Election tests San Francisco's new maturity

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WITH RADICAL street politics suddenly back in fashion on the West Coast, San Francisco voters will decide today whether to continue their all-consuming love affair with the Internet revolution or embrace a grass-roots uprising against the corporate agenda and elect the country's first openly homosexual big-city mayor.

The "people power" fervour that set the streets of Seattle alight during the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) two weeks ago has turned an apparently routine mayoral race into the most passionate political battle San Francisco has seen in 20 years.

The sitting mayor, Willie Brown, is a consummate Democratic Party operative who, until a few weeks ago, had seemed almost unassailable in his bid for a second term because of his grip on just about every interest group in the city.

But then Tom Ammiano, the president of San Francisco's board of supervisors, swept into the race at the last minute and, thanks to a spontaneous showing of support from thousands of volunteers who leafleted and canvassed on his behalf, forced Mr Brown into the run-off being held today.

A former stand-up comic and long-time teacher, Mr Ammiano hotly objects to the wholesale eviction of hundreds of lower-income families who are being cast aside to make room for the new generation of online yuppies moving into so-called "live-work" tenement lofts. He also objects to the takeover of many of San Francisco's funkier neighbourhood stores and cafes by national chain stores such as Starbucks and Toys R Us.

In a city that prides itself on counter-cultural individuality, his message has struck a loud chord. Despite having next to no campaigning funds, Mr Ammiano's headquarters has turned into a hive of activity filled with environmentalists, Latino community leaders, small shopkeepers, civil rights advocates and, reflecting an important part of his own political activism, gay and transgendered community members.

Polls still give the edge to the charismatic, lavishly financed Mr Brown, but they proved unreliable before the first round of voting in November and Mr Ammiano's supporters are hoping the "WTO factor" - an explicit theme of the campaign - will make them unreliable again now.

"There is lots of money coming into San Francisco, but we are not benefiting," said Fernando Gomez, a Latino housing activist who has organised neighbourhood meetings, written a song in Spanish for Mr Ammiano and distributed "Todos con Tom!" lapel buttons. "Our workers can't afford to live here any more. We aren't against the dot-com economy, but we do believe that the corporations should pay their fair share."

Four years ago, it was Mr Brown - an exceptionally bright, affable black liberal with 35 years' experience in state and national politics - who was being painted as the great hope for San Francisco's bohemian and working- class populations. But he has been mired in corruption scandals and accused of selling out the interests of the city to a variety of real-estate development chums.

"In 1995 I would have gone to hell and back for Brown," said Marie Harrison, an activist in the predominantly African-American Bayview-Hunter's Point neighbourhood. "But now, not a week goes by without people telling me they're having to leave the city. We've got to have change right now or else we're not going to survive."

Mr Ammiano's sexual orientation has not been a serious campaign issue - which is a sign of tremendous social progress, even in a city as famously liberal as San Francisco. In 1979, the city's first openly gay public official, Harvey Milk, was assassinated with the man who swept him into office, the radical mayor George Moscone. Now, Latinos and others who refused to let Milk on to their streets in the Seventies because he was gay are championing Mr Ammiano without hesitation.