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San Francisco mayoral race mobilizes opposition to globalization

 by Steven Hill

In an otherwise off-political year, the San Francisco mayoral race that occurred in December commanded national attention. The quintessential "only in San Francisco" story line of the mainstream media set Willie Brown, the powerful, flamboyant and liberal African American incumbent, against Tom Ammiano, an openly gay man who was a teacher and stand-up comedian before becoming a president of the Board of Supervisors last year.

But on the ground, here in San Francisco, the real story was not about race, sexual orientation or who can crack the best jokes, but about that other, seldom-mentioned political dividing line: economic class. In fact, now that the election is over and pundits are sifting carefully through the political middens, it becomes ever-clearer that Ammiano's surprisingly strong challenge amounted to nothing less than a thinly-veiled protest against neo-liberalism and the rampant process of globalization. Interestingly enough, this electoral challenge came less than two weeks after thousands of protesters in Seattle delivered a shot across the bow of the WTO and its cruise ship, the USS Globalization.

San Francisco, a busy commercial and Internet center riding the crest of nearby Silicon Valley, is the poster city for the globalized economy. Local startups, IPOs and surging stock prices are the latest embodiment of the American Dream, dangling the bait before a wide-eyed generation. Signs of hyper-affluence are everywhere, as San Francisco has become a playground for the very rich. Willie Brown, in his Armani suits and wide fedora, has had the flash, panache and political craft to stride across this landscape like a giant.

You'd think San Franciscans would be grateful to Mayor Brown for the surging economy, and his re-election would have been a shoo-in. But while some San Franciscans have done extremely well in the globalized milieu, others are treading water, and too many have been left in the dust of the rocket momentum. Costs of housing, in a city that is two-thirds renters, has skyrocketed, driving some low and moderate-income people out of the city. "Poor people's" transportation -- public transit -- has been allowed to greatly deteriorate. Great numbers of homeless still wander the streets, subject to the Brown administration's increasing harassment and low intensity conflict. Most people can't afford to attend a 49ers or Giants game, let alone a high roller New Year's Eve party.

For many residents, Brown and his brand of politics have come to represent the worst of neo-liberalism and globalization. The mayor and his cronies represents the perks of power, of those who are on the inside track, and those who know how to make the new global system work for them. Most portentous, perhaps, Brown represents a trickle-down system where, for all too many, the connection between hard work and a decent standard of living is being tragically severed.

Into this breach, Tom Ammiano, president of the Board of Supervisors (the city council equivalent in San Francisco) stepped elegantly and cleverly. He mounted an electrifying write-in campaign only three weeks before the November general election, rapidly mobilizing hundreds of volunteers (who called themselves "Tom-boys" and "Tom-girls"), seizing the parameters of the political debate and hauling it leftward. He championed open honest government, campaign finance reform, neighborhood empowerment /anti-chain stores, public transit, affordable housing, and compassion for the homeless. His campaign provided hope and inspiration not only to those left out of the economic boom, but also to those who have gotten a piece of it but are nonetheless troubled by things like secretive WTO proceedings, fast-track NAFTA deals, and local machine politics funded by Silicon Valley and big developers. The Brown machine received a dent in its fashionable chapeau when Ammiano finished in second place, vaulting him into a runoff with Brown.

Once the campaign began for the December runoff, the dynamics turned truly strange. For one measure of how well Ammiano's class-tinged, little guy vs. big guy brand of politics played with the powers that be, consider this: Willie Brown, during his two decade tenure as Speaker of the California State Assembly, was the vilified poster boy of the Republican Party. When California voters passed term limits for state legislators, many Republicans labeled it the "Willie Brown Retirement Act." Despite the bitter history between Republicans and Willie Brown, the San Francisco Republican Party held its nose and actually endorsed Brown! Not only that, leading Republicans like former governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson doffed their caps in support of their old nemesis. Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz, endorsed Brown. Apparently the Republicans loathed Willie Brown less than they feared Tom Ammiano.

The Democratic Party establishment also went to bat for Brown, including Pres. Clinton, the California governor and both U.S. Senators. The leadership of organized labor, after having its arm twisted by the Brown machine seeking to short circuit any electoral insurgents like Ammiano, caved in and endorsed Brown a full year and a half before the election, despite heated opposition from the rank-and-file who supported the more labor-friendly Ammiano. San Francisco's organized labor seems to show no signs of blushing over the fact that they, the Republican Party and the downtown business establishment all were backing the same horse with massive independent expenditures.

Fully armed for conventional political warfare, Brown and his machine outspent Ammiano 12-1 in the December runoff. Brown won the election by a 60-40 spread, a landslide margin to be sure, yet the Ammiano forces insist that they were winners too. Here's why: Ammiano's electrifying late entry into the November general election boosted turnout of his supporters, causing every ballot proposition that Ammiano supported to pass, including ones for campaign finance reform, open government, public transit reform, health care, and a ban on ATM fees. For the December runoff, Ammiano's campaign registered over 14,000 new voters in an astonishingly short period of time and gave shape and direction to the inchoate grassroots, particularly a lot of young people and others previously uninvolved. In the process, a voice and a movement literally rose up like a mighty wave in opposition to the local incarnation of globalization and neo-liberalism, i.e. the Willie Brown machine. The Tom boys and the Tom girls are fired up, saying they will take their energies into the next electoral effort, as San Francisco begins using district elections in November 2000 with all 11 seats for the Board of Supervisors up for grabs. In his concession speech on election might, Ammiano unabashedly declared to throngs of his unwavering backers, "I am not conceding the war, but I am conceding the battle....I may be gay, my politics may be left. But we are right."

Protests like those against the WTO in Seattle and like Tom Ammiano's insurgent campaign may be a harbinger of a coming backlash against globalization. Only time will tell if this is the beginning of a new era of class-tinged politics in the United States.

[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press, 1999). He lives in San Francisco. For more information, see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.]

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