San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 8, 1999



Willie Brown and his moneyed backers are stepping up their smears against Tom Ammiano. Don’t believe the hype.


By Savannah Blackwell


To hear Joe O’Donoghue tell it, Tom Ammiano is as much of a threat to San Francisco as British troops were to Ireland.


“We’ve fought the fucking English,” O’Donoghue told us. Tom Ammiano is not going to put our backs against the wall.”


O’Donoghue runs the Residential Builders Association – and thus can galvanize droves of construction workers. He and the RBA have raked in big bucks from the status quo. Mayor Willie Brown’s Planning Commission has allowed hyperdevelopment all over the city – including the live-work lofts that are helping RBA members bring home the bacon.


O’Donoghue isn’t the only Brown ally trying to demonize the mayor’s upstart rival. You may have gotten phone calls from San Franciscans for Sensible Government saying the supervisor opposed a ban on “Muni miss-outs” – the practice that allows drivers to skip work without alerting the agency.

Not exactly. All Ammiano did was fend off an effort by then-mayor Frank Jordan to delay contract negotiations with the drivers’ union. More to the point, he helped broker the negotiations surrounding Proposition E, the Rescue Muni initiative, last summer. Thanks in part to Ammiano, Prop. E – which ended the miss-outs – made it onto the ballot. Voters overwhelmingly passed it last month.


But accuracy hardly matters when a mayor bankrolled by big money is in trouble. Big business is throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at a smear campaign aimed at preserving the status quo (see “Driving the Gravy Train,” page 28). Those phone calls about Muni, for instance – the group that paid for them is a vehicle for the Committee on Jobs, which represents the city’s largest and most powerful corporations.


Here’s a rundown of the charges against Ammiano, taken from mailers, ads, comments from Brown supporters, and remarks from the mayor himself.

Ammiano is divisive. Ammiano can’t bring people together, the line goes – most of his proposals don’t even pass the Board of Supervisors. But six of those supervisors were appointed by Brown – and those six tend to vote as a bloc (see “Brown’s Board: A Scorecard,” page 32).


What’s more, there are numerous instances in which Ammiano has successfully played mediator to competing interests.

The Muni discussions are just one example. Here’s another: last year he spearheaded an effort to make non-profit organizations with city contracts disclose some financial records. Open-government advocates wanted the law passed; nonprofits wanted it killed. In the end the two sides agreed on a compromise. Ammiano acknowledged it was weaker than he would have liked, but that’s how compromise works. He introduced it, and it passed the board.


It’s true that there’s one group that Ammiano has never gotten along with: big business. His door is not often open to lobbyists for downtown. That hardly disqualifies him to govern.


Ammiano loves taxes. At a Dec. 2 debate Brown said Ammiano “never in his life saw a tax he didn’t try to impose.” Mailers – from the Brown campaign and from “independent” supporters – say much the same thing.


It’s true that Brown has not raised taxes since he became mayor. But he has presided over a booming economy; when he ran the state legislature during the early-‘90s recession he was happy to sponsor tax increases. And even here Brown has backed some major bond issues – some worthy, some not.


Here’s Ammiano’s record on taxes: In 1995, when the city was facing a deficit of more than $100 million, Ammiano put forward a package of progressive taxes. They were aimed only at big companies and wealthy people – they wouldn’t have penalized small businesses, home owners, or middle-class San Franciscans. He’s no longer pushing those proposals – although, he says, if the economy takes a dive he’ll do what it takes to govern responsibly.


One Brown mailer claims Ammiano wants to repeal Proposition 13, the state initiative that slashed property taxes for small home owners and big businesses alike. In fact, he wants to reexamine the breaks for big commercial interests only – not those for home owners.


Ammiano doesn’t care about public safety. Brown made this ridiculous charge in debates; his campaign has played it up in recent mailers. It hinges on the assertion that Ammiano “wants to cut 21 cops.”


The kernel of truth at the center of this falsehood comes from the discussion surrounding this year’s budget. Ammiano wanted to follow the recommendation of the board’s budget analyst, who urged that the city hire those 21 officers over the next year rather than all at once. Brown’s camp has turned that fiscal prudence into the claim that Ammiano is “soft on crime” – a classic right-wing election-year tactic. ■


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