I have friends — progressives, activists, good people — who support Ed Lee for mayor. They tell me that Lee is accessible, that he listens to labor and grassroots community groups, that he’s going to be good on a lot of issues and that, compared to the mayors we’ve had in the past 30 years or so, he won’t be all that bad.
I respect that. I understand. But I try to remind them, and anyone else who’s listening, that the years when Willie Brown ran this town were really, really bad.
At the height of the Brown era, during the dot-com boom, hundreds of evictions were filed every single month. Thousands and thousands of low-income and working-class tenants were displaced, tossed out of San Francisco forever. Blue-collar jobs were destroyed as high-tech offices took over industrial space. Every single developer who waved money at the mayor got a permit, no matter how ridiculous, dangerous or crazy the project was.
In 1999, Paulina Borsook wrote a famous piece for Salon called “How the Internet ruined San Francisco.” But the Internet was just technology; what damaged this city so badly was a mayor who didn’t care what happened to the most vulnerable populations. At one point, Brown even said that poor people shouldn’t live in this city. We called his policies “the economic cleansing of San Francisco.”
He controlled local politics — brutally. If you didn’t kiss the mayor’s ring, you were crushed. He announced one day that the supervisors (then elected citywide) were nothing but “mistresses who have to be serviced” — and since most of them were utterly subservient to Brown, they didn’t even complain. Only one person on the board — Tom Ammiano — regularly defied the mayor; occasionally, Leland Yee and Sue Bierman joined him. But that was it.
The corruption was rampant. People who paid to play got in the door; nobody else came close. You did a favor for Brown and you got a commission appointment or a high-paid job, even if you weren’t remotely qualified.
The ones who suffered most were the poorest residents, particularly tenants, particularly on the east side of town. Brown didn’t seem to care that his appointments, deals and policies were causing terrible pain on the ground; it was as if politics was just a fun game, as if he were some sort of royal potentate, partying in the executive suites and ignoring what was happening on the streets.
There are people who believe that Ed Lee can be independent of Brown, and I hope they’re right. But Lee and Brown are close, and Brown helped put him in office — and the thought of even a small part of that rotten era of sleaze coming back makes me very, very nervous.