New Course for San Francisco Lefties

First round eliminates gay candidates in mayoral race as a Green lives on

Following the November 4 election, San Francisco will not be the first major U.S. city with a gay mayor, even though two gay and lesbian candidates ran highly competitive campaigns.

Longtime gay activist and city Supervisor Tom Ammiano and lesbian city Treasurer Susan Leal were eliminated from further consideration by Tuesday’s election.

The top two finishers, both straight, a business-oriented Democrat, city Supervisor Gavin Newsom, and Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, of the Green Party, will face each other in a runoff election on December 9.

In a city that has served as an epicenter of gay rights, where there are many gay officials, voters seem to have shifted away from the politics of sexual identity to the politics of practicalities. The city’s seemingly intractable homeless problem, a mounting budget deficit, and competing interests dividing upper from lower income taxpayers emerged as the most salient issues.

“You don’t need to be an LGBT person to share the values of the community,” Newsom said at a recent rally.

As a supervisor, Newson has a strong pro-gay voting record. Ammiano was the sentimental favorite among older gay voters, many of whom remember his 1978 fight against the Briggs initiative that sought to ban gay teachers, which included Ammiano, from public school classrooms in California.

At a “Greens for Gonzalez” booth at last month’s gay Castro Street Fair, Dr. Paul Quick, 42, a gay Gonzalez supporter, said that while having a gay mayor would be noteworthy, “electing someone because they are gay is not useful to the progressive movement.”

Gonzalez entered the race barely three months ago and with a budget of only about $150,000, jumped into the second place slot past candidates, including Ammiano, who had been running hard since the beginning of the year.

Gonzalez has become the darling of the city’s progressive left, as Ammiano had been in a 1999 mayoral bid. That leftist mantle now belongs to Gonzalez, a lawyer, and progressives expect him to fight hard against the Democratic party machine, which progressives say includes Mayor Willie Brown and his hand-picked successor, Newsom.

In 1999 Ammiano campaigned as an outsider for affordable housing during a time of skyrocketing rents that peaked with the success of the dot com era, creating a crisis in homelessness in its wake.

According to San Francisco pollster David Binder, even as other issues have come to the fore, progressives remain a dominant voting bloc. But, this year, three candidates split San Francisco’s progressive vote. Gonzalez, Ammiano, and Angela Alioto, a former supervisor, three-time mayoral candidate, and daughter of former San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto garnered 46 percent of the vote, better than Newsom’s 42 percent. The challenge for Gonzalez will be to hold that progressive bloc together, particularly following a contest in which he earned Ammiano’s enmity.

San Francisco’s Democrats, who are closely allied with the city’s labor unions, can be expected to work hard to repel the challenge from a Green Party candidate. In the preliminary contest, union members were largely split between Ammiano and Alioto in this last round. Now they will be forced to choose Democrat Newsom or Gonzalez.

“I can hear the phone calls now to the unions,” said Larry Roberts, who is an aide on the Board of Supervisors “from [U.S. Rep. Nancy] Pelosi and [Senator Diane] Feinstein saying, ‘You will not endorse a Green.’”

Binder agreed, but predicted that the city’s unions, some of whom took an anybody-but-Newsom stance in the preliminary, would probably split.

Of San Francisco’s two major gay political clubs, the more moderate Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club is bound by its charter to endorse only Democrats.

“Since Gavin’s the only Democrat, I expect Alice would endorse him,” said club co-chair Theresa Sparks.

The president of the more progressive Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, Robert Haland, said that he couldn’t imagine his club endorsing Newsom, and didn’t rule out the possibility of not endorsing either candidate.

At 42 percent, turnout in this week’s voting was lower than any mayor’s contest in recent history, perhaps due to the recent gubernatorial recall election. Most experts expect even lower turnout for the December runoff election. Electoral observers like Binder said that absentee voting, an expensive and labor-intensive process, would play a pivotal role in electing the next mayor.

“You have to identify who is going to vote your way, mail them a ballot, check in daily to make sure they’ve gotten it back, and then call back every day if they don’t. All that costs money, and Newsom has the money to do it,” said Binder.

Newsom has raised over $2 million so far.

City Supervisor and Gonzalez supporter Chris Daly expects an uphill fight for his candidate. If elected, Gonzalez, who is 38, unmarried, and lives in a Haight-Ashbury apartment with friends, will have a distinction of another sort. He’ll be the only mayor of a major city with roommates.

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