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Interview with Tom Ammiano 

The full transcript of SF Weekly's interview with man who would be mayor

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
SF Weekly staff writer Joel P. Engardio interviewed mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano in the private upstairs dining room of Chinatown Restaurant, 744 Washington Street, at 1:30 p.m. Friday, November 19, 1999. Ammiano was waiting for a press conference to begin on the first floor below, where the Chinese American Democratic Club was to announce their endorsement of the supervisor for mayor. Sitting down for the interview, Ammiano was simultaneously checking his messages on his cell phone, while conferring with campaign scheduler Victor Valdiviezo and press liaison Belinda Griswold, who stood next to him.

Settling in to talk to Engardio in the middle of an hectic campaign day, Ammiano sighs. For the first 10 minutes of the interview, SF Weekly photographer Paul Trapani takes pictures.

Joel P. Engardio: You can take a deep breath; this piece is about the big picture look...

Tom Ammiano: Martini! It's time isn't it?

JPE: I want to try to be a little reflective and not deal with the day-to-day news...

TA: OK, so we'll get in the hot tub...all right now we're in the hot tub, we're in the virtual hot tub...[laughs]

JPE: Esther [Marks, campaign director] says she wishes you would have done this the regular way. Ideally, how do you wish you could have run for mayor?

TA: I'm feeling very good about how I did it. I think that it's paid off in ways we didn't expect. I think that the galvanization and the drama has made Monday morning quarterbacking people -- who were at first a little troubled by it -- now see it in their words as brilliant. It certainly has demonstrated to a lot of people who felt shut out or apathetic that there are still avenues, and that it ain't over until it's over -- and that's pretty much my style anyway.

JPE: How would you have wanted to do it if you had an ideal world?

TA: No opponent...[laughs]....I suppose the traditional way of campaigning still would not have been really appropriate to how I've done other campaigns. We don't raise the millions and we always work hard. So I suppose with the traditional way of announcing a candidacy -- having the kickoff and having everything in place -- who's to say do it this way and only do it this way. I think even when had those quote-unquote more traditional campaigns, we were very unorthodox in who we were and who we appeal to.

JPE: Well Esther's been with you, what does she mean by the regular way?

TA: For her, because of her fund-raising abilities. Which, by the way, she's astounding at and is coming through regardless of the format. For her, it would have been announcing in August and money being ready etc. But I have a feeling that announcing in August would not have guaranteed a runoff, and I think that being in the runoff -- and the only thing better being a direct win -- is quite the accomplishment. And also the impact of the write-in is significant in that it was 44,000 votes, which the regular way may or may not have been so many -- let's face it anything over 20,000 would've been regarded a victory.

JPE: Robert [Haaland, number 2 campaign leader] says at this point the campaign it's still very much grass roots, but he says it's a little more grown up. So how has the campaign in the last several weeks matured or grown up?

TA: Well I think that people now are somber in a good way about their responsibility that we could in fact win this, and that's made people somber about how real it is, and that the good feeling is still wonderful and that some structure is needed, particularly around communication and committees within the campaign to deal with various issues. So in that way we've gone from junior year to senior year, and we're hoping to graduate.

JPE: When was the shift, that graduation to senior year? When did you feel it happen, and what signaled it?

TA: Well we were ready for it. We had anticipation through the vote count and then it was cemented by the number of votes announced at City Hall, or even the day before when it was just a small margin over Jordan, and people were crunching numbers thinking well Tom could be number two, and then of course when they did the announcement of the number of votes and it was 25 percent.

JPE: Now that the Mission office is opening on Saturday, you have this wonderful scene at Josie's and you have a real functional scene going on in the Mission. Is this a symbol of that maturity?

TA: Yeah. I think that it's diversified and each will have its own signature and duties. And obviously Josie's has the high visibility in its connection with the beginning stages of the campaign. I was there yesterday for instance, and there were about 10 or 11 people there, all very attentive to tasks. It was a working, humming place and you didn't have the feeling of organized chaos. It was more focused and task orientated, and it felt great. It really felt professional, as it should be. And then we have Mission Street. One of the reasons we went to Mission Street was not only because the numbers of the campaign have outgrown Josie's, but it provides the phoning capabilities that we need.

JPE: Robert said the best thing besides the phones is the Popeye's across the street

TA: Right. We'll have to talk to them about their health habits.

JPE: Six months ago, did you really want to be mayor?

TA: I wanted to be mayor, but not in the way that it looked like the scenario would work out -- where there would be a nasty campaign and millions of dollars. Intuitively, I felt that it could happen, but I wasn't really clear about how other than the traditional way. So I've never really regretted not doing the filing in August. I was absolutely right, particularly for me. But I'm very happy that it manifested itself in such a way in those two months that a write-in became very appropriate.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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