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Ammiano's Surprise, and Promise

Wednesday, Oct 20 1999
During my lunch hour last Friday, I wandered into the tail end of a phony Willie Brown publicity event at the Fourth Street CalTrans station. There was a small crowd, composed largely of Willie Brown campaign workers and other bored-looking politicos, bureaucrats, and community "leaders." Politicians of varying stripes spoke platitudes from beneath an arch made of balloons. The phony subject of the day was the Third Street Light Rail Project, which hasn't broken ground yet and won't be finished until 2003. The real subject of the day was getting Willie Brown re-elected by creating the illusion that he gets things done.

As I was leaving, a couple of hard-hatted construction workers -- probably from the nearby Giants' stadium project -- wandered by, staring forlornly at the empty food table. A cop looked at the men and laughed. "You got to be kidding me, man," he roared. "All the food was gone in 10 minutes. You got to be kidding."

The scene seemed a reasonable, if depressing, metaphor for the Brown administration: empty ceremony. Promises masked as accomplishment. Not even enough bread to go with the circus. Walking back to the office, though, for the first time in a couple of years, I was not the least bit depressed, or upset, or even irritated, by the stagey vacuity of Willie Brown. I knew that someone smarter than Willie was at work on the public consciousness.

Tom Ammiano pulled a political master stroke last week, though the mastery may not be evident until the last write-in ballot is counted on Nov. 2 or Nov. 3. By filing papers as a write-in candidate for mayor, Ammiano -- the openly gay former stand-up comic who is now the left-of-left president of the Board of Supervisors -- changed a disheartening exercise in futility into a real opportunity to choose.

Until last week, the mayor's race presented reasonable voters with four options, none palatable: They could vote to re-elect Willie Brown, simply because they've known him for a long time, and even though he has run an unfocused, incompetent, vengeful administration that seems to have strong kleptocratic tendencies; they could go for Clint Reilly, a former campaign consultant with no experience in public office; they could punch the ballot for Frank Jordan, a former mayor of undistinguished accomplishment and questionable intellectual depth; or they could pick from a list of 11 dwarf candidates, casting protest votes for people who will never be mayor of San Francisco, for good reason.

For weeks now, friends, relatives, and acquaintances had been asking me whom they should vote for. Until lunchtime last Friday, I had been dreading the task of writing about a mayor's race in which the choices ranged from unsatisfactory to frightening.

Even though I believe Ammiano to be less than the perfect candidate for mayor, the dread disappeared last Friday, making it very easy to write this next sentence: Every San Franciscan who is not inalterably committed to another candidate should write the words "Tom Ammiano for Mayor" at the top of his or her ballot on November 2.

Here is why.

Willie Lewis Brown Jr. has been an arrogant disaster of a mayor, in practical and symbolic terms. Blessed with abundant resources provided by a boom economy, he has cut deals, played the patronage game, and bought political support, rather than solving problems and planning for less sunny economic times. For three and a half years, we've gotten transparent spin, faux style, and insider deals, when what we needed was rational policy aimed at results.

As the mayoral campaign has oozed toward November, sliming all it touches, our daily scribes have fallen into their usual habits, presenting the choice for chief city executive as a sordid horse race, and creating a deadening subtext: No need for you to worry your little head about this; Willie's a bit of a rascal, but he will win, sooner or later, no matter what. On Sunday, the San Francisco Examiner, whose own investigative reporters have spent months laying out a horrifying trail of Brown-related sleaze, endorsed the mayor for re-election, and in the endorsement blithely mischaracterized his legacy of uncoordinated failure and ethical blindness as a record of achievement.

The Examiner's editorial board and top executives should be ashamed of the lies they told their readers; they certainly owe Lance Williams and Chuck Finnie, two fine reporters who have broken story after story about the FBI's investigation of apparent widespread corruption in the Brown administration, an abject apology. But I've come to expect large metropolitan dailies to grovel before the power of incumbency, and I've come to know that the best response to this sort of shameless arse-smooching is to state truth plainly: Willie Brown's administration has been characterized by two main attributes -- astonishing incompetence and apparent corruption.

The incompetence has been repeatedly documented by a wide variety of media outlets.

In his first campaign, Brown made the ridiculous promise to fix entrenched problems at the Municipal Railway within 100 days of taking office, and then he spent two years pretending that those problems were ones of perception (meaning, that the media had created the problems by reporting them). When the Market Street subway melted down and Muni's utter unreliability became undeniable, Brown responded in ways we have all become accustomed to. He blamed his predecessors, threw money at the problem, and tried to co-opt his critics by addressing the most superficial of their concerns. In short, he reacted politically, when effective policy was required.

Since Brown took office, San Francisco's low-income housing problem has become its low-income housing crisis; Brown gave us live-work lofts, marketed to the well-to-do and placed in absurd, problem-causing locations. The Redevelopment Agency has been all but bankrupted, while it funded projects for huge corporations (e.g., Gap Inc. and Bloomingdale's) that, really and truly, need no help. Vast amounts of mayoral effort were thrown into obtaining voter approval of a $100 million city contribution to a new 49ers football stadium; somehow, along the way, the mayor and his crack advisers forgot to require the team to go forward with the project. And anyone with any friends inside the city bureaucracy knows how politicized the routine workings of government have become, and how demoralized and fearful many city employees are.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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