EDITORIAL The extent of the charges in the criminal complaint against Sen. Leland Yee, political consultant Keith Jackson, and others are shocking and sensational: international arms trafficking, drug dealing, money laundering, cavorting with organized crime figures, murder for hire. But the basic allegation that Yee and Jackson practiced a corrupt, transactional kind of politics wasn’t surprising to anyone who knew how they operated.
What’s worse, they were simply a more extreme — and now, thanks to FBI wiretaps and undercover agents, a better documented — example of the political corruption that is endemic to San Francisco and some other high-stakes American cities. The city of St. Francis gets sold out to the highest bidders everyday, by politicians who value wealthy constituents over the vast majority of us who are just trying to get by — and over the interests of city finances and governance.
Part of the problem is inherent in our money-driven political system, in which politicians are constantly hustling for cash from people who want things from them. Politicians deny they take actions with political contributions in mind, but well-heeled capital and labor interests don’t spend millions of dollars on contributions out of the goodness of their hearts. These are business transactions.
We wholeheartedly support the call Senate President Darrell Steinberg made for fundamental political reform during the March 28 vote to suspend Yee and two of his allegedly corrupt colleagues. These cases aren’t aberrations, they are indicative of how power get wielded when it’s based on wealth. That’s the reality that has gotten even uglier since the Citizens United decision equated money with political speech and upped the ante for would-be public servants.
But much of the problem is particular to San Francisco, where cozy relationships between politicians and corporate interests are often feted in plain view. Former Mayor Willie Brown — a lawyer and unregistered lobbyist who won’t reveal his huge corporate client list despite having an influential weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle — helped install his longtime City Hall functionary Ed Lee into Room 200 to guard against anyone asking too much of the rich and powerful. Yee and Lee represented rival Chinatown economic factions, both wanting to use the power of the Mayor’s Office for their interests.
In his March 22 column, Brown once again repeated a joke he’s used before, that the “e” in email stands for “evidence,” which is really only funny in a sick political culture that celebrates slick rule-breakers. And it was from Brown that Lee learned it was acceptable to brazenly give tax breaks and regulatory passes to the tech companies that his top fundraiser, venture capitalist Ron Conway, are invested in.
Megadeveloper Lennar Urban used its wealth and political connections to take control of San Francisco’s biggest tracts of undeveloped and underdeveloped land, including Hunters and Candlestick points and Treasure Island, paying off community groups and hiring Jackson and other political henchmen to get the job done.
In fact, the FBI complaint says Jackson was working on behalf of that project when he approached accused Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow for support, leading to their alleged involvement in a string of wild criminal conspiracies. Meanwhile, Chow was getting public commendations from San Francisco-based politicians including Lee, Yee, Gavin Newsom, Dianne Feinstein, Fiona Ma, and even Tom Ammiano. Chow courted political legitimacy the same way politicians seek cash, and mainstream media outlets were happy to play along.
Throughout his political career, Yee has carried water for Pacific Gas & Electric, perhaps the most corrupting contributor to political campaigns in the city’s history. PG&E’s influence at City Hall had thankfully waned in recent years as a result of overreach and deadly criminal negligence, until Lee and his appointees last year killed CleanPowerSF (see “Challenge Mayor Lee and his lies,” 9/17/13) on a pretext so thin it could only be gift to PG&E.
In many ways, San Francisco hasn’t changed. It’s still the old Barbary Coast, ruled by capitalist thugs and corrupt politicians, only with glossy modern spin created by armies of well-paid political consultants. But we all deserve better.
Yee and Jackson should go to prison if there’s even a slice of truth to the allegations against them. And maybe they’ll cut deals and take other political figures down with them, giving us more of a peek behind the curtain of political power. But it’s up to all of us to break the close ties between economic and political power and begin to restore the democratic power of everyday people.