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The Enforcer: Accused Bombmaker Ryan Chamberlain Helped Blow Up San Francisco Politics. And, in the Process, Himself. 

Wednesday, Jul 9 2014

You’re reading this. That means we probably don’t know each other anymore, and I owe everyone an explanation. — Ryan Chamberlain

A door creaks open in the rear of the 15th-floor courtroom and a tall, handsome man trundles into view. Ryan Chamberlain, 42, wears a sweatshirt, shorts, and sneakers and looks as if he sprinted here directly from the Marina. He nearly did: Following a three-day run (of sorts) during a “national manhunt,” San Francisco police officers the prior evening apprehended the political operative turned accused bombmaker and FBI fugitive at Crissy Field.

He is not a man lacking friends. The coterie of Chamberlain’s supporters who visibly wince when he’s marched into his June 3 court appearance also seem to have been delivered here directly from the Marina. Their sundresses, trucker caps, oversize eyeglasses, and tattoos stand out at Federal Criminal Court.

”Ryan,” says a fellow city politico, “is one of those people that just everyone knows.” Yet, according to what was widely described as a “suicide note” posted on Chamberlain’s Facebook page during his time on the run, he is a man no one knows. And that’s the case regardless of whether or not he purchased deadly toxins on clandestine, black-market internet sites or assembled a homemade bomb within his Polk Street apartment.

”I’m so sorry about this. I’m sure this will completely blindside you all,” Chamberlain wrote in the online message posted hours after friends and loved ones were jolted by news of HazMat-suited feds raiding his apartment — and then left to wonder if they ever really knew him at all. “Whenever you saw me I was on the top of the world, because you pulled me up there.

”You never knew what hit me the minute I left to go home alone.”

Today was going to be a good day.

The building manager offered the FBI agents the key, but they wanted no part of it. “They said, ‘Lady, you get back inside your apartment,’” says Jim Hirsch, Chamberlain’s former landlord. “Then they proceeded to knock the door down.”

The lengthy affidavit supporting the search warrant authorizing the excitement of May 31 recounts a convoluted web of shadowy men on shadowy websites exchanging Bitcoins for deadly toxins. It doesn’t, however, mention explosives. But, within Chamberlain’s home, federal agents claim they discovered an alleged improvised explosive device loaded with shrapnel and ready to be triggered via remote control.

”Oh, Ryan,” his landlord laments. “He could’ve blown up the building!”

San Francisco cops arrested him at Crissy Field three days later, only three miles from his busted front door.

In the wake of his high-profile pursuit, capture, and subsequent processions in and out of court, former colleagues and employers attempted to recast Chamberlain’s San Francisco legacy, and not for the better. The man “everyone knows” was, at one time, an elected member of San Francisco’s Republican County Central Committee. As a political operative, he was enabled — and directed — by powerful business and political players to assail this city’s left.

He penned vitriolic campaign material, wrote impassioned articles, seeded nasty quotes, and, at one point, authored an acidic, novella-length broadside against then-Supervisor Chris Daly — whom, witnesses recall, he was not above heckling during public appearances. In a politically bruising era, Chamberlain had some of the sharpest elbows in town. “He did what his bosses told him to do, and then they hung him out to dry as the fall guy,” bemoans a former colleague.

Perhaps. But what struck enemies and allies alike was how willingly Chamberlain played the role. “Ryan was part of a destructive political conversation San Francisco engaged in for a number of years,” recalls a longtime opponent. “He ran out there with a bayonet, and he did it with relish.”

That was then. Now, Chamberlain’s former proximity to this city’s pro-business, development-friendly power structure and San Francisco’s entrenched political class is an embarrassing liability.

So Chamberlain was depicted in recent news stories as a small fish, a hanger-on, a low-level political afterthought, a mindless conduit of other men’s spite.

But this isn’t true.

Chamberlain was, in fact, a skilled field organizer, effectively serving as an on-the-ground representative and evangelist for a handful of citywide and district candidates over the course of half a dozen years. He was a pioneer of political practices that are, for good or ill, now ubiquitous in this city. He grasped the power of the internet before his contemporaries: “Ryan was on the tip of the spear in seeing how you could broadcast to a huge number of people at a time in politics when others were still trying to figure out what the hell CompuServe was,” says a colleague. (Chamberlain was a divisive force in San Francisco politics — but his foes and supporters are now united in not wanting their names anywhere near his in a newspaper article).

Politics wasn’t just a job for Chamberlain. He saw political activism not as a vocation but a calling. He entertained visions of how things ought to be in this city and grand plans of how he could lead it there.

But Chamberlain’s employers had starker tasks in mind for him and his particular set of talents. A number of erstwhile political allies and enemies alike independently hit upon the identical analogy when asked to describe Chamberlain’s role in this city: There is, on every hockey team, one player assigned the primal tasks his daintier associates can’t or won’t undertake — to deliver that bone-shattering blow. To force the opponent into an ugly place. To pound him where it hurts, again and again. To execute the coach’s strategy at the expense of one’s own ego, reputation, and longevity.

Ryan Chamberlain was the enforcer.

”I have no doubt,” says a longtime political adversary, “that Ryan sacrificed himself a great deal churning out the stuff those campaigns wanted to have out there.”

Chamberlain’s sacrifices helped render this city politically toxic, while rendering him politically radioactive. But, in doing so, he helped usher in our current, business- and development-enthralled era. His former taskmasters are thrilled with the ultimate results.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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