent school board president Carlota del Portillo, who pushed the privatization of Edison Elementary, was ousted in a dramatic outpouring of electoral anger over the Edison experiment.
Ammiano’s victory is in part a tribute to old-fashioned grassroots campaigning. It’s also a sign that San Francisco, despite the conservative trend that inevitably accompanies rampant gentrification, still supports progressive candidates.
“This was one of the largest progressive victories I’ve seen in a decade,” pollster David Binder told the Bay Guardian. “This is a victory for labor, environmentalists, and tenants.” Ammiano’s victory, he said, was stronger than any other board president’s in a decade. “He got 48 percent of the [citywide] vote,” Binder said. In contrast, current board president Barbara Kaufman received 42 percent of the vote in 1996.
Ammiano was the only supervisor to vote against last spring’s bond pass-through, which allowed landlords to raise rents to cover property tax-bond costs. He has consistently voted against sellout deals with deep-pocketed companies such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Tele-Communications Inc.
But Ammiano also owes his popularity to the fact that, among the supervisors running for reelection, he alone doesn’t rubber-stamp Brown’s policies. Ammiano and Supervisor Leland Yee were the only two on the board who pushed to implement Proposition K, a voter-backed measure aimed at loosening the mayor’s control of Treasure Island.
“When the progressive community coalesces around a clear candidate, that candidate is going to do well,” political consultant Jim Rivaldo told us. He also said that many of the city’s more conservative independent-minded populists, the people who have supported state senator Quentin Kopp, “admired Ammiano’s contrariness to the mayor.”
Ammiano’s campaign was a challenge to big downtown corporations. The Committee on Jobs and the Building Owners and Manufacturers’ Association poured financial support into the campaigns of supervisors Mabel Teng and Gavin Newsom. “[Downtown] spent a ton of money to defeat Ammiano, and they failed,” Binder said.
Business groups attacked Ammiano as a tax-and-spend liberal. A mailer costing $25,000 went out to voters that asked, “Why does Supervisor Ammiano think we need higher taxes? Probably because he just voted to spend the city’s entire budget reserve on growing the city bureaucracy.”
A political action group called San Franciscans for Sensible Government – a coalition of 1,200 San Francisco businesses and property owners – took credit for the hit piece, which took aim at Ammiano’s support for grassroots activists’ budget proposals.
In one of the odder moments of the campaign, Brown even tried to use his own unpopularity against Ammiano, coolly letting it slip during a television appearance that Ammiano had promised Brown an endorsement in his bid for reelection. (Ammiano told the Bay Guardian he had made no such promise.) Observers say Brown may have hoped to undermine Ammiano’s claims of independence.
But all these attacks failed – in part because the supervisor entered the race with highly positive ratings. “The board presidency is about name recognition, and Ammiano had 40 percent positive name in July,” Rich Schlackman, a campaign consultant who worked with Supervisor Gavin Newsom, told us.
Ammiano suggested that voters were turned off by the attacks. “This shows that voters don’t go for that negative stuff,” he told the Bay Guardian. “They’re sick of it.”
Turnout was clearly a factor in the results across the board. Organized labor brought workers and their families to the polls, giving Ammiano a substantial boost. Tenant activists campaigning for Ammiano found once again that there’s nothing like a housing crisis to bring people to the polls. And according to Binder, the Bay Guardian, which endorsed Ammiano alone for the board, influenced some 20,000 voters.
Rose Tsai, whose platform also emphasized a willingness to stand up to the mayor, made a strong showing but failed to win a spot on the board. Tsai’s failure to come in among the top five, even in a weak field, suggests voters want a challenge to the mayor from the left. San Francisco still won’t elect a moderate conservative like Tsai.
As for former front-runner Teng, who finished third, Rivaldo said, “I think Mabel Teng went the way of [former supervisor] Carol Ruth Silver, starting out with an image of a crusading progressive, then slipping and sliding toward the middle. Then your base doesn’t trust you, your friends don’t trust you, and you get buried in the pack.”
The voter mandate was just as clear in the school board race, in which Dan Kelly, Eddie Chin, and Mauricio E. Vela all made strong showings. (Incumbent Kelly won by a large margin, Chin handily took the next seat, and Vela was narrowly defeated by Frank Chong for the third.) All three had called for increased accountability, a stronger check on superintendent Bill Rojas, and an end to Edison Project-style privatization.
With incumbent Jill Wynns still on the board – and president del Portillo summarily ousted for her imperious style and her staunch pro-privatization stance – reformist board members are one shy of a majority. Which means the big question for school board watchers is: which way will Chong swing? Chong, who was appointed by the mayor mere months before the election, missed the defining votes on privatization. He ducked the tough questions in a pre-election endorsement interview with the Bay Guardian as well.
“Tomorrow night is the key,” Wynns told us, referring to the school board’s Nov. 10 meeting, at which the board was scheduled to discuss amendments to the Edison contract. “Will Carlota even show up at the meeting? Can [Edison Project supporters] still count on four votes?
“The big question is, Can we get the board to operate in a more open and responsive way? That’s what this election was about – Edison is a symptom.” ■