Willie Brown in 2006 (sftreasurehunt/Flickr)

When it comes to film criticism, Willie Brown is of a less-is-more mindset. His complete take on Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, for instance, from one of his recent San Francisco Chronicle columns: “This movie has been playing for a while, and for a very good reason. It’s a winner.” Mick LaSalle, you can give up your day job now.

Lack of movie-reviewing chops, however, may be the only incompetency with which Brown is afflicted. The latest issue of The Washington Monthly makes this plain in an article called “The Power Broker,” which has been making the local insider rounds. The article’s deck reads this way:

“San Francisco’s ex-mayor Willie Brown has pioneered a new way to control a city without breaking a sweat—or running for office, or getting elected, or disclosing his clients, or making anyone particularly mad.”

From the piece:

Brown…is possibly more powerful and certainly less controversial now than when he held public office. The ethics and criminal investigations that dogged his entire political career (no charges were ever filed) have been largely forgotten…

Brown is now a private attorney under no obligation to disclose the identity of his clients or his interactions with the legion of public officials and others who owe their careers to him. (The most promising of these may be California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Brown’s onetime girlfriend.) Brown operates in a post-partisan, post-paper trail world in which he reaps the benefits of power while bearing none of the unpleasant culpability or scrutiny that typically comes with that.

There is no scandal here. Brown helped create the system that allows him to flourish now. And he plays that system like a born musician who rarely if ever hits a wrong note…

Willie Brown’s power springs from his web of relationships and his intricate and strategic understanding, cultivated over six decades, of how politics in San Francisco and California is played.

Strong words, but not such a surprise to those who remember Brown, now 78, for his 15 years running roughshod over opponents as Speaker of the California Assembly, then his two terms as San Francisco mayor. The original Slick Willie, Brown’s mastery of Assembly rules combined with a street fighter’s will to win resulted in political victories that have now passed into political lore. Brown made a habit, for instance, of stopping the Assembly clock before midnight at the end of a legislative session so bills could continue to be passed. And in 1994, when it seemed certain his speakership would come to an end along with the Democrats’ majority, he pulled a big fat rabbit out of one of his fashionable hats by coaxing one independent and one disgruntled Republican to switch sides, cutting a deal with GOP Assemblywoman Doris Allen that resulted in her election as a sort of puppet Speaker (she was soon recalled by angry GOP voters), with Brown receiving the title  “Speaker emeritus.” After the coup, Brown lorded it over his nemesis, GOP Assembly Leader Jim Brulte, as reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“Mr. Brulte, he hasn’t hit the wall. He still thinks he can win the speakership,” Brown said, clearly delighted at the recent turn of events. “Apparently, the month of promising the world that he was going to be Speaker raised the level of expectations among Republicans so much so that they are irrational. . . . They really thought their time had come and when it became apparent their time had not come, they became really angry.”

After the enactment of term limits, Brown moved on to become mayor of San Francisco, promptly setting off a war with city progressives over his pro-development agenda, as well as drawing scrutiny for his particular brand of insider politics. From a 2004 Chronicle retrospective piece on Brown’s mayoral legacy:

Brown’s controversial pro-development policies turned traditional blue- collar neighborhoods into yuppie enclaves with pricey loft developments, setting off a political backlash.

Throughout his tenure, he was dogged by allegations of corruption and cronyism in the awarding of city jobs and contracts. Even though FBI investigations never unearthed any wrongdoing by Brown, wary voters approved several measures to limit the mayor’s powers.

After being termed out of the mayor’s job, Brown continued to wield influence, furthering Gavin Newsom’s political career by appointing him to the Board of Supervisors, then pulling a technocrat named Ed Lee out of the chorus of obscure municipal officials to become a star as interim mayor of San Francisco when Newsom won election as Lieutenant Governor. Lee had a sort of avuncular, anti-charisma that played palatably after the Brown and Newsom years, and the two of them, along with string-puller-in-arms Rose Pak, somehow managed to squeeze him past a progressive bloc on the Board of Supervisors that included anti-Lee diehard Chris Daly, who famously called Lee’s accession the “biggest fumble in the history of progressive politics.”

Lee’s promise to not seek the job permanently was a big factor among some supervisors who  helped install him, and who had mayoral aspirations of their own. Later, of course, Lee pulled the Big Switcheroo, reportedly under pressure from Brown, running for and handily winning a term as mayor. And while Lee’s mayoral opponents tried to make his relationship with his benefactor a major issue during the campaign, the public yawned.

Last week, I asked two observers of the San Francisco political scene, Scott Shafer and Corey Cook, to assess Brown’s influence on what goes on in the city today. Shafer, a reporter and host for The California Report, is also a former insider who worked for Art Agnos and Gray Davis. Cook teaches political science at USF and has been an elections analyst for KQED. Both agreed that Willie is still a force to be reckoned with. Says Shafer: “There’s no question he wields an enormous amount of influence to this day.” And from Cook: “I don’t have any hesitance to say that he’s exceptionally powerful, still.” When I asked Cook if Ed Lee was a mayor who is simply simpatico with the priorities of Willie Brown, or if he’s actually carrying out a specific Brown agenda, Cook said, “I think that is the question in San Francisco today. And only a couple of people actually know the answer.”

First, Scott Shafer…

JON BROOKS: So what are your thoughts on Willie Brown’s influence over the political system?

KQED’S SCOTT SHAFER: Willie Brown holds a unique place in California and San Francisco political history, and in fact currently. He’s part Herb Caen, part Boss Tweed, part Wizard of Oz. He’s someone who has always understood power, wielded power, and loved power. So eight years after leaving office, he still has an enormous amount of influence not just in San Francisco but in California politics.

He has the ear of a lot of people, he has a knack for collecting chits and knowing when to spend them and how to spend them and doing it in a way that on the surface makes him appear to be sort of a lovable scoundrel. But if one were to look carefully at his maneuverings, it may be less flattering. There’s no question he wields an enormous amount of influence to this day.

JON BROOKS: He wields influence, but he has not broken any laws, at least that we know of…

SCOTT SHAFER: Willie Brown never breaks the law. He knows where the line is, and he may walk right up to it and he may even kind of look over it, but he rarely crosses it.

When I interviewed Willie Brown before he left office, he laughingly said one of his greatest accomplishments was not getting indicted. He was joking. But in the legislature when he was speaker, there were people all around him that had FBI wires, legislators that were investigated, some that were in the middle of scandal. Willie’s rarely been in the middle of a scandal, but he’s often at the periphery of it, at least publicly.

He’s shown an uncanny ability to develop relationships with people in a way that accumulates power for him, and then he uses that power in ways that are not obviously apparent. A lot of things happen because of Willie Brown, but he doesn’t really leave fingerprints. And by that I don’t mean to suggest at all that everything he’s doing is illegal. But he’s just very smart about strategy and power and politics and money.

JON BROOKS: So he knows where the levers are…

SCOTT SHAFER: Oh, He owns the levers. He is a political Houdini. There was a time in the legislature when the republicans actually had a majority, and he managed to maintain his speakership. He is a survivor.

JON BROOKS During the Newsom years, how influential was Brown, and how much was Newsom a creature of Brown?

SCOTT SHAFER: Willie Brown gave Gavin Newsom his first political appointment, then put him on the Board of Supervisors, and then endorsed him for mayor and campaigned for him. And while I think Gavin Newsom publicly tried and perhaps privately tried to distance himself from Willie brown once he became mayor, and to deliberately be more transparent in his dealings than Willie Brown was, there’s no question Willie Brown maintained a close relationship and a very probably influential relationship with Gavin Newsom.

JON BROOKS How do you think Ed lee has done regarding his relationship with Brown?

I think it’s incumbent on the mayor to distinguish himself from Brown and Pak. I don’t know the things he’s done that were strongly opposed by Brown and Pak, and just because Pak makes a lot of noise publicly, it doesn’t mean she really cares. The same is true of Willie Brown. These are two of the shrewdest political operators in the state, and so they know that sometimes it’s beneficial to Ed lee to have them campaign and criticise him publicly; that can be helpful to their guy. They’re not above doing that to help him.

Now here’s my interview with Corey Cook:

JON BROOKS: So how powerful is Willie Brown?

USF ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR COREY COOK: I don’t have any hesitance to say that he’s exceptionally powerful, still.

I don’t see the way it works today as a political machine in the classic sense; it’s a different animal than that. Historically, oftentimes the power of the machine wasn’t the mayor, it was the informal power of the boss. In some cities, the mayor and the boss were one and the same, like in Chicago.

So it’s not a patronage machine in the same way, but certainly what he’s been able to do is leverage the informal power that he has, which is considerable. It’s partly term limits and it’s partly the incapacity of local government generally, but there’s a clear vacuum in terms of having a leadership structure, and Willie Brown remains one of the great strategic thinkers of his generation, and he remains super well- connected in the public and private sectors, so he’s uniquely capable of filling the role he does. And that’s being facilitated by the weakness of our institutional actors.

There’s a lot of talk right now that whether you like Willie and his politics or not, there’s a clear sense that this is a return in many ways to the Willie Brown era. There’s a tech bubble emerging, increasing pressures like a housing crisis and gentrification in the Mission district…

In the last eight years or so, this fight between the progressives and moderates has splintered into the fight over things like the plastic bag ban and the Happy Meal ban and ranked-choice voting and a variety of other issues. But the big fights right now are over development, the same fights that were around when Willie was mayor. And he’s in a unique position to build a pro-development coalition. The power he brings is around how do you get these big deals done, which is his expertise.

Whether it’s the Warriors stadium or the 8 Washington project or other big deals on the horizon, it takes these extra-institutional players to play a role, and there’s a re-emergence of interest in this Willie Brown machine.

If your view is that the city needs to be able to get these big projects done, then Willie Brown becomes an essential power broker. If your perspective is this is going to drive up housing prices and gentrify neighborhoods and fundamentally change the character of the city, then your perspective is oh my gosh, Willie Brown. Progressives are certainly concerned; they don’t read the Washington Monthly piece through a positive lens.

When Willie was mayor, his mayoralty spawned this progressive revolt that resulted in a super-majority of the Board of Supervisors being progressive. The Newsom term was these two big ideological camps – progressives and moderates – fighting over land use, which was really a response to Willie’s time as mayor. At the end of the Newsom term, there was a stalemate where things sort of got blocked generally. The progressives didn’t do well in the 2010 election, and then Ed Lee was elected, sort of this consensus mayor, and right now progressives are on their heels again saying this looks an awful lot like the dotcom boom and the politics of the 90s.

But folks who like these development politics are saying thank goodness Willie’s back. Because he’s able to break that gridlock that Newsom was never able to break through.

JON BROOKS: How much of an extension of Willie Brown is Ed lee? Is Lee just a mayor that’s simpatico with the priorities of Willie Brown when he was mayor, or is he tied up with Brown and carrying out Brown’s agenda?

COREY COOK: I think that is the question in San Francisco today. And only a couple of people actually know the answer. I think that was the question when Ed lee got in the race. I thought the best argument against Ed Lee – the one criticism that sort of stung him – was a quote from City Attorney Dennis Herrera, where he said I’m worried about him being his own man, basically. That Ed Lee said he wasn’t interested in running, and now he’s being compelled to run. So who’s’ compelling him? That was potentially the most biting criticism.

So does Mayor Lee think the Twitter tax break was a good idea and so did Willie, and there’s a commonality? Or is the mayor just carrying the water? I don’t know. That’s the question that people have had since he was the interim. And that’s always the tough question when you talk about these things. It’s hard sorting out cause and effect.

But my sense is that Ed Lee has changed his style the last couple of months. He’s gone from being more consensus-based, and Willie’s encouraged that in his column. So Ed Lee’s style has changed, but on substantive issues it’s tough to judge. He hasn’t done anything so far that he didn’t say he’d do in the campaign.

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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