July/August 2012 The Power Broker

San Francisco’s ex-mayor Willie Brown has pioneered a new way to control a city without breaking a sweat—or running for office, or getting elected, or disclosing his clients, or making anyone particularly mad.

By Elizabeth Lesly Stevens

On January 8, San Francisco’s political and business elite gathered under the soaring rotunda of city hall for the inauguration of Edwin M. Lee, who had just been elected to a full term as mayor. Trumpets heralded the recently obscure city administrator as he made his way down the grand marble staircase.

Already front and center on the broad landing that served as the stage for the occasion was Willie L. Brown Jr. Brown’s days as an elected official—he served as speaker of the state assembly, and then two terms as San Francisco’s mayor—are long past. But he remains very much the star of the show, and was arguably the most powerful man in the room.

The ascent of Ed Lee that morning was the public culmination of Brown’s deft maneuvering over the previous two years to ensure that a safe and reliable ally would continue to control San Francisco’s local government. Lee’s predecessor, Gavin Newsom, was himself a Brown protégé, getting his start in city politics when Brown appointed him to the parking commission and then the board of supervisors.

Brown and his longtime ally Rose Pak, a community organizer and a powerful figure from the city’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce, had managed to get Lee, an obscure city hall apparatchik, appointed interim mayor in January 2011 when Newsom left office early to become lieutenant governor. As an incumbent, Lee was then a shoo-in to win a full term. Brown had built up Lee’s public service bona fides for years, appointing the former Asian Law Caucus attorney to a series of posts, including head of the city’s purchasing office and the department of public works. If Lee wins a second term, he will be in place until 2020, giving Brown a hold on San Francisco’s government that will span a quarter century.

So the victory being celebrated on January 8 was Brown’s. The very public stagecraft of the inauguration left no doubt about who remains the city’s Alpha Male.

“Charlotte! We are mad at you!” Brown jovially shouted across the stage as Lee made his way down the stairs. Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, a glamorous socialite and the wife of former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, was long ago appointed by Brown as San Francisco’s chief of protocol. She managed this inauguration, as she had countless official parties for Brown and other politicians and dignitaries over the years. “We”—Brown stood in the opulently decorated Beaux Arts temple with four other former mayors, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein—“didn’t get this!”

The horns quieted. Lee stood meekly behind Brown. He tugged at his baggy business suit, clasped and unclasped his hands. The most colorful thing about him is his moustache, which is brown.

“Ed, if you want to sit down, it’s all right. It’s perfectly all right,” Brown said, gesturing back toward a chair.

Lee sat.

Brown and the crowd laughed.

Brown then held forth for most of the next hour, cracking jokes and explaining what Lee’s mayoralty was all about. He told Lee, who sat dutifully in his chair, gray and mute, that he had better learn to recognize the state and national political figures in the audience who could be pressured to support high-speed rail, a favorite public works project of Brown and, presumably, his clients.

“I should identify some of your real friends,” Brown said. “People like Ron Conway, who is here. Where are you, Ron Conway?”

The influential technology investor, a Republican who had not been politically active before falling in with Brown and becoming Lee’s largest donor, stood and beamed. The parties Conway hosted or funded for Lee had been the talk of the town. A widely distributed campaign commercial was filmed at Conway’s home; it featured sports and tech celebrities like Twitter cofounder Biz Stone and Google’s Marissa Mayer dancing merrily to demonstrate their enthusiasm for Lee as MC Hammer performed “U Can’t Touch This.” (Brown has been talking up Hammer, whose real name is Stanley Kirk Burrell, as the next mayor of Oakland.)

Conway’s and the tech industry’s support of Lee had already yielded a spectacular return. Shortly after being named interim mayor, Lee pushed through what became known as the “Twitter tax break.” The deal allows San Francisco tech companies to avoid huge payroll taxes on employee stock options when they go public. San Francisco-based Twitter is among Conway’s portfolio companies. After the inauguration, Lee put on hold an effort by city tax authorities to force another Conway-backed company, Airbnb, to comply with the city’s steep lodging tax.

After making sure that everyone understood how much Lee owed Ron Conway, Brown did cede the podium—reluctantly, promising he would soon return—and allowed Lee to speak. But Brown took a seat so very near the new mayor that even in the closest-cropped photos and videos of Lee’s speech, Brown’s familiar bald visage looms large, seemingly grafted to Lee’s left arm.

Brown remains sparklingly charismatic and jaunty despite his seventy-eight years. He is possibly more powerful and certainly less controversial now than when he held public office. The ethics and criminal investigations that dogged his entire political career (no charges were ever filed) have been largely forgotten. The well-dressed bon vivant lives downtown in his St. Regis apartment and seems to never tire of the party circuit.

Brown is now a private attorney under no obligation to disclose the identity of his clients or his interactions with the legion of public officials and others who owe their careers to him. (The most promising of these may be California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Brown’s onetime girlfriend.) Brown operates in a post-partisan, post-paper trail world in which he reaps the benefits of power while bearing none of the unpleasant culpability or scrutiny that typically comes with that.

There is no scandal here. Brown helped create the system that allows him to flourish now. And he plays that system like a born musician who rarely if ever hits a wrong note. “He is smarter than everyone else. That is what it comes down to. He’s a chess player playing at a level far more advanced than everyone else,” says Corey Cook, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco. “He has always been able to figure out how to find the gray area, and never cross the line.”

There have long been political machines or political bosses calling the shots in cities across the country. Ed Rendell’s post-political career in Philadelphia, after serving as mayor and then governor, springs to mind. Bill Clinton’s post-presidential life in the private sector, the tedious scandals of his public life all but forgotten, does as well.

But the forces that made Willie Brown possible are somewhat unique. The term limits that forced him from office twice, first from the state assembly and then from the mayor’s office, ironically make his informal power and that of all his term-limited brethren all the more potent. Willie Brown’s power springs from his web of relationships and his intricate and strategic understanding, cultivated over six decades, of how politics in San Francisco and California is played. With term limits in place, it is all but impossible that a creature quite like Brown could rise again.

Elizabeth Lesly Stevens wrote a weekly column on money and power for the Bay Area section of the New York Times before moving to Washington last fall.


  • working stiff on July 11, 2012 5:48 PM:

    leaving aside the substance of the rest of the article, the reporter is mistaken in linking the cuts at the SFUSD and at City College to the rest of San Francisco's fiscal condition. Both are independent agencies with their own elected boards and budgets distinct from the City and County of San Francisco. They are also agencies have seen millions of dollars in cuts resulting from California's pervasive fiscal crisis and the inability of the legislature to raise taxes through a simple majority.

  • San Franciscan on July 11, 2012 7:39 PM:

    Stevens' shows the same hostile ignorance and barbed navet that she demonstrated back when she wrote her glorified blog in the Bay Citizen -- but it's disappointing that Washington Monthly, supposedly steeped in the art and mechanics of politics, would miss it.

    Take one very telling example: to justify her extended attack on San Francisco as a poorly run city, she compares it to "nearby San Jose, a larger city by population," which employs only 4,000 workers. She suggests San Francisco's 23,000 is bloated by comparison and must be the result of a corrupt, self-dealing "machine." What she fails to tell her readers is that San Jose is merely a city, while San Francisco is a city AND a county, which means all the county obligations (hospitals, jails, courts, etc.) fall to San Francisco, in addition to all traditional city services. Moreover, San Francisco runs the busiest airport in Northern California, owns and operates a vast regional water and power system (which supplies 30 other cities), and carries more passengers on its public transit system every day than all the Bay Area's other transit agencies -- combined. And oh yeah -- as the employment hub for the region, its population doubles in size everyday.

  • Armand Der-Hacobian on July 12, 2012 12:04 AM:

    Excellent article by an excellent journalist.

    I love San Francisco and have lived in the City since 1983. I do want to do my part so that generations to come get to enjoy this magical city as much as I did.

    The issues that Mrs Stevens are the root cause of all of San Francisco problems.

    Well done Mrs. Stevens. Please keep up the good work.

    Armand Der-Hacobian

  • Anniecat45 on July 12, 2012 11:30 AM:

    I've lived in San Francisco since 1980 and Ms. Stevens has omitted to mention a few things:

    1. The overhaul of the City Hall had been planned for several years before Brown became mayor and was due in part to the 1989 earthquake and in part to a need to re-wire a building that was constructed in the early 20th century.
    2. Quentin Kopp is a professional kvetch and has been for his entire public career. He also HATES Willie Brown to such a degree that when it rains around here, Kopp blames Brown for the water being wet. (Slight exaggeration, but only slight.)
    3. To say City layoffs are verboten may not be a lie but it certainly given the reader the wrong impression. There have been a LOT of furloughs and empty city jobs are not being filled.
    4. Tax breaks for busines? Yeah, Brown invented those all right. And the mid-Market area that Twitter has moved into has been blighted for years and nobody -- including Mr. Kopp -- could think of any way to fix that.
    5. Has Ms. Stevens spent any time at all in Chinatown where the Central Subway will run? The traffic congestion is HORRIBLE there -- narrow streets, packed with lots of cars, delivery trucks for the businesses, buses and pedestrians. It's already served by three bus lines; the problem isn't lack of buses, it's the amount of vehicles sharing the streets. The Central will get some of this traffic off the street and will take people, upon final completion, to another part of the city where many Chinese residents have bought homes when they've been able to leave Chinatown.

  • Ellen Greenberg on July 12, 2012 3:36 PM:

    Kudos to Ms. Stevens for telling it like it is. Willie Brown, the grand puppeteer, pulls the strings of our city politicians like no one else. Yes, SF is both a city and county, so the comparison to San Jose is apples and oranges, but the Recology and Twitter breaks cause real harm to city residents. The Central Subway project is not about transportation or conneecting Chinese residents to other parts of the city; it's about real estate values. Ironically, poor residents in Chinatown will be forced to leave as the subway corridor becomes so valuable that Willie's development cronies start building market-rate high density condos and office buildings there.

  • CJRoses on July 12, 2012 5:19 PM:

    Ms. Stevens captures the essence of SF government - a body whose primary function is to enrich its employees and secondarily to provide services. Yes, Ed Lee was in charge of fixing potholes before he became Mayor.

    Yes, San Jose is not an apt comparison but Philadelphia is and by comparison, SF wastes staggering amounts of taxpayer money and delivers little- see Muni and potholes.

    City employees will get last laugh with bloated pensions - if there is still any money left...

  • SanFranciscan on July 12, 2012 6:09 PM:

    He may have had an illegitimate child with an aide but that shouldn't be a scandal anywhere. He and his wife are still married, sure, but they've been separated since 1976.

  • Hank Plante on July 12, 2012 6:28 PM:

    Another East Coast magazine swoops into the West Coast to tell us nothing we didn't already know.
    To capture the essence of Willie Brown you have to understand what those of us who have reported on him for 30 years understand: that he is the best daily news story you can find. On a dull news day all we had to do was find Willie, get a soundbite, and we'd have a story.
    He is surprisingly transparent (for someone who sees the whole chess board), and he likes nothing more than to share his tidbits and info with reporters who get him -- which is why he's good copy.
    I won't nitpick, but you should know the reason S.F. has more employees than San Jose is S.F. is a city and a county (San Jose is not). Also, it's "Gale" Kaufman.
    Keep studying us though, and you may actually break some news.

  • mfw13 on July 13, 2012 3:31 AM:

    What the author fails to note is that Da Mayor, despite all his power, has done nothing to actually solve the problems San Francisco faces.

    Compared to when I grew up in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, virtually everything is worse now than it was then....MUNI, street reapirs, the homeless problem, the public school system, etc.

    About the only people who like Da Mayor are businessmen and those with political ambitions, i.e. those who need favors from him. Most ordinary San Franciscans loathe him with a passion....

  • Hope Johnson on July 13, 2012 4:35 AM:

    How unfortunate that this article attributes Willie Brown's lifetime of theft of taxpayer dollars and erosion of the middle class to some supposed superior intelligence. Brown's greatest strength is not playing "the political system" but playing up human greed.

    His so-called "charming" official misconduct behavior is not possible because he is open about it, it remains unchallenged and uninvestigated because so many people believe there's a chance they will become wealthy or more powerful if they become a part of his inner circle. Brown unabashedly uses that greed like a carrot on a stick and most everyone goes along to whatever degree they long to gain another step up the socio-economic ladder. They prefer to believe any reporting that makes them feel better about this behavior, thus the lack of interest in the Chron's poor reporting.

    Brown recently demonstrated his skill at playing human greed when he participated in the fundraiser for Christina Olague, the Lee appointee that this article says makes Lee a rogue Brown creation. There was Brown front and center at the Rose Pak event for Olague, knowing that the appointed supervisor would willingly toss aside her progressive values for a one night stand with Brown with her pocket book wide open.

    When people finally realize they would have more if they got rid of the money-sucking Brown/Burton social network, only then will SF be able to save itself from the downward spiral.

  • Robert Weiler on July 13, 2012 6:39 PM:

    Ms. Stevens should have noted that Quentin Kopp's ballot initiative was also supported by big waste management companies that hoped to displace Recology and would have created 5 different 'garbage districts' in a city that she notes, is smaller by population that San Jose. The proposal lost not because of Willie Brown but because residents don't find Recologies fees excessive and they do a good job. In the time that I have been in the city, there have been no strikes and the job is performed quietly and efficiently. Is it possible that the voters aren't stupid after all and are getting better than average service for their money?

  • Rick Claymore on July 13, 2012 9:24 PM:

    Hank, maybe it is news in Washington.

  • PeonInChief on July 16, 2012 1:51 PM:

    It should be noted that San Francisco is both a city and county, unlike San Jose, and therefore has the responsibilities of both. Comparing the labor forces of the two is therefore apples and oranges.

    Willie Brown is a very smart man, and he knows how to sell out to the elite. In our present society, however, any idiot can do that. What can be said, though, is that if you are part of the 99%, you should deal with Brown as though he is the United States and you are Ricardo Alarcon--most of the time there's nothing on offer.

  • Shokai on July 22, 2012 10:03 AM:

    I'm sure Willie is great with women: http://youtu.be/kogUBtaf_-U

  • Walter Lee on July 29, 2012 8:21 PM:

    The subway station in Washington dC did make Chinatown real estatemore expensive and eventually most of the poorer resident with the exception of the wah luck apartment building residents had to leave. It's a boom to the wealthy land speculators/owners/developer though.

  • Robert B. Livingston on August 03, 2012 12:29 PM:

    I enjoyed your description of Ed Lee's inauguration as much as former Chronicle journalist Robert Morris's description of Newsom's inauguration: when a rare crowd of the city elite gathered in front of city hall.

    Such joys for the ruling class! It is as if it were all a jolly game.

    I hope in part two, if it comes, you take a hard look at the so-called progressive "opposition" whose identity politics lock them into becoming natural allies of Brown and the downtown business interests.

    While they clamor for medical marijuana, marriage equality, Dream Acts, among other secular causes with built-in fine print-- the status quo runs rings around them: asking regular folks and their children to endure and sacrifice more-- even as wars expand, constitutional rights are expended, and a police state is constructed.

    Almost a quarter of kids are in desperate poverty, and San Francisco's current "homeless czar" (a title created to placate Angela Alioto who had wanted to be made vice mayor) wants to pay poor people to babysit pound puppies.

    So jolly!

  • Kim on August 10, 2012 5:58 PM:

    Chinatown will suffer the most. See Washington DC Chinatown that has turned into corporate shops since the subway came.

    This is the death knell for the Italian community in North Beach as well.

  • ed on August 20, 2012 4:12 AM:

    Willie Brown, Jr. is the perfect example of a man who sold his soul to the Devil to get where is at. This son of a sharecropper, who didn't know what a "smoothie" was when he was at a cafe, learned the art of political manipulation and loopholing as a numbers runner for his uncle's Fillmore District, SF gambling room in the 1950s while a SF State student, thus learning the art of the backroom deal. It is the Romneys of the GOP who compare CA to Europe and how dysfunctional it is due to Demos like Willie. The previous mayors in Adolph Sutro, George Christopher, and Joe Alioto helped shaped SF as the City that Use to Know How. Willie's legacy will be that he needed to be the arrogant front center of attention from being SF "Grand Dame Ego Mayor" and Sacramento Assembly "Poohbah Speaker". It is no wonder he is loathed by many in CA politics and outside of it.

  • Dr.KarlaGottschalk on July 04, 2013 9:44 PM:

    I have filed a federal corruption RICO case against Mayor Wille Brown, who is as corrupt as any politician in the world, and I have made a California bar complaint against him as I am a myself a member of the Bar of the State of California.