A Race That Gets Down to Bare Bones

There is only one certainty about the San Francisco mayor’s race: It will be remembered forever as the time the incumbent mayor stripped naked and showered with two strangers--on live radio, in front of a photographer.

The strangers--disc jockeys--told the mayor they had polled cyberspace and learned that this stunt would win him another 25,000 votes. They were joking, presumably. “Fine, let’s go for it,” the mayor said.

Snap-snap--a four-column picture atop Page One of that afternoon’s San Francisco Examiner, showing the happy male trio from the waist up, nude in the mayor’s double shower. Eleven days before next Tuesday’s primary election. On the morning of the campaign’s biggest TV debate. In a very tight race.

No matter how many times this story is repeated, and regardless of whether Mayor Frank Jordan wins or loses, the bizarre event will be regaled in university seminars, campaign boiler rooms and neighborhood bars for as long as politics is discussed.


It unquestionably was a first. And if Jordan should win, it will not be an only. There’ll always be an underdog candidate somewhere calling newsrooms to announce a shower photo-op. TV news breaks will proclaim, “Live at 11--another politician says he has nothing to hide.”

On Tuesday, I asked Jordan--60, a former police chief and the most conservative mayor here in three decades--whether he had second thoughts.

“It was spontaneous,” he began, adding: “I mean, this was a very serious campaign. . . . I’ve been hit as being too serious and not having a sense of humor. I disagree. You have to put some levity in this. . . . Let’s break the tension a little bit. San Franciscans have a sense of humor. There’s nothing wrong with having a mayor who wants to show that even in stressful, difficult times you can have a sense of humor and laugh at yourself.

“People ask me what I would do differently. I say, well, maybe next time I’d put on a shower cap.”


This contest also could be remembered for some other landmarks: Election of the nation’s first lesbian mayor--or the city’s first black mayor. Likewise, it could quash the political career of that powerful black, the legendary Assemblyman Willie Brown.

Polls show a virtual tie between Jordan, Brown and Roberta Achtenberg, a former Clinton Administration housing official, San Francisco supervisor and civil rights lawyer. Two candidates will qualify next Tuesday for a Dec. 12 runoff.

The conventional wisdom had been that Jordan and Brown were cinches for the runoff, with Achtenberg waging a good fight but finishing third. That’s still the safe bet, but Achtenberg apparently has been rising and Brown falling. And nobody can predict the impact of Jordan’s shower stunt.

Polls show that Jordan would lose to either Brown or Achtenberg in the runoff.

But if the mayor does survive next Tuesday, it’s possible the political chemistry could change once it’s down to a two-candidate race. More precisely, the choice would be between a white Irish ex-cop who bumbled at the beginning of his term, but then grew in the office--and either a lesbian with relatively little political experience, or a black with a tarnished image of political gamesmanship and questionable ethics.

The makeup of the electorate is roughly 66% white, 15% black, 11% Asian and 7% Latino. About 20% are gay and lesbian.

White women could provide the swing vote.


“There are about 12% of the population of San Francisco who would not vote for me because I’m a lesbian; there are about 12% who would vote for me because I am a lesbian,” says Achtenberg, 45. “That’s our assessment. I don’t think it hurts or helps.

“All people want the [transit] to operate better . . . something constructive and humane done about the homeless . . . to make sure the public health system is protected and what happened in Los Angeles doesn’t happen to us.”

Achtenberg is running as a “reform” candidate and, like Jordan, is pounding away at Brown for years of wheeling-dealing. Brown tries to point out that as Speaker he raised all those millions from special interests to keep Assembly Democrats in power--and maintain his ability to deliver for San Francisco.

This has been even a “tougher” race than he had envisioned, the 61-year-old lawmaker says. “I’m having to run against myself. They’re doing their best to discredit 31 years of great performance for this city. I’ve always been the safety net for San Francisco, kept it from being stripped like Los Angeles. None of that counts. That’s ‘the failed old politics’ in the words of Achtenberg and ‘back room dealing’ in the words of Jordan.”

Even without the mayor’s disrobing, this would be an exciting, historic contest.