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.
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.
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