I was out of town the day Tom Ammiano appeared at his final meeting as a San Francisco supervisor. Too bad; I would have gone, no matter how busy I was, just to be a part of history.
I know that sounds silly. The Barack Obama inauguration will be part of history. The election of Harvey Milk was part of history. Ammiano’s last day? Hey, the guy’s moving on to Sacramento. Take a bow, everyone says thanks, and another local politician takes another political job. History?
Well, yeah, actually. Because when the history of progressive politics is written in this town (and I hope some other poor sucker takes on that job so I don’t have to) Tom Ammiano will go down as a central figure in the movement that turned San Francisco around.
It’s worth noting that the movie Milk, celebrating the life of the gay pioneer, opened around the same time Ammiano was clearing out his City Hall office. The connection goes deeper than the fact that they were both queer men fighting for basic human rights and dignity at a time when that was a huge uphill struggle.
Milk was part of an urban movement that came out of the 1960s and came of age in the 1970s that sought to wrest control of San Francisco from a cadre of military and big business leaders who had been running it since World War II. The agenda of the crew that we collectively refer to as "downtown" was turning the sleepy port city of the 1930s into the financial headquarters for Pacific Rim trade. They wanted San Francisco to be another Manhattan; they laid plans, they put the machinery in place and they never asked the people who lived here whether that was the future we wanted.
Because all that downtown development meant higher rents, more evictions, gentrification, budget deficits, too many cars, the death of small businesses … and by the mid-1970s, the activists had figured out how to fight back. It started with electing supervisors by district so that big money didn’t always carry the day.
Milk was elected supervisor as part of the progressive push that put George Moscone in the Mayor’s Office. And if Moscone and Milk had lived, it’s possible that the tide could have turned right then. But the assassinations derailed district elections, turned the city back over to downtown, and sentenced the San Francisco left to more than 20 years of tough political dark ages.
Ammiano got elected in that era, when the developers called all the shots, when tenants and environmentalists and neighborhood people were lucky to get two or three votes on the Board of Supervisors. His pro-tenant and anti-development proposals never even reached the desks of mayors who would have vetoed them anyway.
But he didn’t give up, and in 1999, in the bleak days of the dot-com boom, he took on a long-shot campaign for mayor that, in one six-week period, reenergized the San Francisco left. With his help, district elections came back; and with his leadership, a decidedly progressive board took office in 2001. Living wage, sick pay, universal health care, bike plans, real estate transfer taxes, tenant protections … these are all products of that change.
Ammiano was an odd sort of leader, someone with a sense of humor who didn’t take himself anywhere near seriously enough. He would be the first to credit the movement, not the man and he’d be right. But when we needed him, he was there.