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The Happiest Warrior

Scott Lucas | November 21, 2014 | Story Politics

Sitting in his office in the State Building in San Francisco's Civic Center, Tom Ammiano can't stop playing with his wedding ring. The three-term state assemblyman, 14-year San Francisco supervisor, and two-time mayoral candidate is absentmindedly rotating the gold band up and down his ring finger. "I like it," he says a little bashfully, more the blushing groom than the grizzled political bulldog. "I'm nervous about it. I don't want to lose it. I like it very much."

Ammiano's sweetness about the ring is completely warranted: He swore his vows just a week ago, at the age of 72. In a surprise move—practically an in-town elopement—he married his longtime partner, Carolis Deal, in front of dozens of unsuspecting friends and supporters at what was ostensibly a welcome-home party. "There's so much stress around weddings," Ammiano tells me later. "I thought, why not just do it?" And so they did.

The ceremony took place on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September at the Delancey Street Foundation near AT&T Park, in front of several dozen politicians, supporters, friends, and family members. Most of the guests, myself included, believed that we were there to welcome Ammiano back from his final assembly term in Sacramento. John Perez, the outgoing speaker of the assembly, gave Deal a kiss and called Ammiano “the conscience of the assembly.” Berkeley assemblywoman Nancy Skinner paid her respects while wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt. Bob Wieckowski, who worked next to Ammiano in the assembly’s chambers, recalled having to shout for Ammiano to come back to his desk because he was so engaged in rounding up votes. David Campos, the supervisor who received Ammiano’s endorsement in a razor-close race to succeed him against board colleague David Chiu, worked the room, as did Tony Kelly, a progressive supervisorial candidate in the city’s southeast. (Both men would go on to lose their bids.) At a table in the back corner sat members of Ammiano’s family: his two older sisters, who’d flown in from the East Coast; his daughter and her husband, both educators in the Mission; and his three granddaughters.

Outside on a balcony, I chatted with Woody Dauernheim, who met Ammiano 45 years ago when the two shared a backyard on 16th Street near Castro. Dauernheim laughed as he recalled a party at which Ammiano, dressed in shorts, carried around a teddy bear. But he was quick to praise his friend as a freedom fighter. “When Anita Bryant came in, Tom fought back,” he said, referring to California’s Briggs Initiative, which would have banned openly gay people from working as schoolteachers (Ammiano had come out publicly at a press conference in 1975). “That shows his character,” said Dauernheim. “After that, I supported him no matter what he did.”

Guest after guest talked to me about the steadiness of Ammiano’s convictions. His grandniece Malia Lazu, the executive director of the Future Boston Alliance and a community organizer, pointed out that it’s rare to find a public figure who combines the pragmatism of a legislator with the passion of an activist. That unusual mix, she believes, is the source of her uncle’s strength. People think of Ammiano as “the Dennis Kucinich of California politics,” she said. “But I think of my uncle as an old–school, Saul Alinsky, salt-of-the-earth politician. He gets called an almost-Marxist, and I think that’s right.” She meant that last part as praise.

What do you do after you’ve spent half your life holding public office? Where do termed-out septuagenarians go? Ammiano has been a public schoolteacher, an AIDS activist, a stand-up comic, a school board member, the president of the Board of Supervisors, a state assemblymember, and an aspiring mayor. So what’s next? Will he take another shot at city hall? Run for state senate? Or is it finally time to hang up the spurs?

As I discussed these questions with other guests out on the balcony, we heard jazz singer Paula West begin to serenade Ammiano with Bob Hope’s signature song, “Thanks for the Memory.” It’s a sappy old tune, and, in this case, perhaps premature—Ammiano’s in good health; there are memories left to be made. But his friends and allies couldn’t deny the aptness of some of the lyrics: “You might have been a headache,” West sang as Ammiano listened quietly, “but you never were a bore.” Just a few minutes later, he would prove that sentiment once again.

If Tom Ammiano did not exist, San Francisco would have to invent him. He is as archetypal as the cable cars and the fog, a true character: brash, shrill, funny, more liberal than liberal, and—for better and worse—the standard-bearer for a generation of local progressives. He is also, for the first time in several decades, a man without a political war to wage.

Ammiano, who grew up in conservative New Jersey, moved to California in the mid-’60s to study at San Francisco State, where he received a master’s degree in special education. Drawn to grassroots activism, he volunteered to teach English in South Vietnam in the late ’60s. He began teaching in San Francisco schools upon his return, and it wasn’t long before he confronted the district over its treatment of disabled students. His first appearance on the political scene came in 1975, when he became the first openly gay public schoolteacher in San Francisco.

In 1980, after Harvey Milk’s assassination, Ammiano ran for the San Francisco Board of Education, a citywide race. “I got my ass kicked,” he says. “I had been trying to get a school named after Harvey Milk, and
it was very ugly.” Ammiano turned away from full-time teaching during the 1980s, eventually becoming an AIDS educator who moved from classroom to classroom. It was then that he began performing stand-up comedy, rubbing shoulders with comics like Robin Williams. But with the AIDS crisis approaching its nadir (his longtime partner, Tim Curbo, was diagnosed in the late ’80s and died in 1994), he began to get more serious about politics. In 1988, he ran a second time for the school board, again championing renaming a school after Milk. Though he was still a political neophyte, he showed a knack for getting people’s attention: At a fundraiser for a library bond during the election, Ammiano dressed up as Pee-wee Herman. He narrowly missed winning a seat during that race, but two years later he garnered more votes than any other school board candidate as part of what was called the Lavender Sweep, which brought several other LGBT candidates into office.

During his time on the school board, Ammiano established his progressive credentials on issues like AIDS education, condom distribution, and bilingual education, but he also showed a talent for reaching out to the city’s moderate faction. He made a point of visiting schools in the more conservative neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks, and he helped a group of bigwig Balboa High School alumni block a plan that called for the school building to be sold. “I wasn’t just the gay guy on the board,” he says. “They appreciated me doing that.”

In 1994, when a seat opened up on the Board of Supervisors, that talent for outreach propelled Ammiano to victory. “I think people voted for me because they recognized my name,” he says. “East of Twin Peaks I did very well, and in the west I picked up the slack.” Once he reached the Board of Supervisors, the personal history of Tom Ammiano essentially merged with the political history of San Francisco’s progressive wing: “He’s like Zelig,” says Rich DeLeon, the author of Left Coast City and an emeritus professor at San Francisco State. “Every piece of pioneering legislation had Tom Ammiano there.”

In his first year in office, Ammiano attacked the AIDS crisis, brokering a compromise on a standard of care between Kaiser and activists. He made headway in reforming the police department after fatal shootings of African Americans and a raid of an HIV/AIDS fundraising event, and he wrote a domestic partnership benefit law that required delicate negotiations with the city’s Catholic diocese.

From then on, Ammiano played the role of midwife to San Francisco’s progressives. He led the charge to reinstate district elections—a law that passed in 1996, but did not take effect until 2000. In 1999 he made his first run at the mayor’s office. Entering the race late, he waged a write-in candidacy that forced Mayor Willie Brown—the former ayatollah of the assembly—into a runoff. Ammiano finished far short in that second round, with only 40 percent of the vote, but he carried many precincts on the city’s east side, including the Mission, the Tenderloin, and the Haight. (Bitterness stemming from what progressives saw as homophobia in the Chronicle’s coverage of the race fed a leftist disdain for the paper that continues today.)

Thanks to that campaign operation, and to increasing concern about the displacement effects of the first dot-com boom, Ammiano led a progressive takeover of the Board of Supervisors in 2000. “He personally recruited strong candidates,” says DeLeon, “including Aaron Peskin, Chris Daly, Matt Gonzalez, and others. Willie Brown had no clue.” Backed by what was known as the Class of 2000, Ammiano became the city’s Newt Gingrich—the agenda-setting leader of the legislative body. Under him, the board established the Eastern Neighborhoods community planning process, the healthcare ordinance that became Healthy San Francisco, a paid-sick-leave law, and a hands-off policy toward undocumented immigrants. “By 2004, while the nation was turning right, San Francisco was turning left,” says DeLeon.

Ammiano tried again for the mayoralty in 2003, resigning as Board of Supervisors president to prepare, but the late entry of Matt Gonzalez spelled the end of his quest. The relative newcomer, a handsome Green Party member who moonlighted as an artist and a poet, sopped up much of the progressive energy formerly reserved for Ammiano. In the general election, Gonzalez lost to Gavin Newsom.

Ammiano took some internecine heat for not using his troops to bolster Gonzalez’s bid against Newsom (although assumptions of an Ammiano-run campaign machine were always a little overblown). Still, when he ran for state assembly in 2008, Ammiano cleared the field and then won against token Republican opposition—making him one of the first openly gay men to hold a seat in the chamber. (He was elected in the same year as John Perez, who became the first openly gay speaker.)

In Sacramento, Ammiano cut an idiosyncratic figure. He stood solidly to the left of the left wing—during his first term in office, he introduced a bill that would have legalized marijuana—and he refused to tone down his personality. In the country club atmosphere of the capitol, with its reserved elevators for elected officials and its gubernatorial smoking tent, his colleagues may have seen him as a little, well, flamboyant.

But strangely enough, Ammiano became a Sacramento success story: He was a legislative workhorse, passing 58 bills during his six years, notching a string of policy successes, and rising to the chair of the Committee on Public Safety. (Perhaps most impressive, he did it all despite barely raising any money. Of the 10 Democrats who entered the assembly in 2008 and stayed for the full six years, Ammiano was ninth in fundraising.) As Corey Cook, political science professor at the University of San Francisco, puts it, “He went in to make a difference, and by just about every objective measure, he has.”

One key to Ammiano’s success has been simple persistence. Take, for instance, his protracted battle to install a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the iconic span opened in 1937, more than 1,600 people have jumped from it, almost all of them dying. Beginning as a supervisor, Ammiano (working with family members of the victims and Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt in 2000) steadily pushed for a barrier in the face of concerns about cost, effectiveness, and aesthetics. It took years of pressure, but last July, the bridge’s oversight board voted to fund a steel net in part with tolls, coupled with money from the state and federal governments. Construction should be finished in 2018. (Ammiano also wrote a bill requiring authorities to consider barriers at all new bridge constructions, but it was signed into law too late for the new span of the Bay Bridge—the first suicide there was reported in July.)

Among other Ammiano laws were a bill of rights for domestic workers, protections for transgender schoolchildren, and several political disclosure reforms: One, signed into law this fall, requires those who appear as doctors in campaign ads to actually be doctors. Ammiano bills also helped pave the way for the America’s Cup to be held in San Francisco and for the redevelopment of Pier 70. But, as Cook points out, it’s not just his wins that were meaningful—his losses were too.

Take this year’s AB 2405. As San Francisco’s housing affordability crisis spun out of control, a group of lawmakers led by Mayor Ed Lee called on Sacramento to reform the state’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords who exit the rental market to evict tenants. A local consensus developed around state senator Mark Leno’s effort to forbid use of the Ellis Act within five years of a building’s purchase, thereby curbing its use by property speculators. Ammiano went a different way. His bill would have allowed local governments like San Francisco to totally ban use of the Ellis Act—full stop. It was, in a word, extreme.

Both bills lost (though Ammiano did vote for Leno’s when it came to the assembly), but according to some Sacramento observers, Ammiano’s legislation pushed the debate to the left much more strongly than Leno’s did. “Folks don’t give him enough credit,” says Cook. “He’s shown that you can be principled and at the same time be willing to compromise and take another shot the following year.”

Though Ammiano won’t be around to take another crack at the Ellis Act, his bill set up the issue for others to take on. Ironically enough, it’s an example of a strategy that has paid big dividends to national Republicans: Stake out an uncompromising position and use it to drag the centrists in your party slowly but surely in your direction. More than that, it’s just smart politics. Ammiano’s wins are wins—and his losses are investments in later wins.

Ammiano has made a political career of playing the long game. Within the loose constellation of officeholders known as the City Family, he has been characterized by opponents as “the cranky old aunt at the table.” He seems to relish that description. “We’ve moved the center of politics in San Francisco,” he says, thinking of his decades-long career. Indeed, political observers note, there’s no question that Ammiano and his progressive brethren pushed both the city’s and the state’s politics to the left. “We transitioned to a new social compact,” says DeLeon. “[Progressives’] policies are to some extent locked in.” As Supervisor John Avalos puts it, “The city would be vastly different if Tom Ammiano were not here.”

Back at the Delancey Street shindig, the event’s master of ceremonies, Tom Temprano—the twentysomething copresident of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and a rising progressive star—cued up a video tribute to Ammiano. (A few nights before, Temprano had confessed to being terrified of sharing the stage with his political idol.) The video was cornpone—teachers singing Ammiano a song, union members cheering him on—but the crowd ate it up.

Finally, Ammiano rose to make a short speech that seemed calibrated to both tie a bow on his career and leave future options open. He had warm words for Campos, though he joked that the only precinct he’d be willing to walk for him would be Zuni CafeĢ. (Funny, one could imagine Willie Brown making the same joke.) He went through the standard politician’s routine of thanking by name every elected official or aspirant in the room—godawful boring if you’ve seen it even once, but Ammiano pulled it off better than most. “If I’m forgetting someone,” he said, “tough shit. I’m termed out.” He sang out, “What have you done for me lately?” and the crowd roared. Then Ammiano grinned and dropped the bombshell: “In honor of the Folsom Street Fair, we’re going to tie a knot.”

Deal, beaming, came onstage in a cream-colored jacket and a bow tie. The crowd, suddenly understanding what was about to happen, surged forward, many guests pulling out cell phones and holding them overhead. Former supervisor Harry Britt (1979–1992) joined the couple onstage, offering this in place of a prayer: “There is a man called Harvey Milk who should be mentioned here. The most important thing he taught us was that if you see the power in yourself and say no to all the people who say you’ve got none, there are no limits on the possibilities of your life.”

It was a mostly quiet, earnest ceremony, but Ammiano was too excited not to crack a little wise. When Britt intoned that marriage is forever, Ammiano interjected in mock pain, “Really? The rest of my life?” But soon came the vows, and Ammiano and Deal were both fighting back tears. “I do, I do,” said Ammiano quietly. “I most certainly do. Thank you, Carolis, for always having my back.”

After the ceremony, Britt couldn’t help rolling his eyes a little at Ammiano’s antics, telling me, “It would have been a lot quicker if Tom could have stayed quiet.” As I left the party, Deal, positively glowing, gave me a kiss on the cheek.

It was beautiful. It was touching. It had been 39 years since Ammiano had called a press conference to tell the world that he was gay.

A week later in Ammiano’s office, his wedding ring isn’t the only thing that he is fiddling with. He places his smartphone, sheathed in a purple case and buzzing intermittently, on the table next to his coffee. When it rings, he picks it up, squints, rolls his eyes, and tells me that it’s the Chronicle. I can see that he’s thinking about taking the call, but he puts the phone down. The second time that it rings, he doesn’t even check it. He may be almost out of office—his term officially ends on January 5—but he’s not out of circulation.

As you may have heard, the city of drag queens, refuseniks, and poets that Ammiano represented for so many years is facing something of an existential crisis these days. I ask Ammiano if he’s worried that the city is losing its weirdness. He shoots back: “You mean, is it losing my friends and family?” He laughs and points out that the good old days weren’t always so good either—the hippies, for instance, could be awfully homophobic. Still, he’s not totally reconciled to the new wave of tech money and tech workers.

On the subject of the Google bus protests, his response is telling: “It’s not about being anti-tech,” he says. “But the people who are here deserve a break too.” While it’s hard to argue with this, Ammiano seems to have a Manichaean belief that there is tech and there is the weird old San Francisco, and never the twain shall meet. It’s rather nativistic for a guy who came here from Jersey. But there are plenty of votes in this camp, and you can bet that whoever takes on Mayor Lee in the next election will beat the pro-weird, anti-tech drum.

Could Ammiano be that guy? What does the future hold for him? For one, there is being happy—the married life suits him, though he says that back in the ’70s he would have found it “too bourgie.” He’s also working on a memoir of his life and career: “I’ve got 10 chapters,” he says. “I don’t know why it’s been so painful to write. It’s hard to sit the ass down.” He tells me that he would love to do a one-man show again, picking back up where his comedy career left off. He was always a topical comic, and let’s just say that he wouldn’t lack for material. He’s also been putting out feelers about becoming a political commentator, perhaps on television or radio, sort of a progressive answer to Willie Brown—though, he says, “I don’t know if I dress as well as him, or have the same kind of influence as a lobbyist.”

Talking about his plans, Ammiano is effervescent and expansive, but he becomes less chatty when the conversation turns to a potential political campaign. “There are always bluebirds,” he says, meaning well-wishers who sing sweet songs in a politician’s ears. Despite his relatively advanced age, there is a sub rosa sentiment among certain progressives in favor of his making a third attempt at the mayor’s office in 2015. Lee still enjoys fairly strong popularity (one recent poll had his approval rating at a healthy 64 percent), but the mayor could be vulnerable to the right candidate with the right message. As Ammiano put it to the Bay Guardian before it was evicted to the great newsstand in the sky: “We’re so fucking ready for a progressive mayor.”

The question is, was he thinking of himself when he said that? I put it to him: What about another run for office? He does not say no: “The two most prominent are the mayor’s race or a run for state senate when Leno is termed out. [This conversation took place before rumors of a Leno mayoral run hit full steam.] We’ll see. The city is accustomed to me. The longevity has a lot to do with that.”

Ammiano does have name recognition, even if it derives in part from his two failed mayoral bids in the past. And, thanks to his stature, he enjoys the last-move advantage, able to wait and see what the rest of the field looks like before deciding whether to run. But the idea of another campaign doesn’t make him light up with enthusiasm like he did when describing his marriage and his plans for a one-man show—his responses sound perfunctory, and he quickly moves away from the subject. He may still be the Great Leftist Hope, but it’s not clear that he wants to be. Says DeLeon, “I would be very, very surprised if Ammiano were to run for mayor.”

If Ammiano were to run instead for the state senate when Leno is termed out of office in 2016, he could find himself campaigning against Castro district supervisor Scott Wiener, who is expected to take a shot at the seat. The differing political styles of the two men—both gay, one from the Stonewall Age and the other from Generation Truvada—would make for an epic contest.

But let’s not get too excited. Although two years is an eternity in politics, the smart money says that Ammiano won’t run for any office. It all comes back to that wedding ring—as good a symbol as any that he’s ready to move on to something new and let his record speak for itself. He’s made sure that domestic workers aren’t abused; he’s laid the groundwork for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate; he’s shifted the conversation on marijuana legalization and prison reform—all in the last six years. He’s done more than any school-teacher wearing shorts and carrying a teddy bear—and who almost lost his job because of who he was—could have imagined. Let the guy enjoy his life. “He deserves his own bust at City Hall,” says DeLeon. Ammiano doesn’t miss a beat. “A bust would leave out my best asset.”

That sappy old Bob Hope song got it just right: He might have been a headache, but he never was a bore.

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