The bad old days

Pub date October 18, 2011
WriterTim Redmond

Willie L. Brown, according to the Chronicle’s John Cote, is “a tremendously popular figure in the city, viewed by many as an avuncular man-about-town, elder statesman and a uniquely San Franciscan character.” The Ed Lee Story, a hagiographic campaign book, refers to Brown’s “characteristic showmanship and hypnotic charm.” Even Randy Shaw, the housing activist who clashed with Brown over gentrification once upon a time, now says in BeyondChron that Brown’s first term “was the most progressive of any mayor in modern San Francisco history.”

I feel as if I’m living in some sort of strange parallel universe, something out of Orwell or North Korea or the Soviet Union of the 1950s. It’s as if history never happened, as if the years between 1996 and 2004 have just vanished, have been deleted from San Francisco’s collective memory. It’s crazy.

I wonder:

What about the thousands and thousands of people who lost their homes and were tossed out of the city like refugees from a war? What about the rampant corruption at City Hall? What about the legions of unqualified political cronies who got good jobs and commission posts? What about the iron-fisted machine rule that kept local politics closed to all but the loyal insiders? Doesn’t any of that count?

Here are some things that absolutely, undeniable, demonstrably happened while Willie Brown was mayor:

Rents on the East Side of town, particularly in the Mission, tripled and sometimes quadrupled between 1996, when Brown took office, and 2004, when he left. Evictions more than tripled, too, and at one point more than 100 people a month were losing their homes. Most of those people were low-income, long-term tenants. They were forced out because richer people were moving into town during the dot-com boom and could pay more for those apartments. We called it the “Economic Cleansing of San Francisco.”

Every day, it seemed, we’d be out at another rally as the Tenants Union and the Mission Antidisplacement Coalition tried to save another family from the forces of gentrification. Every week, it seemed, another group house full of artists would be served an eviction notice. Everywhere you looked, nonprofits and small businesses were losing space to high-tech companies with plenty of money.

I watched the wrecking crew tear down a studio complex on Bryant Street, forcing more than 100 painters and photographers to leave, to make way for a high-tech office project that was approved even though it violated the local zoning laws — and then was never built. For two years, I walked to get my lunch past the empty hole in the ground that had once been a thriving community.

That was typical. Every developer who waved money in front of the mayor got a building permit, no matter how crazy, illogical or illegal the project was. The Planning Department and the Bureau of Building Inspection were little more than fronts for the lobbyists and Brown cronies who determined development policy in the city.

In October, 1999, the author Paulina Borsook wrote a famous piece in Salon called “How the Internet Ruined San Francisco.” I agreed with the sentiment; the influx of the dot-commers was wrecking all that was cool and weird about the city. But she got one point wrong: The Internet didn’t ruin anything. The Internet was, and is, a technology, a tool, something that, like most technological advances, can be used for good or evil.

Mayor Brown didn’t create the dot-com boom. Although he took credit for an awful lot of things, even Willie didn’t claim to have invented the Internet.

But what he did — and what ruined many San Francisco neighborhoods, and ruined the lives of many San Franciscans — was to let the economic cleansing of the city happen, without raising a finger to slow it down or prevent the evictions or protect the most vulnerable people in the city. Over and over, he encouraged it — by appointing commissioners and supervisors and department heads who allowed evictions and development and displacement in the name of growth and prosperity.

In fact, when reporters from the zine Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll asked Brown about the problems facing poor people, he told them that the city had become so expensive that poor people would be better off living somewhere else.

Because he didn’t care about poor people, or tenants, or artists, or anyone who lacked money and flash and dazzle and clout. He was the worst kind of imperial mayor.

Here’s how we put in it in our 33rd anniversary issue in 1998:

“Let’s say the next major earthquake that hits San Francisco is of roughly the same magnitude of the Loma Prieta quake of 1989, or maybe just a bit stronger. Let’s say it wipes out right 1,000 houses and leave some 5,000 people homeless … and lets say a few unscrupulous profiteers take advantage of the shortages of critical supplies and charge desperate residents triple the normal rate for food, blankets and drinking water….

“The profiteers, speculators and charlatans would be exposed in the press and roundly, loudly denounced by every political and community leader in the city. The ones who didn’t wind up in jail would be forced to leave town in disgrace.”

Or else they wouldn’t. Because when an economic earthquake ravaged San Francisco during his term, Brown — the most powerful mayor in modern history, a guy who could have had an immense impact on what was happening — went to meet the speculators and profiteers with outstretched arms, welcomed them to the city and partied with them at night.

And when he ran for re-election, they thanked him by funding an astonishing $5 million campaign.

Then there was the corruption. Not only did Brown raise pay-to-play to a new art form, he filled the city payroll and key commissions with campaign workers, former political allies, and cronies, subverting the civil service system and undermining both the function of city agencies and public respect for local government. At least seven Brown appointees were indicted or investigated for criminal misconduct. While sentencing a Housing Authority official to five years in prison, U.S. District Judge Charles Legge decried what he called Third World-style corruption at San Francisco City Hall.

When Mayor Ed Lee, who is now seeking a full four-year term, was asked to give Brown a grade for his eight years in Room 200, Lee said: A-Plus.

Which makes us a little nervous. To say the least.

I’ve been going back through the Guardian archives over the past couple of weeks, picking out some great covers to reproduce (see page 18) and looking at four and a half decades of alternative news coverage of San Francisco. And if there’s one theme that emerges from the stacks and stacks and stacks of papers, it’s that local government matters.

In the 1960s, when the underground press was talking about sex, drugs and dropping out, the Guardian was talking about the ways big corporations were stealing the taxpayers’ money at City Hall. (Okay, the Guardian wrote about sex and drugs too. But sex and drugs and political scandals.)

The difference between the independent alternative press and the underground papers of the era was more than just thematic. The underground publishers were having a great time and celebrating culture, but none of those publications was built to last. From the day they published their first issue in October, 1966, Guardian founders Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble intended their paper to become a permanent part of San Francisco.

The Guardian quickly demonstrated that it had a different approach than a lot of the “New Left” — particularly when it came to electoral politics. At a time when some were saying that it made no difference whether Ronald Reagan or Pat Brown won the 1966 governor’s race, the Guardian made the key point about Reagan.

“California cannot afford the luxury of this kind of conservatism,” a Nov. 7, 1966 editorial stated. “Because of the millions of people coming to California, because San Francisco and Los Angeles soon will have the greatest concentration of urban power in history, because farm land and open space is vanishing at a suicidal rate, because technology is putting vast populations out of work, because of the social neglect of our cities and the uglification of our countryside, because we now have the knowledge to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.”

And while the paper devoted considerable space to reporting on and opposing the war in Vietnam, it was also developing a reputation for local investigative reporting. One June 7, 1971 story showed how the city had all of its short-term deposits in local banks that paid no interest at all. The story parked an investigation by the city’s budget analyst, the resignation of the city treasurer — and a new investment policy that brought the city at least $1 million more revenue a year. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $5 million a year, times 40 years is a lot of money that the Guardian brought into the city coffers).

And from the start, the Guardian was a nonpartisan, independent foe of corruption, secrecy and undue influence at City Hall. So while the paper eagerly endorsed Phil Burton (and later his brother, John) for Congress and lauded their antiwar and environmental policies, the Guardian also blasted the Burtons for exercising undue influence back home. The paper strongly endorsed George Moscone for mayor — then denounced him when he fired Harvey Milk from a commission post after Milk had the gall to challenge the Moscone/Burton candidate for state Assembly.

The 1999 Sunshine Ordinance, which dramatically opened up City Hall records, was sponsored and promoted by the Guardian. Willie Brown and his cronies hated it.

It’s probably a misnomer to say that the Burtons, who were a dominant force in local politics in the 1970s and 1980s, ran an old-fashioned machine. They didn’t have the iron control over local politics and the patronage jobs system that the word “machine” implies.

But when Brown became mayor of San Francisco, he had all of that. Brown controlled eight solid votes on the Board of Supervisors (and through various political machinations, had managed to appoint most of them). “He ruled the building,” Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who was a supervisor during those years, recalled. “If you defied him, you were radioactive.”

And one of the people who rose through the ranks as a loyal Brown appointee was Ed Lee. Who to this day thinks things in that administration were just dandy.


The Lee campaign complains about “guilt by association,” and that’s a legitimate point. Ed Lee isn’t Willie Brown. He’s a lot more open, a lot (a lot) more humble, and as numerous progressives have pointed out to us, his door is open. He doesn’t have the history of sleaze that pretty much defined Brown’s political career.

There will be no “Ed Lee Machine.” In fact, with district elections of supervisors pretty much guaranteeing more diffuse political power in the city, there will never be another mayor able to rule the way Brown did.

And these days, Brown’s clout could easily be overstated. Until he engineered the selection of Ed Lee as mayor, his power seemed to be waning. And even Mayor Lee hasn’t done everything that Brown wanted.

Of course, the Chronicle, which he helped immensely when Hearst Corp. bought the paper and had trouble with federal regulators, has helped Brown by giving him a column that created a new, sanitized persona.

But the important thing about the Brown administration was not so much who was in charge but who benefited. The landlords, the developers, the big corporations got pretty much what they wanted from City Hall. The rest of us got screwed.

And now those same interests — in some cases, the exact same people — who supported, promoted and worked with Willie Brown are backing Lee for mayor. If they thought he was going to be an independent progressive, that money and support wouldn’t be coming in. There are people who miss the machine days — and if they think Ed Lee is their guy, it’s reason to worry.

Corruption matters. When people lose faith in local government because they see the kind of sleaze that was daily business under Brown, then they stop wanting to pay taxes for public services. After all, the mayor is wasting our money already. Lee may be a decent guy — but some of the people he hangs out with, some of the people who are supporting him, have a long and very unpleasant history in this town. And all the time he was sitting there at City Hall, while Brown was running a corrupt operation that did lasting damage, Lee never raised a public finger in protest. I hate to see all the history forgotten when people decide who to support for mayor in November, 2011.