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They Might be Mayors: Tom Ammiano


In his last campaign for mayor as a write-in candidate, San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano forced a run-off against Mayor Willie Brown.
It was an upset that surprised a number of long-time San Francisco pols and rattled the city’s business community. Ammiano’s current race — in which he has support from labor, the city’s gay community and many of those in the liberal coalition that almost captured the mayor’s office in 1999 — is an attempt to turn that near victory into a solid win. Ammiano was interviewed at his campaign headquarters on Mission Street.
What’s this race about for you as a mayoral candidate?
I think it’s about a recognition of populist issues. I think there’s been a tradition in the mayor’s race in San Francisco that the mayor is someone, man or woman, who has more of a — for lack or better word — a downtown orientation, not so much a neighborhood orientation. So I suppose you could say there are some class issues involved.
I think there is an issue about gay/straight here. I don’t think it’s necessarily a pervasive or negative thing. After so many years of being in San Francisco, the gay community actually has one or two candidates for the mayor’s office that are credentialed and certainly experienced enough. Some people are going to be challenged by that.
So class issues, orientation issues. But also, the momentum toward more accountability with the district elections. Is that going to be sustained? Is that going to be recognized? Should the mayor have total power of appointments, things like that, or should it be shared?

You said populist instead of progressive.
San Francisco’s populist in the sense that populism is neither progressive nor conservative or liberal. Populism is to me more hands on. We like to meddle [laughs]. We like to be included. That’s what I mean.
You came to San Francisco in 1970…
1962. I taught at private school in the Richmond District for really profoundly disabled kids that the public schools would not take. In 1964 I got my masters in special ed. I continued teaching in private school and then went to Vietnam. That was for IVS — International Voluntary Services — which has started out as a Quaker organization. Went there in 1966 through 1968. Then came back. That’s when I came back and I started to rock and roll.
What’s the memory that locks in your head? The thing that keeps you here?
Liberating. Being under the radar. When you’re from a big extended family as I am and have an all-Catholic education there are certain parameters that have to be observed. I love my family and I like the community part of the Catholic church but I got asthmatic. I needed to blossom and bloom. And even though San Francisco was very lonely and very different I thought I had to stay to try and grown.
And we’re not just talking about sexual orientation.
No! Everything!
What do you miss about that?
Oh, you mean today? Being a little younger and a little freer, being able to bum around go “Okay, today I’m going to go stay in this apartment and then after that I’ll stay in this one.” There was a beauty to that. There was a downside, too, because you didn’t have a kind of support system. I had to work toward that. The thing that rewarded me the most was making friends that became an extended family. I thought [the city] was more accepting, at least in the parts where I hung out, and I was able to make friends and they thought the same. They didn’t have to necessarily be Italian-American or gay or Catholic. It was just so interesting to me to meet so many different kinds of people.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of as a public official?
I think just getting elected [in 1994] being the kind of guy I am, gay and liberal. I think the living wage. Being able to do that. And district elections. Those are two things I’m very proud of. Most people, even if they don’t agree with my politics, think I’m an honest guy. I like that.
What’s the thing you wish you hadn’t done?
[Having] the idea that I could push things through faster than people were ready. I put forward a lot of progressive ideas for taxes as soon as I got elected [in January, 1995]. It was such a big difference, even for some of my liberal colleagues, that they all shied away from me and I didn’t have much success.
The budget was in the toilet. How about a commuter tax? How about an income tax in San Francisco? How about taxing stock exchange transfers? All are ideas that I think have some merit but it just hit everybody so fast and so hard that even the Supervisors who would tend to agree — I didn’t give them the chance to catch their breath.
His priorities:
2)Housing/Home Ownership
3)Homelessness/Quality of Life
4)Jobs/Economic Reform
5)Muni/Public Transit
6)City Government Reform
7)Police Department Oversight
8)Neighborhood Preservation/Development Issues
What’s the most important change you would like to see in San Francisco, regardless of whether you become mayor?
Economic recovery/resolving of the homeless issue.
Part of the issue of homelessness is poverty and people being displaced. If you get the economy together you have a lot less of that. And if you have the economy together you have better public health, better mental health services so I think there’s a connection there. We all have to be honest, though. There’s a still a lot of fraud and mismanagement.
What the thing you don’t want to change about San Francisco?
Its diversity. I moved to what is now called Bernal Heights in 1973. It was a fairly funky neighborhood. It had a lot of families and I had neighbors who were African-American and Latino. We’ve made a big effort, through community involvement, to preserve that. But there has been a change in housing. I don’t want to make San Francisco a have and have-not city. We’re still hanging on to that. I want to be really sure we never sacrifice that. I like the Mission how it is. I don’t want the crime in the Mission. I don’t want the dirty streets in the Mission. But I don’t want everything to look like L.A. and chain-store-y and like that. I’ve lived there almost 30 years and we do merchant walks and I go “Where did this store come?” from because it has so many little secrets. And I love that.
Some people have compared this race to the TV reality show “Survivor.” You’re on the island, Tom, who do you want to vote off?
There’s not one of my opponents that I wouldn’t send off.
That’s a double negative.
If we look at the current crop of candidates, they’re almost to a person negatively reacting to [Supervisor Gavin] Newsom, so if we could get down to me and Newsom — that’s what I think should happen.
That doesn’t quite answer the question. Who would you vote off?
I guess [Angela] Alioto and [Board of Supervisors President Matt] Gonzalez.

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