CW Interview: The odyssey of Tom Ammiano — and a memoir

Tom Ammiano at a gay rights rally in 2011. (Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen, Wikipedia Commons)

Tom Ammiano is a San Francisco icon and former state lawmaker who was at the forefront of progressive issues now accepted as part of the mainstream. The first openly gay teacher in San Francisco, he served on the board of the San Francisco Unified School District and on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with future mayor, lieutenant governor and governor Gavin Newsom. He was a force behind Healthy San Francisco, a health insurance program offering coverage to all city residents. Ammiano ran unsuccessfully for mayor several times and made his way to Sacramento, where he served in the Assembly from 2008 to 2014. 

In Sacramento, Ammiano was a pioneer on marijuana legalization and transgender rights. He also served as chair of the Public Safety committee. A professional, stand-up comedian, he brought humor to the Legislature — as well as a radical combative nature. 

In 2009, when Willie Brown brought Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on stage at a Democratic Party fundraiser, Ammiano walked out, yelling that Arnold could “Kiss My Gay Ass,” which is also the title of Ammiano’s new memoir.

Capitol Weekly talked to Ammiano, 78, about his political roots, his time in politics in San Francisco and Sacramento, Black Lives Matter and police reform, activism, and his relationship with Gov. Gavin Newsom. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.    

Capitol Weekly:  Can you describe where you were at politically in San Francisco before you decided to take on Sacramento?

Tom Ammiano: Primarily, I was an activist, which informed me as an elected official. To shortcut it: It started in the late 60s and 70s. I was in Vietnam for two years – 1966 to 1968 – as a teacher for a Peace Corps/Quaker program and that kind of radicalized me. I came to San Francisco, got to work as a public-school teacher and saw everything: Poverty, different cultural values and a lot of homophobia, not just on the playground, in the teachers’ room, too. So, it’s only natural for me to fall into what’s happening politically, not necessarily the in the political clubs or parties as much as getting involved in social justice issues.

I taught in the Mission District where they wouldn’t let us speak in Spanish, even though the school is in the middle of a Latino neighborhood and there was no busing and almost all the kids were Spanish speaking. There were community groups there who were fighting that kind of stuff: Putting the monolingual kids in special ed, denying kids free breakfast if they were undocumented. There was a lot of stuff like that that teachers saw.

I was one of the teachers speaking out. That led me to other teachers, to the community, and then to others involved fighting for social justice, particularly in the LGBT community. When I got elected to the school board – in what was called the Lavender Sweep — it was my third try.

That was what launched me into the mosh pit of the government in San Francisco.

When I got on the board in 1985, I followed Harvey Milk’s lead on district election. He got elected because of district elections, so did people of color and women. After his murder, district elections were repealed. I put district elections back on the ballot and it won.

CW: You also ran for mayor?

TA: Yes, it attracted a lot of attention and made Willie Brown spend $3 million, which is always a good thing [laughs]. We didn’t win the race, but we did win the future, because we won district elections and a lot of people who were independent of Brown got elected.

CW: What prompted you to jump from San Francisco to Sacramento?

TA: Being termed out [laughs]. That will always give one pause. I’d been on the Board of Supervisors for 14 years and we had term limits. And the other thing was — this is very rarely the case — there was no incumbent. Mark Leno was running a run for Senate, so he vacated that seat. The deadline for people to declare was March and I worked my ass off. I made it without any Democratic challenger, which was very gratifying after two unsuccessful mayor races.

CW: What the difference did you see between San Francisco and Sacramento?

TA:  It’s a matter of degree. San Francisco still has a problem with lobbyists, but we also have regulations, and our voting base watches us. San Francisco is very local in some ways, a laboratory. It is a city of neighborhoods. With election districts, you can focus on your district and how it relates citywide.

In Sacramento, the scale is bigger. The fix is in a lot more in Sacramento, so it’s always better to shake it up. Marijuana, for instance: As soon as I got there, I introduced a marijuana legalization bill, which set off alarms on both in both parties. It was suggested that I shouldn’t even go forward with it because it would never get a second. But, you know, ultimately, I prevailed, and it wasn’t just me. There’s people behind you, it’s bigger than the Legislature.

A lot of the times, Sacramento misses the point when there’s a movement. They are slow on these issues, social justice issues like police reform, particularly when I got there. It was just horrible in terms of law enforcement having too much power. Today, you see defund the police. In those days, the Legislature would have run for the hills.  People were more moderate in Sacramento, even people who I thought of as lefties…until I got there [laughs].

CW: The Republicans were till a significant presence in Sacramento at the time.

TA: That was tough, and [Governor] Arnold [Schwarzenegger] would veto almost everything. But, because Arnold was so dysfunctional, dystopic and out there, the Republicans didn’t like that either, because he didn’t truck with them. They had a joke about that. They said, “We’re going to have a meeting with Arnold and we’re going to wear name tags because he didn’t know who we are,” because he’s ‘Ah-nold’ and shit didn’t smell, you know. That kind of radicalized the entire Legislature. So, when Jerry Brown came in, even though Jerry is very eccentric, for the most part, we moved forward on social justice issues.

Another difference: In the book, I tell a story where a lobbyist approached me on the street in Sacramento, and she had this check all ready. I said, “You know, lady, I’m not quite sure who you are, but I can’t do that.” She actually was in a state of shock, you know, what did I know? She later said, “Well, about the other night, I think there’s something wrong with you. You didn’t take this thousand.” So, there is a lot for me to learn.

CW: You got yourself on the Public Safety Committee. You were the chair.

TA: Yeah, nobody wanted it! But I had to lobby for it. About August of my first year. I got the call from [Speaker Karen Bass] asking me if I wanted it and I said absolutely. It wasn’t what they call a juice committee, Juice committees that attract lobbyists attention, taxes and the usual and the bank and all that. Public Safety wasn’t a juice committee, but to me, it was crucial.

CW: You had background working on police reform.

TA: Yeah, here in San Francisco, I got a citizens’ review committee and a number of other police reforms. It was a perfect storm with the cops here, even though there are big problems with the union, particularly. There was a kind of a separation between the “black community” and the “gay community,” but we had a common agent in the police force, in that way, it kind of solidified people who might not have been unified on other issues.

I think in Sacramento today, there’s still too much influence of law enforcement. Shirley Weber, God love her, made some headway. I’m in no way judging anybody, I went through it. Sometimes the things you like the most are taken out and then you have to decide what to do. You can either move forward or come back or water it down. And you can sugarcoat that and call it a concession or strategy. There’s lots of ways to do it, but I’m heartened by that. I really am.

CW: Do you have any advice for the people on the street right now who are pushing for police reform and defunding?

TA: Work on their local government first. It ain’t going to happen in Sacramento in the way that people would like it to happen. It’s the same thing with Proposition 13 reform and all those supposedly “Third World” issues. They get corrupted in Sacramento.

Real police reform isn’t going to happen in Sacramento. You have the League of California Cities, you have, I can’t even remember half of them. They’re all very pro police. They have public safety committees of their own that are peopled by former police officers.

The police are special. They have guns, you know, and they’re overburdened. They should just be public safety, not dealing with the homeless, not all the other things that they’ve been called on to do. I get that. Get the locals on board and be strong, as you’re working with Sacramento.

When we finally got domestic workers protection, it was because domestic worker activists were organized and they mobilized the state. Which is important for Sacramento, right?

This is a real opening: The Black Lives Matter movement. What worries me is what kind of happened with the gay movement, even transgender, lately. All of a sudden, it’s on everybody’s lips, and it can become flavor of the month almost, you know, say this. And look, Mr. Moderate Conservative from Contra Costa voted for the gay bill, but what’s missing is the intersectionality of it all. So if gay people don’t have, especially poor people, if gay people don’t have a place to live, what difference does it make if they can get married? If somebody poor has breast cancer, what difference does it make to them if there’s not housing or there’s not a single payer health care? With Black Lives Matter, I like the size in the window. But, there’s still a way to go here systemically.

CW: Going back to San Francisco, when you got to the Board of Supervisors before you were joined by another new face, Gavin Newsom.

TA: Yes. And what a face! [laughs] Let me take this in context: Any conversation about Gavin has to be cognizant of the White House ambition. Full disclosure, I had many issues with Gavin, some of them confrontational over legislation in San Francisco and issues around the homeless, things like that. So, we weren’t always warm and fuzzy. And then when he became mayor, there were even some larger issues where we were not on the same side and there was some appropriation of other people’s issues. You know, unfortunately it’s fairly typical.  So, we did not have a romance. We’ll put it that way.

I’ll tell you the story: When he was running for governor, a few of us who had been critical of his tenure in San Francisco became the go to people for the media. At the end of an interview where I had been critical of Gavin, [the interviewer] said to me, “Are you going to vote for him?” And I said, “Well, yeah, and I’m going to stay on his butt. I’m always going to vote and there’s no choice here. Not a ringing endorsement, but truthful.  And I got a text from him a week later saying, “I’ll take it” [laughs].  The relationship’s a little massaged and I’m a little tempered about it. Part of it is, in fairness, the bar is very low with Caligula in the White House. And so, you know, at least he’s out there with COVID.

The thing is, with Gavin, the worry is follow-through, more than lip service. He has a knack for embracing an issue, marijuana was one, but that was not how the journey was started. For a long time, Gavin and his people were not supportive of legalizing marijuana. They evolved, well, fine. So, there’s always that worry.

I know these are big challenges, but it is intersectional. COVID and the detention centers, people really need to be released…and testing. They’re horrible without those things. Now, to the prison, he did something I like, which is say we’re not going to do any more business with private prisons. But then he was a little slow on the draw. The prison system is so fucked up, you know, I had to deal with those people forever. Valley Fever was killing people in prison in [Corcoran], and they refused to do anything about it. I mean, as an example of what happened in San Quentin.

With Gavin, it’s a question of, it looks good and it sounds good; but, is there going to be follow up? Was it watered down? What is it really say?  Headlines are good, they get you recognition.

I think Gavin has learned from being San Francisco mayor. A lot of the issues that get embraced are progressive, and if it weren’t for the progressive wing of San Francisco these issues would not be embraced. Even if [the politicians who embrace progressive issues] are not the initiators, the political will becomes easier, the constituents get it a little better. When you talk about the center of San Francisco, it’s not quite the center in the way it might be in Minnesota

The other thing is, I really prefer him to Jerry Brown. Jerry drove me crazy, first he was left and he was right. And that strategy, you know, you’d get a crumb every so often, that strategy worked for him. It kept him in office. I acknowledge that, but that’s not exactly the journey I would like future politicians to take.

Because [Brown] was eccentric, you never knew exactly where he was going to stand. Gavin’s only been governor for a year, but his tendency seems to be “not Jerry Brown.” Brown also had big class issues. “Why do all people need more money?” that’s what he said once, because he didn’t need the money and he was old. Right. Poor people, elders, the homeless, they didn’t get much from Jerry.

Transgender, interestingly enough, the transgender bill, I thought it was dead. He signed it in a week. One of his people came to the [Assembly] floor! Whenever one of these people came to the floor, you asked, “What shit’s going to hit the fan now? And the guys just wanted to tell me that Jerry Brown signed the transgender rights bill. So there you are. And I am grateful he did that for sure.

CW: The world had changed, too. 

TA: The reason the times change was because of the activism. Right. And then he could recognize that and then you could see a voting base. I don’t want to be cynical about this, but, for example, it took an immigrant rights movement to get the momentum support for DACA. Otherwise the [Dreamers] were not courted by the electorate because they didn’t vote. When it comes down to that, denying simple representation, that’s wrong, that’s morally wrong.

Editor’s Note: 
Tom Ammiano’s memoir Kiss My Gay Ass: My trip down the Yellow Brick Road through Activism, Stand-up and Politics is available from Bay Guardian Books.

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