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

“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.

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 naïveté 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.