Leftist comic still uses jokes to aid liberal agenda as lawmaker

Tom Ammiano stands in his office in 2013
Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) stands in an office that looks out over City Hall, where he worked for years before being elected to the Assembly. As he heads into his final year in that chamber, his legislative agenda is full of issues that many Democrats wouldn’t dare touch.
(Peter DaSilva / For The Times)

Tom Ammiano used to tell a joke about blood.

This was in the early 1980s, years before he became a politician, and AIDS was just beginning to terrorize San Francisco. Ammiano, then a gay activist and stand-up comic, riffed off the notion of some in the Moral Majority that gay people had a unique kind of blood.

“Is it pink instead of red?” he half-yelled after opening with an expletive. “Does it scream when you transfuse it? Does it swish instead of flow? Give me a break!”

It was a quintessential Ammiano wisecrack — irreverent in its embrace of gay stereotypes, a jab at those he disagreed with disguised as a joke.

The state assemblyman’s humor hasn’t mellowed much after his nearly 25 years in elected office, and neither have his politics. In a Capitol overflowing with Democrats, Ammiano stands out as a radical liberal.

“I’ll never be the establishment,” Ammiano says. “And you know, the left is a pain in my ass too. Everybody’s a pain — that’s just how it is.”


Establishment or no, he’s managed to notch some significant wins. In 2013 alone, Gov. Jerry Brown signed 13 Ammiano bills, including the “Trust Act,” which offers immigrants in the country illegally greater protection from deportation.

With one year left in the Assembly, the 72-year-old has a few more envelopes he’d like to push: liberalizing marijuana laws and rewiring Proposition 13, among others. They’re perennial losers, even though his party controls Sacramento.

To which he offers a typically blunt diagnosis: “The Democrats need to grow a set.”

Ammiano the activist has a lot in common with Ammiano the assemblyman. He’s still got the boyish frame, although nowadays his shoulders are a bit more sloped. His hair is silver now, not brown, but worn in more or less the same style for the last 30 years: close cropped on the side, a little volume up top.

And he’s still got that unmistakable voice: elfin and nasal, with words tumbling over one another at breakneck speed. There’s a touch of New Jersey in the vowels, a holdover from growing up around Newark in a working-class Italian American family.

Money was tight when he was a kid, especially when it came to medical care. His mother, Vicenzia, who couldn’t afford to go the dentist, was once fired because her bosses didn’t like her bad teeth. His father, Giuseppe, a taxi driver and dispatcher, had high blood pressure but put off seeing a doctor for lack of health insurance; he suffered a major stroke and died when Ammiano was in college.

Those closest to Ammiano say those early years in New Jersey shaped his political beliefs.

“What are the main issues affecting the working class?” said Giuliana Milanese, a longtime friend. “It’s housing, it’s healthcare, it’s living wages, it’s good public schools. Those are the issues that drive him.”

He arrived in San Francisco in the early 1960s and eventually became a public school teacher. His first foray into activism came in 1975, when he co-founded a gay teachers group to confront homophobia in schools. The move effectively outed him as the first openly gay teacher in the city — just as efforts cropped up across the country to ban gay people from teaching. In 1978, such a measure appeared on California’s statewide ballot.

To battle the initiative, Ammiano worked with San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the state’s first openly gay official. The initiative was defeated. Three weeks later, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated.

In “The Times of Harvey Milk,” a 1984 documentary, Ammiano recalls seeing Milk’s body being removed from City Hall. He wipes away tears and his voice keeps catching, but that reflex of joking even in tragedy kicks in: “God, what a big foot, Harvey! I never realized he had such a big foot.”

Ammiano kept teaching part-time throughout the 1980s, but his comedy act became his primary source of income. When he made the jump to elected office in 1990 — first serving on the school board and then the Board of Supervisors — the self-described “mother of gay comedy” kept up his shtick. He peppered board meetings with one-liners — once declaring that he would “rather wear a pink slip than issue one.”

The jokes have a strategic benefit, breaking up tension during heated meetings, or getting colleagues to pay attention to an issue they would otherwise dismiss.

“Because he’s used humor in a way to build relationships, he then has the rapport to go after things that are very complicated or very controversial,” said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles).

In office, he sees himself as a “conduit” for others who otherwise would not be heard; one of his first moves as a supervisor was to convene AIDS activists and administrators from Kaiser Permanente to hash out what the activists said was the HMO’s homophobic treatment of AIDS patients.

“At the time, AIDS was just percolating and people were drained. My own lover” — Tim Curbo, his partner of 19 years — “died three days before I was elected,” Ammiano said. “How could I not open that door?”

A longtime friend says Ammiano’s working class upbringing set his core political agenda. “It’s housing, it’s healthcare, it’s living wages, it’s good public schools. Those are the issues that drive him,” said Giuliana Milanese.

He embraced populist economic causes, such as a living wage law and tenant rights. He favored more government spending on social services and public schools, and wanted to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy to do so.

Unsurprisingly, this did not endear him to the business community. But Ammiano also found himself at odds with fellow Democrats. He chafed against most of the party establishment, especially then-Mayor Willie Brown.

Michael Colbruno, who served as Brown’s liaison to the board, said there was “no doubt” the mayor was nudged leftward by Ammiano, who used his perch on the Board of Supervisors to loudly contest Brown’s pro-development bent.

“At a time when San Francisco was in a building boom, we had to talk about poor, homeless, affordable housing crisis,” Colbruno said. “People wanted to talk about the shovels in the ground and Tom wanted to talk about people shoved out the door.”

San Francisco has been Ammiano’s home for nearly 50 years. He’s lived in the same Bernal Heights neighborhood since the 1970s. His daughter, Annie, born to a lesbian couple who used his donated sperm, lives nearby, along with his three granddaughters. He has been with his current partner, Carolis Deal, a wine wholesaler, for about 15 years. He frequents the opera and the San Francisco Giants’ spring training camp.

Although friends say it was hard to imagine the flamboyant Ammiano in the staid chambers of the Capitol, he easily won election to the Assembly in 2008. There, just as in San Francisco, he has positioned himself as the left’s St. Jude, a patron saint for political lost causes.

“You present something that people freak out about because it’s not immediate in their minds or the particular constituency is marginalized or known for not voting,” Ammiano said. “And then you get that seat at the table and then you can build on it.”

He’ll offer the same bills over and over again, even if they fall flat. His friend Tommi Avicolli Mecca attributed it to “testa dura,” Italian for stubbornness.

“If [a bill] fails or you get a veto, that’s never really the end of that story,” Ammiano said.

And sometimes his seemingly lost causes win. This year, Ammiano successfully pushed a bill giving transgender students the right to participate in public school activities and use facilities such as restrooms based on their gender identity, not biological sex. (A coalition called “Privacy for All Students” is seeking to overturn the law through a ballot measure.)

Brown also signed two Ammiano-authored bills he had vetoed the year before: the Trust Act and a measure entitling domestic workers to overtime pay. Both bills were scaled back from their original version.

That willingness to moderate has thawed relationships with old foes. Even with the business community, he has a kind of “detente” now, said Ken Cleaveland, lobbyist for the Building Owner and Managers Assn. of San Francisco. Ammiano recalled how one business lobbyist told him that after years of rancor, they now viewed him as the “fussy old uncle at the table.”

“I said, ‘Well, it’s more like the fussy old aunt, don’t you think?’” Ammiano said.

Lest anyone think Ammiano has gone soft, his legislative agenda for his final year in the Assembly is full of issues that many Democrats wouldn’t dare touch, like reclassifying certain sex offenders and changing how commercial properties are taxed under Proposition 13. And if Democrats are worried that a yes vote could hurt their careers or cost them their seats, Ammiano is not particularly sympathetic.

“All those are real things,” he said, “but you gotta sleep at night.”