Chicken and the pot

› steve@sfbg.com

Chicken John Rinaldi — the fake-mustachioed showman and arts facilitator who is running for mayor — was late for our Sept. 7 interview, but his roommate let me into the candidate’s César Chávez Street home–office–performance space to wait for him.

Rinaldi was busy at the Ethics Commission office, trying to become the first and only mayoral candidate to qualify for public matching funds, a goal that requires raising at least $25,000 from among 250 city residents — and having the paperwork to prove it, which is proving the hard part for someone traditionally more focused on big ideas than small details. (See sidebar.)

He says he’s raised about $32,000 since getting into the race last month, including $26,700 from city residents, $12,000 of which came in on the deadline date, Aug. 28. It’s an impressive feat that could transform this marginalized, improbable candidate into one of the leading challengers, despite his enigmatic persona, maddeningly elusive platform, and admission that he can’t possibly win.

But Rinaldi, 39, who makes his living from his many performances and projects, isn’t your typical politician, as his history and home demonstrate. The high ceilings hold rigging and pulleys for the regular performances he hosts, although his bar and a pair of church pews were pushed back against one wall this day to make more space for campaign activities. Dammit the Wonder Dog, one of many characters Rinaldi has promoted over the years, slept on a deflated air mattress still dusty from Burning Man.

The red brick walls of his main room looked like an art gallery, with paintings by Ani Lucia Thompkins listing prices of at least $2,000 each and pieces by James McPhee going for less. On another wall hung the massive sign for the Odeon Bar — which Rinaldi owned from 2000 to 2005 — with Odeon spelled diagonally from right to left.

In the kitchen area, just inside the front door, the walls held framed posters from many of his projects — the Life-Sized Game of Mousetrap, Circus Ridickuless (the poster for which, at its center, has Rinaldi’s face and the label "Chicken John, Ringmonster"), the Church of the Subgenius (in which Rinaldi’s eponymous partner on The Ask Dr. Hal Show is some kind of high priest), and "The Cacophony Society Presents Klown Krucifixation" — as well as a framed poster of Pippi Longstocking.

Suddenly, Rinaldi blew in the front door, apologized for his tardiness, and declared, "The fucking Ethics Commission. I’m in so much trouble. I’ve probably already racked up $5,000 in fines."

Nonetheless, he may still qualify for at least $50,000 from the taxpayer-funded mayoral public financing program that debuted this election season, giving his campaign ample resources to promote his message of nurturing San Francisco as a "city of art and innovation."

My first significant interaction with Rinaldi happened about three years ago, when he and fellow Burning Man artist Jim Mason launched a lively rebellion against Black Rock City LLC’s control over the countercultural event (see "State of the Art," 12/1/04) and created a shadow organization, dubbed Borg2, to promote art.

Rinaldi’s focus and rhetoric then — arguing for a "radical democratization" of the art-grant selection process and the creation of a more inclusive discussion of the direction and future of both Black Rock City and San Francisco — are echoed in his current mayoral campaign.

"What I’m talking about now is the same thing I was talking about with Borg2. It’s the same thing," Rinaldi told the Guardian.

It’s about inspiration and participation, he said, about coming up with some kind of vehicle through which to facilitate a public discussion about what San Francisco is, what it ought to be, and the role that can be played by all the Chickens out there, all the people who help make this an interesting city but aren’t usually drawn into political campaigns or other conventional institutions.

"The number one qualification for mayor is you have to be passionate about the city you’re running," Rinaldi said. "The left of San Francisco can’t agree on anything except the idea of San Francisco."

And it is Rinaldi’s San Francisco that helped him transform his pickup truck into a "café racer" that runs on coffee grounds and walnut shells, an alt-fuel project inspired partly by the Green Man theme of this year’s Burning Man. It is the San Francisco that supports his myriad projects — from wacky trips aboard the bus he owns to offbeat performances at his place — and asks for his support with others’.

"This is part of the innovation thing," Rinaldi said of his candidacy. "Take a mayoral campaign and turn it into an artwork project that raises interesting questions and ideas."

But should that be funded by taxpayers? Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign manager Eric Jaye said he has concerns about Rinaldi getting money from that source. "It would be interesting to see public money go to someone’s art project," Jaye said. "This is not the intent. The intent was for this to go to a legitimate candidate."

Yet how did Rinaldi raise $12,000 in one day? "I sent out one e-mail," he said. "At one time there were 12 people outside my door, sliding checks through the slot."

Again: How? Why? Rinaldi responded by quoting Albert Einstein, "’There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’" But when you try to pin down Rinaldi on what that idea is, why his candidacy seems to have resonated with the underground artists and anarchists and geeks of San Francisco, the answer isn’t entirely clear. And he disputes the idea that this is about him or his connections.

"These aren’t fans," Rinaldi said of his contributors. "They are equals in a city of art and innovation. It’s just my time…. I asked for something, and they gave it to me…. People don’t necessarily support me, my ideas, or my platform."

Among those drawn to Rinaldi’s campaign is Lev Osherovich, a 32-year-old postdoctoral researcher at UC San Francisco who helped with fundraising and administration and eventually became the de facto campaign manager.

"It must be quite a surprise for someone who appears to be a joke candidate to raise so much money and so much awareness," Osherovich told us. "But Chicken has a tremendous energy and a real gift for communication…. Outsider political movements are a great tradition in San Francisco — people using the political process as a vehicle for getting ideas out."

Yet even within his community, Rinaldi has his detractors, such as the anonymous individuals who formed the fake campaign Web sites www.chickenmayor.org and www.voteforchicken.org (Rinaldi’s actual campaign Web site is www.voteforchicken.com, and his personal one is www.chickenjohn.com).

The latter fake campaign site lists Rinaldi’s primary goal as "Chicken John needs attention."

Ask Rinaldi what he does need for this campaign, what his real goals are, and he sounds unlike any politicians I’ve ever heard.

"I don’t need a winning strategy. I don’t need any votes. We just want to raise the level of the conversation," said Rinaldi, who refuses to criticize Newsom on the record, insisting that the incumbent "should be treated with respect and admiration."

That conciliatory treatment has caused some to speculate that Rinaldi is aiming for a job within the Newsom administration, perhaps a staff position on the Arts Commission. But Rinaldi insists that slamming the mayor is an ineffective way to start a productive conversation and that his real goals are less tangible than that.

"The intention of my campaign is inspiration, to leave San Francisco politics better than I found it," Rinaldi said. "When I come out of this experience on the other side, I’ll be smarter…. It’s my intention to get an education and to have the people of San Francisco help give me that education."

As maddening and incomprehensible as that lack of political motivation and policy goals is to seasoned political professionals and journalists, many of his supporters find it refreshing.

"Politicians aren’t the only people who can navigate the world of politics," Rinaldi said, specuutf8g that some of his support comes from people who are disenchanted with conventional politics and drawn to his fresh, outsider approach to the race.

"It’s somewhat different than the usual political campaign," Osherovich said with obvious understatement, noting that the campaign has received so much support from people "because they know Chicken can do great things and great things are going to come out of this."

At the very least, interesting things are bound to come out of this campaign. Rinaldi is deliberately vague about exactly how his campaign will unfold or what his endgame might be, except to remind us that good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And he’s now at the beginning.

"More than half of what I do is a dismal failure," Rinaldi admitted. "But failure is now we learn."

Yet his successful fundraising over the past month is leading some to believe that this campaign won’t be a failure. Rinaldi said he’s been in daily contact with the Ethics Commission and is fairly confident he can satisfy its concerns and win public financing.

"I received a certain amount of funds, and I’m supposed to document where the funds came from by the 5 p.m. deadline. They said it wasn’t good enough, but I now have what’s good enough," Rinaldi said. "They are doing a lot of hand-holding. It’s like the DMV. It’s great."

So now he’s off and running.

"I just hired a staff. This is not a joke anymore. I’m serious," Rinaldi said, later adding an important caveat: "I could definitely go to jail if I do this wrong. I understand that."

PS Rinaldi said he has already booked 12 Galaxies — which has hosted his The Ask Dr. Hal Show and other projects — for his election night party, which he’s dubbed "The Loser’s Ball."