On Thursday, $20,000 and multitudes of rung doorbells later, Ammiano pulled ahead of his rivals into a runoff election against incumbent Mayor Willie Brown, one of only a few mayors with nationwide name recognition.
"Here's to a real grassroots effortÂ…this is quite a victory against corporate campaigning," Ammiano declared, as supporters wearing bright orange "I AM A TOMBOY" stickers cheered him on.
His improbable campaign, launched 20 days before the election, earned Ammiano 44,539 votes, or 25.4 percent: that put him well ahead of former mayor and police chief Frank Jordan, who got 29,987 votes, or 17.1 percent.
With all precincts reporting, the mayor got 67,912 votes, or 38.7 percent.
Election officials were still counting 11,000 absentee ballots and studying 7,000 ballots whose validity was questioned. It was unlikely that enough of these votes would lift Jordan past Ammiano, a longtime gay activist.
Jordan did not concede. His press aide, Mark Foehr, declined comment.
Earlier Thursday, Brown complained that Ammiano's late entry had robbed him of an outright victory on Nov. 2, and that the Dec. 14 runoff would cost taxpayers a lot of money.
"Without Mr. Ammiano in there, I am the mayor of San Francisco as of the day [of the election] and the citizens would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars," Brown said.
Richard DeLeon, chairman of the political science department at San Francisco State University, called Ammiano's surge "nothing short of amazing" and said it was "the most exciting thing I've seen happen in San Francisco politics in a long time."
Ammiano spent a mere $20,000, compared to $2.3 million by Brown, $300,000 by Jordan and more than $3.5 million by political consultant Clint Reilly, who finished fourth. Ammiano said he planned to run "a very frugal campaign" over the next six weeks.