The Willie Brown Obsession

by on September 15, 2015

Willie Brown was on the front page again last week, as the media examined his role in representing a digital ad executive charged with domestic violence.  As often occurs in stories involving San Francisco’s former mayor, reports of Brown’s involvement began in one venue (in this case the Wall Street Journal) before being amplified in SF Magazine, the SF Chronicle, and throughout social media.

Also typical for Brown is that the smoke producing these stories was not backed by fire. Brown’s alleged “$1 million fee” resulted in him earning only $20,000, and the executive escaped felony prosecution through court rulings unconnected to Brown’s efforts.

Why was it deemed newsworthy that a private attorney offered to help a wealthy criminal defendant for a steep fee?  The answer is that many believe Willie Brown still runs San Francisco. That he has been out of office for nearly twelve years makes no difference; Brown’s critics are convinced he has been pulling puppet strings in Room 200 since leaving City Hall, with special power over Mayor Lee.

Why are critics so obsessed about Willie Brown’s alleged power? It’s not a news story when a US Senator returns Bill Clinton’s calls; why do so many find it suspicious when anyone in public life talks to Willie Brown?

Brown’s Background

The myth of the all-omnipotent Willie Brown emerged during the 1970’s and 80’s when the SF Bay Guardian routinely castigated the “Brown-Burton” machine. That the Burton part of this  “machine” produced sweeping progressive legislation nationally and in California did not insulate it from this attack; nor did Willie Brown’s use of his role as Assembly speaker in the 1980’s to protect organized labor against Republican governor attacks.

Brown’s role as Speaker from 1980-1995 did give him enormous power.  Not only because of its legislative power, but more because it made Brown the proverbial bagman for Assembly Democrats. Special interests seeking favors from Democrats across California donated to Brown’s campaign fund; he then decided which races to spend the money to ensure Democrats retained Assembly control.

California was a much more conservative state in the 1980’s, and Brown’s solicitation of special interest dollars kept Democrats controlling the Assembly while Republican’s held the governor’s office from 1983-1995. But many San Francisco progressives saw Brown’s campaign solicitations as “corrupt,” a term they also used to describe Brown’s law practice representing developers and other clients in front of San Francisco city agencies. Brown’s conduct in the first case was essential and in the second completely legal; he used to say that if the state did not want legislators to have outside jobs, it should pass a law to prevent this.

Prior to Brown’s election as San Francisco mayor in 1995 there was a disconnect between how labor and other progressive constituencies positively viewed Brown in Sacramento and how negatively he was viewed by anti-development progressives locally.

The “All-Powerful” Brown

Brown won election for mayor in 1995 with strong labor and progressive support.  When he ran for re-election in 1999 against Tom Ammiano, Brown got the endorsement of every labor union with the exception of a small SEIU local.

But Brown’s critics saw something nefarious about this landslide re-election victory. Since they “knew” Brown was “corrupt,” labor unions had to have been “bought off” to go for Brown. Critics ignored that Brown delivered for labor throughout his career; there had to be “backroom deals” for him to get such support.

I think today’s Willie Brown obsession has its roots in that 1999 re-election campaign. If you believed that Brown only governed for developers and the rich, how could you rationalize Brown’s sweeping victory? It had to be because he was doing something “under the table” to maintain power.

While critics viewed Brown’s landslide victory in 1999 as confirming  he was “all-powerful,” their view could not explain why the 2000 Board of Supervisor races saw Brown backed candidates lose almost every race.  After all, an “all-powerful” Brown would not have lost control of the Board for most of his second term.

Post-Mayor Activism

Brown played only a small role in Gavin Newsom’s winning 2003 campaign.  He remained available for hire as an attorney, a fact that continues to trouble his critics.  He also became a widely read SF Chronicle columnist, which drives his detractors bonkers. They see Brown’s column as connected to his ability to run San Francisco, a claim of journalistic power that even the great Herb Caen never got.

When Ed Lee was picked to fill Newsom’s remaining one-year term, a new narrative emerged that Brown controlled the Board vote. That it was Chinatown activists and not Brown who engineered Lee’s selection as mayor made no difference; in the racially-tainted perspective of Brown critics, only Brown could have pulled off Lee’s win.

Ed Lee’s election has proved a boon to those who see an all-powerful Willie Brown controlling City Hall. Lee’s prior working for Brown meant he would forever be Brown’s “puppet,” lending fuel to the conspiracy theories regarding Brown’s ongoing role in San Francisco government.

I have met a lot of politicians. Willie Brown is far and away the most brilliant. Now 81, he is not at the top of his game but is still super smart. He is smart enough not to dispute the ongoing silliness about his alleged control of City Hall, because the more power he is perceived to own the higher the legal fees he can generate.

But those still engaged in a Javert-like obsession to pin corruption on Willie Brown are doomed to fail. Brown has long been too smart for his critics, as well as the FBI. Those preoccupied with bringing down Brown have missed a great opportunity to appreciate the skills of a political legend, one whose legacy has been forever stamped on San Francisco’s history.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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