Democrats in the California Legislature are feeling their oats with a two-thirds majority and defiant opposition to the Republican regime. Republicans in Washington and state capitols swarmed into office, railroading a gonzo legislative agenda to undo a century of progress, from new anti-union laws to requiring women to get men’s approval for abortions to abolishing federal agencies to criminalizing protest. Meanwhile, Democrats control all branches of government in California, yet there is no comparably bold and urgent vision. They’re not passing single-payer health care, repealing Costa-Hawkins and the Ellis Act, funding a massive green jobs program or requiring white men to apologize for their privilege.
Which brings me to the underappreciated greatness of Tom Ammiano, the godfather and godmother of San Francisco progressives.
He’s known for his wit, profanity, dyed hair, frenetic attention span and for defining the left pole of electoral politics. It’s almost easy to forget that he’s also one of the most effective legislators we’ve ever had.
Once we ship politicians to Sacramento, we mostly ignore them except as they opine on other political controversies or endorse in local races. Sacramento is boring and confusing! Understanding the Capitol requires San Franciscans to consider the topic we avoid more than any other: Southern California.
The press is complicit in our ignorance. I did not check for accuracy, because I’m not an actual journalist, but in his entire six years in the state Assembly, it appears the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned Ammiano 120 times. Of those, only 30 had to do with actual state legislation, 24 of which were in the last two years. For four years in the state Legislature representing San Francisco, San Francisco’s biggest daily newspaper basically ignored our legislator’s legislation.
What was Tom doing in Sacramento? In his six years in the Assembly, raising almost no money, Ammiano sponsored 58 bills that were passed, including 11 under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
His legislative record reveals Tom to be prolific, disciplined and ambitious. He steadily chipped away at key issues over his stint in Sacramento. In 20 years of watching him, I’ve never heard anyone complain that Ammiano made a bad deal or unprincipled calculation for political expediency. Ammiano passed many bills to expand LGBTQ rights, most notably legislation protecting transgender students and anti-bullying mandates. He also sponsored several successful bills dealing with gun control, criminal justice reform and expansion of programs for foster, homeless or other at-risk youth.
His legislative highlights include the TRUST Act, to limit law enforcement coordination with the federal S-COMM immigrant deportation program, and the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which extended basic workplace protections to domestic workers. On important contentious issues, a legislator can champion something unsuccessfully to create momentum that leads to an ultimate victory. Ammiano was ahead of public opinion on criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization — which he introduced repeatedly — police oversight and immigrant rights. He introduced legislation to reform the Ellis Act and Proposition 13. Prop. 13 reform failed (“was placed in suspended status”) by Democratic Sens. Kevin DeLeon, Darrell Steinberg, Jerry Hill, Ricardo Lara and Alex Padilla.
Ammiano introduced Assembly Bill 2405, to allow local governments to ban Ellis Act evictions. It could have saved thousands of San Franciscans from displacement, assuming Mayor Ed Lee would have done it if he could. One committee amended it to instead protect tenants from showing prior evictions on their credit and rental history, and then the Judiciary Committee buried it. Abstaining means “no” in the Assembly. In the key vote, Republicans voted no, but three Democratic Assemblymembers abstained: Luis Alejo from Salinas, Al Muratsuchi from Gardena and Christina Garcia from Bell, the poster town of corruption.
Sacramento needs more Toms, who work with grassroots advocates to create consensus rather than capitulating prematurely to expediency, who fearlessly and relentlessly make the changes we need inevitable. And swear. When we eventually win on eviction protections and Prop. 13, we can thank Ammiano for blazing the trail.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and writer. See him on Wednesday, Feb. 22 for Mystery Science Theater 3000-style movie-riffing at Riffer’s Delight at the Alamo Drafthouse, where he will mock the movie “Ghost.”