Healthy San Francisco

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"I was there..."

by Tom Ammiano


Healthy San Francisco ID card.

After the 2003 elections, Gavin Newsom became San Francisco’s Mayor. Everybody had predictable reactions to my Mayoral election loss—“Ammiano is over.” But I was actually doing pretty well. In 2004, I was re-elected Supervisor for District 9. After I was re-elected I remembered that, when I had been first sworn in as a Supervisor, I said I wanted to work on universal health care. My parents had no health insurance. My father died early because of that and my mother really suffered with her bad health and no health care. So it was important to me personally. Then with Tim, my partner, having AIDS but not being able to get the AZT drug at the time while people in Canada with HIV had access to all of it. Then he died. That all deeply impacted me and made health care such a personal issue for me.

I started having conversations about the issue with different people. New York had created a health care program where restaurants chipped in to cover the cost of health care for their workers. So I started a working group to talk about what we could do in San Francisco. There were people who had been involved in the issue, policy people like Ken Jacobs at UC Berkeley. We had some business people there.

After we started working on health care I went to Mayor Newsom and said, “I’m working on this. I want you to know about it. I’m not doing it behind your back.” He got very nervous about what I would propose. But he knew about it. The meetings were open to the public. One time, we were having a meeting about health care and a guy from this downtown business group called the Committee on Jobs—which I always called the Committee on Blowjobs—burst into the room yelling, “I wasn’t invited! What are you doing? I wasn’t invited.” Everybody was there working on health care policy. It wasn’t some hushed private political meeting. That was weird.

The person in charge of the Chamber of Commerce at the time was a guy named Steve Falk. He was right out of Central Casting for that job. Falk had been a big hoo-hah guy at the Chronicle before that. So now, when the Chamber heard about what became our health care proposal called “Healthy San Francisco,” Falk figured he would get the Chronicle to write about it and just kill it. He showed up at a Chronicle Editorial Board meeting with a guy who had run Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign for governor during the recall election the year before, in 2003. Falk said to the Chronicle editors something along the lines of, “I’m one of you. You all know me. This hot shit campaign guy’s going to run the campaign against this so it’s dead on arrival. Nobody cares about it anyway.”

Strangely enough, the Chronicle didn’t buy that bullshit. I’m not saying they were jumping up and down in favor of my health care legislation. But, for once, instead of just embracing the opposition to anything progressive for working people as they usually do, the Chronicle editors took a wait-and-see attitude on Healthy San Francisco. Of course, eventually they hated it. But they at least waited awhile before deciding.


As we progressed, labor really came through. On the health care issue they were consistent. Sometimes the unions have different agendas and sometimes they don’t like an issue being dealt with because they’d like to keep it alive as a bargaining chip. But on this issue they were flawless.

We worked out the policy and finalized the Healthy San Francisco legislation. Newsom’s position on it the whole time was always equivocating, equivocating, equivocating. Then it happened. We got it through the Board. 11-0, baby.

I went to visit with Newsom to ask him to sign the legislation. Some people asked me, “Why did you go to him? You got all 11 votes and could override a Mayoral veto.” Well, I went to him because the Mayor can do a lot of shit beyond just veto things. They can mess with implementation, enforcement, the budget, and much more.

The ace in the hole dealing with Gavin on this was Mitch Katz, the director of the Department of Public Health. It’s true that when you’re Mayor you just can go, “You’re fired.” But Mitch Katz soldiered on and supported the legislation no matter what. He also knew that the Mayor needed him. His support made a big difference. We got it signed.


The Golden Gate Restaurant Association strongly opposed Healthy San Francisco because it required employers to pay for health care, and that included restaurants. The restaurant lobby became the Frankenstein of all Frankensteins in their opposition to health care. They fought, they cried, they sued. They even kicked me out of a restaurant just to spite me for supporting it.

It happened on my daughter’s birthday. My wonderful son-in-law threw a birthday party for her at the Women’s Building. Because he’s my son-in-law and married into my family, he forgot to get the little required permit you have to have to serve wine and beer there. I’m at the party going, “There’s no drinks?” Quelle Horror!

After the party was over, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Carolis and I were walking down the street. We got to the corner of 18th and Valencia. I said, “Oh, this place Range got a star and they have a full bar. I’d love a Manhattan.” We walked in and I ordered my Manhattan. Carolis went to the bathroom. I got my drink.

Suddenly this woman straight out of the movie “Frozen”—the ice queen—appears out of nowhere. She says to me, “You’re not welcome here! You have to leave!” I said, “Who are you?” She said, “I own this restaurant and you’re not welcome here!” In that kind of situation you have to think on your feet. I said, “Well, I want to finish my drink.” But she said, “NO!” She ordered the bartender to take the drink he had just served me away.

I left a $20 bill on the bar and said to the bartender, “This is yours.” But the ice queen slapped it. She threw the $20 at me and said, “NO! You take it back! How dare you!” I thought to myself: “Who do I have to fuck to get a drink around here?”

In that moment, I made a snap decision. I didn’t go off on the ice queen, which would have been really natural and easy for me to do. But I thought, “People don’t know what’s happening here. I’m the elected official in this situation. I’m the adult. I’ll become the bad guy.” So I just gave her the stink eye and said, “You’re terribly wrong” and I left.

Later, I had fantasies of calling Building Inspection or the Fire Marshall on them. I never did it but you can always fantasize. “Oh, there’s a rat in my soup, help!”

Poor Carolis. After that whole thing happened he came out of the bathroom. I had disappeared. He was looking around going, “Where’s Tom?” Well, I was kicked out on the sidewalk. He still married me.

That restaurant class thinks they’re hot shit. They all waged war against Healthy San Francisco, but in different ways. Judi Rogers from Zuni, to her credit, asked me to come in and talk to her about it. She didn’t like Healthy San Francisco and she had a real rationale why. I could listen and tell her why I didn’t agree and she listened. She said, “I’m embarrassed by that little coterie in the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.” A bunch of men who act like four-year-olds.

Now, of course, Newsom is claiming credit for universal health care in San Francisco. My response is always that it’s not just that he’s claiming credit for it that’s the problem. It’s that Newsom was never there to fight for it when it was challenged, when it was close to being killed.

The restaurant people got personal in their opposition to Healthy San Francisco. They came to every Board meeting and said, “Tom Ammiano this, Tom Ammiano that.” One of them wrote in a national magazine for the Restaurant Association: “Here’s Tom Ammiano’s personal information. This is his salary. This is his house.”

After I was kicked out of the Range restaurant, I called up the head of the Restaurant Association and ripped him a new one. He made the owner of the restaurant apologize to me. The ice queen called me. But it was so phony and it was all about their suffering and how they have no vacation time and how her husband and she get no time with the kids because they have to work so hard. All of it divorced from the social justice aspects and needs of others. It was all about them. She said, “oh, I wrote you an email and you didn’t respond but I am sorry.” She wasn’t sorry.

Anyway, that restaurant is gone now. People used to ask me what restaurant they should go to in San Francisco. I said, “Oh go to Range and be sure to say Tom Ammiano sent you!” Home on the Range.

It did feel really good to get that apology. But did they stop going after me? No.


There was a lawsuit by the restaurants to block Healthy San Francisco from ever taking effect. City Attorney Dennis Herrera appointed a really good Deputy City Attorney to handle the case for the city, Vincent Chhabria. Now he’s a federal judge. Initially he was thinking we were going to lose this. Maybe Tom could water it down or modify it, he asked? But, as he dealt with the lawyers for the Golden Gate Restaurant Association—nationally the restaurant lobby didn’t want this to happen either because they feared it would start a trend—he saw the fallacies of their case and the strength of ours.

The lawsuit went to three levels of courts—the Superior Court and then two appellate courts. The lawsuit lost on all levels and Healthy San Francisco was upheld. The Restaurant Association tried to use a federal labor law called “ERISA” to attack our legislation as pre-empted by federal law. But we were too smart for them and we had drafted our law in a way that didn’t conflict. I said, “ERISA is a drag queen.” So we won. At the first level, we won. At the second level, we won. Then they went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said they had no standing to sue. We won. Healthy San Francisco took effect.

Gavin Newsom was nowhere to be found during all of that. But, after Healthy San Francisco took effect and became popular, he said it was his idea all along.

Gavin-taking-credit-for-healthy-sf flickr.jpg

Gavin Newsom taking credit for Healthy San Francisco, c. 2009.

Photo: Gavin Newsom flickr account


Then there were my battles with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Charities organization didn’t want to have a Domestic Partners law, which provided same-sex couples with some benefits and protections in the time before marriage equality happened. We told them that the law had passed so if they didn’t comply they wouldn’t get their $3 million in subsidies from the city.

We had a meeting at the rectory. At the meeting some people were afraid I’d get fiery and told me to be calm. So in walks then-Archbishop Levada, known on the street as “Darth Vader,” with the ring and the silver haired people around him who smelled of incense. They were just odious. All dressed in black. It was very slimming.

I said, “Archbishop, I’m glad you’re here. We’d like to talk about this program and the devil is in the details.” Ha ha ha.

The Church really wanted that $3 million from the city so they came up with this proposal where everybody was considered a domestic partner if you worked for the Catholic Hospitals. If I was with my lover and I said I want him or her covered, that would be fine, because I could also say my mother should be covered. So it turned it into a different kind of domestic partner that they could stomach. Fine.

Then Levada said something condemning the adoption of children by gay people and some other gross things. It wasn’t disguised, there were no code words, it was real.

Levada was getting promoted—he was going to Rome to what was called “The Office of the Inquisitor.” The Board of Supervisors resolution we passed about this was beautiful—my staffer Zach wrote it—calling them out. It was not a resounding vote of support for the Catholic Church.

A right-wing Catholic group—and there are many—connected to Opus Dei, sued. This group sued me and the whole Board of Supervisors for defamation. Their lawsuit asserted that I broke the law by trashing the Archbishop and that it wasn’t within the purview of the Board of Supervisors to do so. But it was freedom of speech. It was a Board of Supervisors resolution.

The same Deputy City Attorney, Vincent Chhabria, who defended Healthy SF, defended us on this. He came in to my office and said, “All right, let’s go.” We won.


Originally Chapter 18 in Kiss My Gay Ass (Bay Guardian Books: 2020). Excerpted here with permission.