Frisco in fight to save its soul

OTHER CITIES have elections. San Francisco is engaged in nothing less than a battle for its soul.

With two days to go before it chooses its next mayor, America's quintessential bastion of liberalism is in ferment. A massive grass-roots campaign is under way to try to unseat the incumbent, Willie Brown, one of the wiliest politicians in the country now engaged in the political fight of his life.

The administration is mired in corruption scandals and accusations of dirty machine politics. The underside of San Francisco society - the working class, the homeless, the struggling Latino and African-American minorities - are in revolt against what they see as an attempt to push them out of the city altogether.

Everywhere there is anger at the arrogance of the new masters of the internet revolution, the "dot.com" economy that is pushing San Francisco's rents into the stratosphere and transforming its once funky, individualistic neighbourhoods into sanitised playgrounds for the corporate elite.

In short, San Francisco is being racked by a profound identity crisis as it considers the price of its success as a beacon for the internet age. The new hi-tech companies which have flooded into the city - the "Multimedia Gulch" that has sprung up in the warehouses and tenements in the South of Market and Mission districts - have brought in extraordinary new wealth, as have the Silicon Valley geeks turning to San Francisco as their dormitory community of choice. But they have also challenged the very core of the city's sense of self.

Until this election, the process seemed inevitable. The money rolled in, neighbourhood after neighbourhood gentrified, and Mayor Brown, a consummate deal-maker long before he came to San Francisco in 1995, lorded over the proceedings with almost unseemly relish. Although he was far from popular - the city perpetually complained about the dysfunctional bus system and his piecemeal elimination of low-rent housing - his re-election looked a near-certainty thanks to his mastery of the Democratic Party machine and the mediocrity of his two visible challengers.

But then the city woke up. Just weeks before the first round of voting in November, a handful of influential liberals began leaning on the only senior figure capable of representing their views with any credibility, the president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, Tom Ammiano. A former stand-up comic with a long teaching career, as well as a prominent place in the gay community, he had already considered running but ruled it out for lack of financial backing.

Then he changed his mind. It was way too late to have his name printed on the ballot, much less raise any serious campaigning funds. But his supporters doggedly spread the word door-to-door, set up a makeshift headquarters in a juice bar in the Castro district and taught thousands how to write "Ammiano" onto the voting form without invalidating it.

Such a flood of "write-in" ballots came in that the vote count took several days to complete. Mr Ammiano came in second, good enough to make Tuesday's run-off. What might have been just another electoral contest between two guys in suits heated up into something altogether more compelling.

The Great Schism, one newspaper called it. A choice between conformity and radicalism, between the dynamics of the marketplace and the dynamism of the street. "This is the last chance to save San Francisco," intoned Laurel Wellman of the San Francisco Weekly. "Save it from the chain stores, from the corporations, from the big money that throws ordinary people out on to the street." Despite such protestations, the election is not about ideology: rather, it is about leadership style.

Mr Brown is an old-fashioned politician who has applied the principles learned in 15 years as speaker of the California state assembly: building a power base through relentless networking and cronyism. Mr Ammiano, by contrast, believes in a purer form of democracy.

Mayor Brown wears sharp Italian suits, travels by limousine and revels in his own imperial demeanour. Mr Ammiano wears corduroy jackets and takes the bus. Mayor Brown has carefully cultivated select minority groups around the city, notably gays and African Americans (he is himself black); Mr Ammiano's supporters accuse him of simply buying off chunks of the electorate.

Beyond the acrimony, it is a striking testimony to modern San Francisco's maturity that this election pits a black man against a homosexual, without either fact being cause for undue fuss. Despite the city's tolerant reputation, it is only 20 years since San Francisco's first openly gay public official, Harvey Milk, was murdered by a homophobic colleague. These days, such rage is more likely to be directed towards the young dot.commer with multimillion dollar stock options talking too loud on his cell phone. That, surely, is progress of a kind.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?