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.
“I don’t think it’s any mystery how he continues to be powerful. In a term-limited era, people behind the scenes who know how to mobilize coalitions, raise money, have the advantage over other players in the system,” says Bruce Cain, a political scientist and executive director of the University of California’s Washington Center. Cain worked on Brown’s staff in the 1980s and recalls firsthand how “intimidatingly smart” Brown is. “Ironically, term limits made Willie more powerful, not less. Lots of [newly elected or short-timer politicians] have no knowledge of how the system works. That knowledge becomes even more valuable in a world where no more Willie Browns are possible.”
Still widely referred to as “Da Mayor,” Brown held that office from 1996 until 2004. Before that, he was the most powerful political figure in California as speaker of the state assembly. In the 1990s, state term limits were adopted, expelling Brown from Sacramento. So after thirty years there, Brown returned to San Francisco, the city he had migrated to in 1951 as a penniless, poorly educated seventeen-year-old from segregated Mineola, Texas.
Brown worked as a janitor and doorman to put himself through San Francisco State University and then the University of California’s Hastings School of Law. He became close to the Burton clan, a major power in California politics. Phillip Burton represented San Francisco in Congress for nearly twenty years, and after he died of an aneurysm in 1983, his wife, Sala, took over his seat and served until she died in 1987. John Burton, Phil Burton’s brother and a longtime state legislator, is now head of the state Democratic Party.
Brown’s early idealism—he was a dedicated follower of the political economist Henry George, who advocated a system of sky-high land-value taxation that would have put real estate speculators and developers out of business—gave way to a more pragmatic mix of a strong commitment to civil rights and support of public-sector unions, balanced with a long track record as a great proponent and friend of real estate developers, particularly those who sought to build on land formerly owned by the government. After winning the 1995 mayoral election, Brown presided over the boomiest of cities in the boomiest of times. He was a smashing and popular success, overseeing a splendid (if expensive) renovation of the city’s palatial city hall, the development of the beautiful waterfront ballpark for the San Francisco Giants, the gentrification of the South of Market area—“SoMa”—into a techie haven, and so on.
But a steady drumbeat of mini scandals—contracts awarded to politically connected friends and the like—led to a short-lived voter revolt. The city’s progressives (versus business-friendly moderates, like Brown) took control of the elected eleven-member board of supervisors around the time of the first dotcom bust. Amid this, Gavin Newsom, Brown’s well-funded chosen successor, won the 2003 mayoral election. His challenger was Matt Gonzalez, a progressive Stanford Law grad (who went on, as a footnote, to be Ralph Nader’s running mate in 2008).
Newsom brashly ignored Brown’s advice to wait his turn and in 2010 ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor, which went to Jerry Brown. Without the support of Willie Brown and the tight group of state Democratic political grandees, Newsom’s campaign sputtered, and he had to settle for lieutenant governor, a humiliatingly ceremonial role.
That meant that Newsom vacated the mayor’s office with a year left in the term. Anyone picked to be interim mayor by the city’s board of supervisors would have a tremendous advantage in the 2011 mayoral election. David Chiu, the Harvard Law-trained president of the board, had already announced he would run.
So Newsom and Brown proposed that the job go to Lee. The previously obscure city administrator vowed repeatedly that he would be a simple caretaker who would never run for a full term. And perhaps Lee believed that to be true, or that such a decision would be his to make. But Brown, and Rose Pak, had other plans. The giggly, unassuming Lee was their creation. A new citizen’s group, funded chiefly by businessmen tied to Pak, clamored for Lee to run. Lee dithered. Chiu, sensing he had been outmaneuvered and betrayed, confronted Lee. “So Ed,” Chiu said to Lee at a mayoral debate in August, “you told me that you had looked at yourself in the mirror you didn’t want to run, but that you were having trouble saying no to Willie Brown and Rose Pak.” And by that point, everyone knew that Lee had not, in the end, said no to his powerful patrons. Lee’s most valuable characteristic is his ability to say yes.
There cannot be a scandal if there is no lie. And there is no need to lie when there are no rules requiring one to disclose anything at all. Brown managed to create this post-partisan, post-scandal world that allows him to flourish by turning the very concept of disclosure or openness or accountability on its head.
He is very publicly a rascal, a roue, in a city that loathes the boring and conventional. Let ham-handed buffoons like John Edwards hide from the press in hotel stairwells and risk jail time for steering money to a mistress. When Brown, married since 1958, got an aide pregnant while still in office, he invited everyone to congratulate him on the happy news. “There is nothing unseemly about this at all,” Brown told San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross. “She’s a great friend.” The woman, whose fund-raising business enjoyed rent-free city-owned office space, received nearly $2.5 million in payments from city commissions and campaign funds controlled by Brown or his allies, the newspaper reported later. No one batted an eye.
What many powerful players would conceal, Brown announces with glee in the weekly column he has written for the Chronicle since 2008. The Chron once covered Brown’s dealings aggressively, but it is now so weak that Hearst Corp. nearly folded it a few years ago. Brown often uses his column to promote friends and punish enemies, and his column is not subject to the paper’s ethics policy.
Brown does not discuss the identity of his legal clients, and he did not respond to an interview request for this story. Brown’s major clients are thought to be companies tied to land use (like Lennar, developing huge tracts of formerly government-owned land along the Bay) or big public works projects like the $1.6 billion Central Subway, which will terminate in politically powerful Chinatown.
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