SAN FRANCISCO — 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.