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GOP Leaders Forced to Weigh Lesser Evil in S.F. Mayor Runoff

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

They searched their souls, they wrung their hands, and in the end, the San Francisco County Republican Central Committee voted this week to endorse the party’s longtime nemesis, Willie Brown, for reelection.

The decision was the latest jaw-dropping development in a mayoral race that has confounded political pros and left the town talking of little else since write-in candidate Tom Ammiano, the ultra-liberal president of the Board of Supervisors, forced Brown into a runoff.

Pundits saw the endorsement as evidence of the candidates vote-hunting outside their normal constituencies and of how high the stakes are for the city’s various interest groups in this first race between two liberals.

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Statewide, GOP officials saw it as a slap in the face to Republican principles.

“We were very disappointed to see the San Francisco Party endorse someone with the tax and spend philosophy of Willie Brown,” said Jon Fleischman, the California Republican Party’s executive director. “As the Republican Party gets into a national debate defining what we stand for, a rogue endorsement like this by a local county committee really muddies the water.”

Brown spoke with San Francisco Republicans on Monday night, answering sometimes hostile questions. That despite the fact that Republicans are only about 15% of the city’s 450,000 registered voters, and supported former Mayor Frank Jordan against Brown four years ago.

Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston said the mayor was “proud to get this endorsement. It shows that, his 35 years as a liberal Democrat notwithstanding, conservatives in this town were able to see that Brown is just a much better choice for mayor.”

Committee members said Tuesday that they were still reeling from the shock of endorsing Brown.

“I have never in my life voted for Willie Brown, and 10 days ago I never imagined that I would be now,” said committee member Harold Hoogasian.

“Willie Brown is certainly the quintessential liberal. But Tom Ammiano’s politics are so extreme and so filled with disregard for personal property rights as to make him anathema to anyone who believes in personal property rights. This man is, to all intents and purposes, a Marxist.”

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Ammiano, a former schoolteacher and stand-up comedian and a longtime gay activist, describes himself as a “humanist.” As supervisor, he has championed gay rights, pushed for a living wage of $11 an hour and touted a municipal income tax for high-income residents.

Ammiano said Tuesday that he believed the Republicans were trolling for jobs on city commissions and, “beyond that, truth is stranger than fiction.”

He said the committee initially invited him to address the meeting, “and I would have gone, although I didn’t expect their endorsement.” The invitation was withdrawn over the weekend, Ammiano said, then reissued, “but by then, we said ‘No thanks.’ ”

The supervisor said he too is looking for support outside his traditional constituencies. He accepted an invitation to address the Chinese American Democratic Club, which endorsed former political consultant Clint Reilly in last week’s general election. Reilly came in fourth.

Ammiano said he has spoken to Jordan, who finished third, and “put in a call” to Reilly, seeking their endorsements in the Dec. 14 runoff.

Committee Chairman Don Casper said he got calls and e-mails Tuesday from Republicans who disagreed with the endorsement. But Casper said he also received calls before the vote from state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush and Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), Republican heavyweights who urged the committee to back Brown.

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“These men told me that while they by no means agreed with Willie Brown on every issue, they could work with him, they could trust him and they could move programs along with his assistance,” when Brown was speaker of the Assembly, Casper said.

Republican Gail Neira said she argued against the endorsement, “but these committee members are pansies,” she said. “They end up endorsing liberal candidates because they are too lazy or cowardly or unintelligent to accomplish the task for which they were elected, which is to promote Republican candidates and empower Republican voters.”

Hoogasian said he had a hard time explaining his vote to his stunned 21-year-old son, “who for 21 years has been listening to me take quite a different position when it comes to Willie Brown. I told him: ‘Son, this is important. Ammiano will hurt you. You’ve got to vote for Brown too.’ ”

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Times researcher Norma Kaufman contributed to this story.

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