If you think politics is the realm of the monied and the machine, travel to the far West, to a city that can seem ephemeral on days when swallowed by fog, and a place where even locals are rubbing their eyes to be sure they just saw what they think they saw.
Willie Brown, master of the political universe and arguably one of the best pure politicians in modern US history, looked ready to do what so few others have: subdue this city's crazy quilt of constituencies and win a second term as mayor.
Yet today, he begins a six-week runoff battle against a man who was not on last week's primary ballot, spent a paltry $20,000 waging a write-in campaign, takes the bus to work, and is funny enough to be a stand-up comic, which he is.
The man is Tom Ammiano, president of the city's Board of Supervisors and Mr. Brown's worst nightmare. He's got momentum, savvy, and populist appeal. And while Mr. Ammiano for mayor remains a long shot, it is feasible, say analysts.
The fact that Ammiano is striving to become the first openly gay mayor of a large American city guarantees the race national attention. And despite San Francisco's quirkiness, there are other themes worth watching here as the nation gears up for a presidential election year.
Notably, this city's liberal establishment seems to be undergoing an attempted coup, with young progressives seeking to overthrow the traditional liberal power structure. Is urban liberalism remaking itself here? Will it do so elsewhere?
Whatever the outcome here, the San Francisco mayoral contest is already one of the most intriguing of the year. If you like political theater, it won't get much better than this.
In the nation's political psyche, San Francisco has come to define liberalism. And Brown is finely tailored to that liberal tradition. He's been an advocate of gay rights, affirmative action, and labor while opposing the death penalty. And on fiscal issues, he's no tight wad. City expenditures have grown by $1 billion, about a 30 percent increase, during his tenure.
But Ammiano is proving there is plenty of room to the left of traditional liberalism in this city, which, by the way, has not elected a Republican to the Board of Supervisors in nearly 20 years.
Ammiano has cobbled together homosexuals, neighborhood activists, and those on the lower end of the socio- economic scale who are alarmed at trends in the city, most notably the skyrocketing cost of housing.
Particularly striking is the number of young voters behind Ammiano. David Lee of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee says under-age-30 union members, the rapidly growing cyber work force, and lots of first-time voters see Ammiano as a voice for change and Brown as an echo of the status quo.
"It's really a changing of the guard" among liberals, says Mr. Lee, whose organization did some exit polling.
To be sure, Ammiano is anti-establishment. He once advocated an extra tax levy on people making more than $150,000 a year and a tax on stock transactions in the city.
'Living wage' campaign
While he hasn't advocated those positions lately, he has waged a campaign for a city "living wage" that would amount to the highest minimum wage in the country. He was also a major force behind a ballot initiative approved overwhelmingly last week that outlaws automated-teller-machine surcharges. Bank of America and Wells Fargo have already taken the measure to court.
In short, Ammiano is no friend of the downtown business community, which is on far more amicable terms with Brown.
Ammiano's plans are a mystery
Knowing precisely what Ammiano's program as mayor would be is a bit of a mystery. After flirting with the idea of running for months, he declined earlier this year, citing cost as a major factor.
But a mere three weeks before the Nov. 4 primary vote, he announced his write-in candidacy, a stroke that now seems pure political wizardry. He capitalized on voter frustration with the other candidates, while escaping the scrutiny and costs of a traditional campaign.
Pollsters see the battle ahead hinging on who can win the moderate vote in San Francisco, whose favored candidates were washed out in the primary. Meanwhile, San Franciscans still seem a little incredulous. That includes Ammiano, who after winning second place with 25 percent of the vote, mused, "We had a dream or intuition that something like this could happen, but we never really believed it." Even foes like Brown would probably agree with him on that.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society