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Clown suits and chaos: What happened when Jello Biafra ran for Mayor of San Francisco

Jello Biafra
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

As frontman with The Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra was American punk rock’s provocateur-in-chief. The fiercely leftwing band’s 1979 debut single, California Über Alles, was a sneering, satirical Molotov cocktail aimed squarely at the politicians in The Golden State. 

Within months Biafra was putting his money where his mouth was and running for Mayor in his home town of San Francisco, a city where the hippie dream had been replaced by poverty, bribery, corruption and, following the assassination of then-Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk the previous year, even murder. 

For Biafra it was a chance to take on the politicos at their own game

Jello Biafra: It was kinda done on a dare. I was in the back of our drummer’s Volkswagen Beetle on our way to a Pere Ubu concert when he said: “Jello, you have such a big mouth you should run for Mayor.” At the gig that night I started mouthing off to everybody that I was going to run for Mayor. 

I even wrote my platform out on a napkin with a felt-tip pen, while Pere Ubu was playing a metre from me. One idea that popped into my head that night was that police officers should have to run for re-election every four years and be voted for by the people in the districts they patrol, the people who suffered from the violence and corruption. 

Barry Melton (ex-guitarist, Country Joe And The Fish): During that year, Country Joe and I were working as a duo, but I was also studying with the intention of moving into the legal profession, so I was paying close attention to that election. The two main candidates for Mayor were Dianne Feinstein and Quentin Kopp. Feinstein had been the Chair of the Board Of Supervisors [the city council] at the time of the assassinations of Milk and Moscone by city official Dan White. 

The other major candidate, Quentin Kopp, had been a Republican for years until he realised a Republican could never get elected in a town as left-leaning as San Francisco, so he became an independent. 

Jello Biafra: Quentin Kopp was actually very jovial, friendly, kind of a character. He and Feinstein had been on the Board Of Supervisors, but when George Moscone and Harvey Milk were assassinated Feinstein was appointed as Acting Mayor. She ran the city with an iron fist, and the police were completely out of control, which she seemed to get off on. I have never been very fond of her, and any grief I can cause that creature, I’m happy to oblige. But that wasn’t why I ran for Mayor. It was more like: wouldn’t this be a great prank? 

Barry Melton: I felt aligned with the punks at that time. We were as in-your-face as they were, but just from a different time and with a different way of showing it. I met Jello and, to the sense that my politics were so far to the extreme of any ordinary San Franciscan, I certainly took notice of his campaign. 

Jello Biafra: There was very little time for planning, but we managed to turn in my application at the last minute. And then suddenly I was being flooded with loads of mail, being invited to far more events than any one person could possibly attend. I only went to three of them in the end. It never even occurred to me to print up much in the way of campaign literature, or go door to door, or do very many public events.

Quentin Kopp: In every election in San Francisco you find someone with extraordinarily different proposals. Some people were offended by the very fact of his candidacy, his rhetoric, his speeches. I don’t recall being offended by any of it. Someone like Jello was not a new phenomenon and neither was he obnoxious. He certainly wasn’t particularly offensive to me. 

It turned out that his uncle and I had been classmates at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. After that I became bemused by him. I think he was certainly seeking publicity. I think he got personal satisfaction from saying what was on his mind and expressing his sense of humour. It didn’t do his reputation any harm. It elevated him. 

Jello Biafra: I had some pretty interesting proposals. Making businessmen wear clown suits was the one the media seized on, but there was a lot more to it than they realised. It was my response to Frankenfeinstein [Feinstein] saying she was going to “clean up” Market Street, by which she meant throwing the homeless out of all the vacant buildings. 

So I went to her mansion in Pacific Heights on a mission to clean up her lawn. It was just an attention-grabbing stunt. It looked like I was wearing a toxic-materials suit, but it was actually a coverall for a milk delivery man. There was a big, locked gate at her mansion so I didn’t get as far as her lawn. 

But, sure enough, the story made it to the evening news. I felt it was the other end of Market Street that needed to be cleaned up. That’s where the headquarters of Chevron and Bank Of America and other corporate evil-doers were based. That was what needed cleaning up. So I proposed that businessmen should wear clown suits between the hours of nine and five. 

Barry Melton: His idea of letting people legally squat in vacant, tax-delinquent buildings was great. But, come on, forcing businessmen to wear clown suits? Just from a civil liberties point of view, should people be made to wear clown suits? It’s actually frighteningly right-wing, if you think about it. 

Jello Biafra: People began making their own signs and bringing them to rallies. One of them was: ‘There’s always room for Jello’. That was an advertising slogan for a fruit-flavoured dessert at the time. I didn’t choose it. That was just one of the signs, but it was the one that caught on. There were several more, including somebody walking around with a sign saying: ‘If Jello doesn’t win, I’ll kill myself’. 

Quentin Kopp: I was bemused by all that. I have a vague recollection that Jello made five or six points which were off the chart, so to speak. I didn’t take him seriously. 

Jello Biafra: Something else I had learned quickly when I first came to San Francisco was that the city was openly and brazenly corrupt. I realised, for example, that the reason why punk shows were getting attacked so much by the police was that none of us had the money to pay off the cops. In some cases the promoters just refused on principle. 

So realising how the whole thing worked, I thought, okay, let’s just bring it all out in the open. And I proposed an officially appointed Board Of Bribery to set fair and standard bribe rates for acquiring liquor licences, building code exemptions, protection from the police and other crooks and so on.

In addition to the Board Of Bribery, I also proposed that people be allowed to panhandle [beg] on a 50 per cent commission to raise money for the city. There was already a growing number of beggars on the streets because social services were being cut. Another proposition was to erect statues of Dan White [Harvey Milk’s assassin] all over town and raise funds by selling rocks and rotten fruit and vegetables for people to throw at them. 

Barry Melton: He had things that were absolutely brilliant political insights, but he also had ideas that would disqualify his campaign entirely. The people I hung out with, we really appreciated some elements of his campaign platform. But there were things like erecting Dan White statues… I mean, if you include clown suits and throwing eggs at statues as part of your campaign, I assume you know you are disqualifying yourself.

Jello Biafra: I like using my sense of humour as a gateway to whack people in the head with things I want to say to them. I’ve always been like that. But even so, there were serious points. 

Barry Melton: Of course, you can mount an election campaign not with the expectation of winning, but with the intention of pushing the dialogue so that your serious issues actually get discussed.

Jello Biafra: Ultimately the election became a high-noon showdown between the downtown business interests, whose puppet was Feinstein, and the real-estate interests, whose puppet was Kopp. Feinstein was expecting to get a 50 per cent majority, and when she didn’t get it her spokesman said: “If someone like Jello Biafra can get so many votes, this city is in real trouble.” There was genuine anger behind that. 

Quentin Kopp: The gay candidate, David Scott, got about 10 or 12 per cent. For Biafra, coming in fourth was very good. He finished behind Scott, so he probably got two or three per cent of the vote. 

Barry Melton: I would say it was not a good result for Jello Biafra. He only got a tiny minority protest kind of vote. But if it’s a close fight, which this was, a small percentage can be everything. When you get somebody like Jello, the threat is to the candidate on the left, which was Dianne Feinstein. 

Jello Biafra: Had me and David Scott not gotten so many votes, then Feinstein and Kopp would never have been forced into a run-off. 

Quentin Kopp: As it turned out, Feinstein beat me in the run-off a month or so later. 

Barry Melton: To my friends and me, the proposal that police officers should be elected was wonderful, not something to be laughed at. So his campaign had some really legitimate parts to it, but he took other aspects of it into the theatre of the absurd. 

Jello Biafra: Five years later, when Kopp was still on the Board Of Supervisors, they passed a law preventing anyone to run for office using an assumed name. He admitted that one of his targets then was me. You couldn’t have people like Jello Biafra humiliating candidates who had spent tens of thousands of dollars on their campaign. To which my reply was: “Wasn’t that the whole idea?” 

Barry Melton: Jello succeeded in getting his issues discussed. Also, relative to those major police problems in San Francisco, in the years that followed, more and more Metropolitan Police Departments started introducing concepts like community policing, where officers actually walk beats and get to know the people they’re working for, so there’s interaction between the police and the community, not just a bunch of outside army occupation troops coming in and messing with your lives. The changes have not been exactly as Jello had envisioned, but these ideas have become rooted in our culture. 

Jello Biafra: People still ask me to run for more offices. But I have to warn them that if I did it now I’d have to put way more time and effort into it, because I know now how things are actually done. If I won I’d have to give up rock’n’roll for good. 

The hardest part would come right after being elected, when I’d have to find the right people, the right advisors. I’d be walking that tightrope between finding people who shared my vision and people who could actually oversee a bureaucracy and shake things up.

What happened next?

Jello Biafra ran for presidency of the Green Party in 2000, and finished second to Ralph Nader. He still tours and records with his band the Guantanamo School Of Medicine, who've just released a video for their song We Created Putin.

Dianne Feinstein is the the senior United States Senator from California, and the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Quentin Kopp, who later became a judge, is now retired. Barry Melton balances life as a criminal defence lawyer with playing guitar in various live combinations.