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

Rose Pak insists that Brown often works for his many friends for free, and that he is far from being a rich man. It is true that, despite the Brioni suits and the St. Regis condo purchased for $1.8 million in 2006, Brown does not openly display trappings of great wealth, like a country place in Napa or even a full-time car and driver. “Most people think he is wallowing in wealth. Let me tell you, he isn’t,” Pak says. “Willie Brown is very generous with his time and his efforts. Some of [his clients] pay him, and some of them don’t. He still advises the governor’s office and half of the legislature. People all pick on him for advice, and two-thirds of the time, he doesn’t get paid. He is just very generous. He is not a money-motivated guy. If you are a friend, you are a friend forever. He is loyal to his friends. How do you charge a friend?”

Indeed, Pak says that Brown was strapped for cash in the eight years he served as mayor, since a city law prohibited him from working as an attorney on the side, which he had done in the decades he spent in the state assembly. “He is the straightest and poorest of all the politicians I know,” Pak says. “Before he left the mayoral thing, I knew he was in trouble financially. So I asked some of our closest friends … your company better not pick on him to do things for free.”

Having the Chronicle column allows Brown to brush off reporters’ questions about his private business life by saying that he is now a newspaper columnist, not a public official who must answer for his actions. And when Brown has faced questions about using his Chronicle column to settle political scores or advance the interests of his corporate clients, he counters that he is not a journalist who can be held accountable on that score, either. So Brown appears to talk freely about everything while not having to disclose anything at all. It works because Brown “doesn’t get caught in lies,” Cook says. “He is very open.” But what about Brown’s work on behalf of his unnamed clients? Cook pauses. “He is selectively transparent, let’s put in that way.”

Brown’s “influence is that of a party boss,” working the nexus of business and politics, Cook says. “It’s not a political machine in a classical sense.” Continuity is key, and many of the legion of loyalists Brown appointed to government posts are still in place. For example, Steve Kawa, Brown’s chief of staff, has held fast to his role as the city’s shadow mayor, continuing in that appointed post for Gavin Newsom and now Ed Lee.

Brown “has figured out a way—many ways—of wielding political power,” Cook continues. “His strength is figuring out how all these pieces go together. He is a legal advocate, a political player, an adviser to the mayor, a columnist in the local paper [where he is] advocating for his clients. He does so in accordance with the law, having figured out how to mobilize all these access points in the system.”

Who in any position of influence would ever want to take this on? There would be nothing to gain. Brown has too many friends and longtime political and business allies. And with the scandals of his years in public office largely forgotten, raising a hue and cry would seem gauche or unsophisticated, even a meanspirited assault on the city’s beloved old uncle.

“We expect him to be flamboyant,” says Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who was Mayor Newsom’s communication director in the days when Newsom was heralded as a Kennedy-esque political prince in such publications as Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times Magazine. “A flamboyant rascal. It’s part of what gives San Francisco its charm.

“There’s no law against being a power broker,” continues Ballard, an admirer of Brown. “He is too much a part of the DNA of the city” for anyone in a position of influence—or ambition—to raise a stink. Willie Brown “is an iconic figure, part of what defines us, and he has been for fifty years. It would be like criticizing North Beach for having strip clubs. It would be like criticizing a cable car for traveling too slow.”

Now that he’s no longer an elected official, Brown is freer than ever to leverage his power and relationships. And because he is an attorney, and not registered as a lobbyist, nothing needs to be disclosed. “Arranging for a deal to get done is not a reportable act. It’s just good, old-fashioned deal making,” Ballard explains. Brown “is hiding in plain sight. He was never caught at anything, and the last thing he would be caught at is having these clients. He is too wired.”

Perhaps hiding in plain sight is Brown’s greatest tactical accomplishment. By appearing everywhere, doing and saying openly in public what many would seek to conceal, Brown has made himself unassailable.

It’s not a scandal to have a baby with a woman who is not your wife if you celebrate it yourself in the local newspaper.

It’s not a scandal that Willie Brown is doing all he can to get the Central Subway built, even if he advises Aecom, the contractor set to manage the $1.6 billion project that will transport people just 3,000 yards. (Aecom did not respond to a request for comment.)

That’s not to say that a few hardy souls aren’t scandalized by the Central Subway, or fearful of how much it might end up costing San Francisco taxpayers in the end. “This is a dog,” said Quentin Kopp, a retired state senator, city supervisor, and judge who earnestly if crankily rails against Brown and his crowd, who smugly refer to themselves publicly as “the City Family.” The Central Subway was originally supposed to cost $600 million, Kopp notes, about a third of its more recent estimate. A now-forgotten alternate proposal to revamp a key bus route would have cost just $9.1 million, Kopp says.

Proponents argue that state and federal money will cover all but $124 million of the Central Subway cost. But if all or part of the state or federal funding doesn’t come through, or if the project’s costs exceed its current budget, the city of San Francisco is on the hook to pay the difference.

And don’t get Kopp started on Recology, the company that has for eighty years enjoyed a no-bid, no-franchise-fee monopoly on the city’s trash collection business. “It’s a virtual criminal enterprise!” the retired judge rails. Brown served as an attorney for the waste company when it operated under its old name, Norcal (abandoned after a public bribery scandal tarred its name elsewhere in the state). An old Sacramento aide of Brown’s sits on the Recology board, and suggestions every few years from the board of supervisors’ independent and respected budget analyst that San Francisco put the monopoly up for bid never go anywhere.

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.