SF Chronicle Combines Ignorance, Racism in Charging Mayor Lee with “Cronyism”

by Randy Shaw on September 11, 2012

The San Francisco Chronicle’s September 9 headline story (“Ed Lee’s cronies powerful, critics say”) is a tour-de-force of political ignorance and racism. Reporter John Cote appears unaware that presidents, governors and mayors are all routinely accused of allowing close allies to wield “outsized influence.” This comes with the territory, as such claims emerge from both critics of decisions and/or those excluded from the process. Mayor Lee is not only no more reliant on close advisors than prior mayors, but Cote makes no effort to even substantiate his case. His chief claim that Lee’s advisory circle is narrower than his predecessors ignores the records of past administrations and relies entirely on the opinion of Mayor Newsom’s former campaign manager, who claims that the former mayor had a much bigger inner circle than Ed Lee (a conclusion that surely provoked disbelief at City Hall and across the city).

Dianne Feinstein’s close advisors—Mo Bernstein, Henry Berman, Eugene Friend, Bill Coblentz, and her husband Dick Blum to name but a few—-had enormous power over San Francisco government and backroom influence with the mayor. But the Chronicle called these white men “civic leaders,” while Lee supporters like the Asian-American Rose Pak are disparaged as “power brokers” and “cronies.”

The racist double standard that the San Francisco Chronicle has long applied to Mayor Ed Lee, and his Asian-American supporters was on full display in the paper’s September 9 front-page headline story. The Hearst Corporation appears to be reverting to its legacy of raising fears of a “yellow peril,” as it stokes fears over growing Asian-American political clout in San Francisco.

Defining “Cronyism”

According to Cote’s article, there is something corrupt and threatening to democracy about the following: Rose Pak raising money for Lee and advising him on policy issues; Mayor Lee appointing political supporter Christina Olague to the D5 Supervisor’s seat and then raising money for her campaign; Supervisors Kim and Olague not voting with David Chiu on a project in his district (the Chronicle never found it suspicious when supervisors did not defer to Chris Daly on D6 projects); “Run Ed Run” campaign consultant Enrique Pearce meeting with Supervisor Wiener to discuss pending legislation; and the most commonly cited example of all, former Mayor Willie Brown talking about issues with the current mayor.

What exactly is unethical, illegal, or newsworthy here? At this rate, Cote’s next expose will be that Mayor Lee meets with campaign donors and seeks their counsel—-how dare Lee behave like every other politician in the United States!

Cote neither understands “cronyism” nor spent any time studying the history of San Francisco politics. Even if he only had time to review past Chronicle stories he would have learned that Mayor Lee’s relationship with key advisors is little different from that of every major national politician, and is consistent with every San Francisco mayoral administration going back at least to the days of Joe Alioto.

All of these mayors surrounded themselves with close supporters and trusted friends who they turned to for policy advice. All asked their close supporters to financially back various supervisors, and openly raised money for their appointees’ campaigns.

What’s astonishing is that Cote (and the Chronicle editors) ignored this history. Even worse, they misrepresented it.

Cote quotes former Newsom campaign manager Jim Ross in concluding that Lee’s “inner circle appears small compared with previous mayors.” Really? How many were in Gavin Newsom’s inner circle? The Getty’s certainly were, but you never read a Chronicle story raising suspicions about their influence with the mayor. The same holds true for Dede Wilsey.

Willie Brown, whose support for Ed Lee troubles the Chronicle, had at least as much access to Mayor Newsom, whose political career he launched. Brown also had tremendous access to mayors Agnos and Feinstein— but you did not read Chronicle or Examiner stories about Brown’s “cronyism” with these prior mayors.

The Chronicle and Examiner loved Feinstein. They saw the fact that she had unpaid advisors like Bernstein and Coblentz running massive patronage operations through their role as Airport Commissioners as a positive for the city. The dailies praised these men for making San Francisco work. Unlike Rose Pak, they were described as “civic leaders” not mayoral “cronies,” and were said to always put the good of San Francisco first.

Mayor Art Agnos was criticized for bringing in top aides from Sacramento, and for overly relying on an “inner circle” of former Assembly aides. Criticism of “cronyism” was ripe in the Agnos years, because as with Ed Lee, he often took advice from people who were not part of the downtown establishment.

Mayor Frank Jordan was widely accused of taking policy advice from his unelected and unpaid wife. He also listened to wealthy supporters like Richard Goldman, his Director of Protocol, who was described in the daily press as a “philanthropist” and “civic leader” but never as a “crony” despite his large influence with the mayor.

Former mayor Joe Alioto had financier Bernard Orsi and other wealthy “unpaid” advisors shaping city policies and hiring decisions. Orsi was appointed acting Port Director when plans for the post-industrial waterfront were emerging, and he promoted development and opposed efforts to increase open space.

Cote seems oblivious to both this history and to how politics actually operates in the United States. In story after story he relies on a single, politically motivated source to promote even the most baseless of charges. Who but Cote could believe such a whopper as Mayor Newsom having a large inner circle, or former DBI chief Vivian Day being seen by “some” as a “reformer” in the department” (Day’s chief effort at “reform” was reducing housing code enforcement, which tenant groups successfully stopped).

But it’s more than ignorance that sparks Cote and the Chronicle’s ongoing attacks on Lee and Asian-American political activism: it’s also racism. The Hearst Corporation that owns the Chronicle invented “yellow journalism,” and now sees rising Asian-American political clout in San Francisco as a new “yellow peril.”

Anti-Asian Racism

This new “yellow peril” extends beyond Mayor Lee to the larger project of Chinese-American political empowerment. This includes another front-page Cote story in the Chronicle on September 22, 2011 (“Chinatown nonprofit scrutinized over ties to mayor,”) in which the reporter “swift boated” the Chinatown Community Development Center using what the group chronicled were “faked ‘facts.’” Cote also promoted false stories about alleged illegal Chinatown voting, apparently seeking to reduce voting and voter registration among low-income Asian American tenants.

After I wrote about Malcolm Yeung potentially replacing Carmen Chu as D4 Supervisor, the Chronicle ran an August 30 story titled, “Political intrigue over new boundary for supervisor’s district.” The story began by stating “at first glance, the four-square blocks added to the northeast corner of the boundary for District Four supervisor looks inconsequential,” but then noted that “power broker and Mayor Ed Lee confidant Rose Pak, announced at the Sunday Streets event held in Chinatown that her friend and ally, Malcolm Yeung, lives in that new sliver of District Four and would be a good fit for the supervisor’s job — should it become available.”

According to the Chronicle, “now people are wondering whether the new district lines were put in place to possibly benefit Yeung.” But there were no “people” quoted in the article to support such a claim. To the contrary, “Eric McDonnell, who chaired the redistricting task force, said that redrawing the district lines to favor Yeung never came up in public testimony or during the panel’s deliberations.” Carmen Chu also said she had never heard anything about any plan to give Yeung an edge, and explained that since the task force was “unable to expand west because of the ocean, or north because of Golden Gate Park, that left only the eastern boundary for tinkering.”

Despite no evidence connecting Yeung or Pak to the boundaries, a Chronicle story implying and then disregarding such a connection appeared. And considering that many readers only check headlines, the paper’s unfair tainting of widely respected tenants’ rights attorney and Chinatown activist was achieved.

Power Brokers vs. Civic Leaders

Only racism explains why Rose Pak is a “power broker” when much wealthier whites with political influence are not. Nobody used that term to describe the late Warren Hellman, despite his public efforts to change city pension laws.

For years San Francisco was impacted by what Dianne Feinstein called the “trinity” of civic participation: Morris “Mo” Bernstein, who served for years as president of the San Francisco Airports Commission, Henry Berman, a liquor distributor who headed the Fire Commission and the Airports Commission, and Eugene Friend, a real estate entrepreneur who served on the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission for 24 years, 13 of them as president.

All three had enormous influence over political appointments, policy decisions, hiring of top administrators, and the issuance of government contracts. Bernstein and Berman were large donors to local and state political campaigns.

Despite conduct demonstrating an involvement in city government far in excess of what the Chronicle has accused Rose Pak, none were disparaged as power brokers. Their advice to mayors was described as friendly counsel not lobbying, and they were credited with moving the city forward.

Rose Pak has raised $22 million for Chinese Hospital, but the Chronicle has never identified her as a philanthropist. She has led efforts to bring incalculable benefits to Chinatown, including joining the struggle to halt its gentrification. Nobody did more than Rose Pak to secure funding for the neighborhood’s desperately needed Central Subway.

Yet despite these accomplishments, unlike her white male counterparts Pak is never described in the Chronicle as a “civic leader.”

Just as the Bay Guardian attacked Jane Kim for being “divisive” for running in the 2010 D6 Supervisors race when they made no similar criticism when three progressives ran in D9 in 2008, the Chronicle is not happy about the city’s growing Asian-American political clout. And since Rose Pak has done as much as anyone to build such power, she has been a constant target of Chronicle attacks.

That’s why we continue to see front-page articles attacking “cronyism” in the Lee Administration. The Chronicle is too vested in its narrative of unethical Asian-American political influence to admit that the only difference between Mayor Lee’s close backers and that of prior administrations is the ethnicity of those involved.

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