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.
At the root of the geologic pace of change is the scarcity of credible news coverage of local government, which is a problem almost everywhere, and certainly in San Francisco. “Machines exist by telling people what is going on,” Trounstine continues. “Local politics is a very low-information environment. The lower the information environment, the less information the voters have, and the more likely it is that incumbents will stay in power. ‘Incumbents,’ broadly speaking, are the [not necessarily elected] power brokers” like Willie Brown.
Recently, however, there have been faint signs that Lee is not being as compliant as Brown had hoped. When appointing a new supervisor shortly after being inaugurated, Lee passed over Brown’s pick and chose a more liberal woman, who as head of the planning commission had opposed development deals Brown had favored. Then Lee failed to reappoint a popular local defense lawyer to the police commission. And then Lee appeared ready to allow the professional staff of the city’s pension board to select its new chief, rather than appoint a reliable political ally to the post.
So Brown used his Chronicle column to teach his wayward creation a lesson.
“Ed Lee’s Lack of Political Experience Is Showing,” ran the headline on April 15. “The mayor is answerable for everything that happens in city government,” Brown wrote, “so he needs to have agencies being run by people he can live with.” With Da Mayor still very much in charge, the implication was clear: Brown made Lee, and he can just as easily make a replacement. He—and his clients, whoever they are—need to have San Francisco being run by people he can live with.
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