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Preaching to Their Choirs 

It's political junkie reunion time at the first mayoral debate

Wednesday, Sep 8 1999
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crowd bunches in front of the Hebrew Academy on 14th Avenue in anticipation of the first in a series of debates between Willie Brown and the two viable pretenders to his throne. The line winds down the block and wraps around the corner. It's Mayoral Season in San Francisco, and the warm weather has flushed the zealots from their lairs. Political junkies aren't easily defined: Their subspecies vary wildly, from tall to short, fat to skinny. Some are drunk, and some are on other things. But all are eager to believe. They have that concerned, rabid look in their eyes that says, "People -- our city is at stake here!"

Some come dressed for a Sunday social, others like they've just come from a funeral, and several appear as if they just woke up from a nap. One gentleman stands across the street from the building, wrapped in scarves, his hair shaved into a mohawk. He waves a large rainbow flag, with a "Join the ACLU" sign attached to the top. Let's hear it for the American Indian/gay/punk rock/pro-union/Benetton constituency.

Although cops have blocked off the street, a shiny black C230 Mercedes cuts through the mob. Behind the wheel, a frantic Angela Alioto, with a handicapped sign dangling from the rearview. "Is that Angela?" shouts an officer. "Help her out!" Another cop whistles, and waves her through.

This year's mayoral campaign could use Alioto. One longs for her window-popping shrill voice. In fact, this series of debates will miss some of the ineptitude of past candidates. It could benefit from the monotonous ramblings of Joel Ventresca. The thick impenetrable accent of Tom Hsieh. Even the prostitution charges filed against Roger Boas would liven things up. Instead, what the current race offers is a trio of seasoned statistic-spewers bent on revenge. This Tuesday night debate is the first chance for Clint Reilly and Frank Jordan to stick it directly to Mayor Brown, and for Brown to stick it to his doubters.

The room rapidly fills to capacity. City Hall types sip from styrofoam cups and work the crowd. Supervisor Michael Yaki seems, as usual, on a perpetual Red Cross mission, glad-handing anyone within reach. Greasy-haired members of the Biotic Baking Brigade, including convicted pie-thrower Gerard Livernois, take up one of the back rows, snickering at private jokes. So what's really in the package underneath one of their chairs? Apple or lemon meringue?

Skulking throughout this menagerie are members of the city's press corps. This town has way too many reporters, and they're all here tonight, spanning the spectrum from the Chronicle's Phil Matier to several earnest young women with tape recorders and a passel of UC Berkeley students with notepads. If we're not careful, every single person in attendance will be interviewed at least once tonight.

When the room starts to smell like the inside of a tennis shoe, it's time for the candidates. Reilly enters to enormous cheers, his characteristic shelf of hair plopped down upon his jug ears. He gives the thumbs-up and works his way to the podium, followed closely by a blond woman with a frozen smile.

Mayor Brown enters to cheers of "Four more years!" plus a few boos. Already standing onstage at his podium, Reilly ignores the crowd's reaction and adjusts his tie. Brown ascends the stage, and the crowd goes ballistic, as if a rock star just grabbed the mike.

Magically, Frank Jordan has materialized, and is already standing at his po-dium. He refers to himself as the people's candidate, not owned by any special interests. He is also, apparently, the stealth candidate. Not one person has noticed that he entered the room. Now that's grass-roots politics.

Before the action begins, fringe candidate Lucrecia Bermudez from the Frontlines newspaper runs onstage and shouts something or other. She's quickly escorted off, but her bravery has incited several political activists, who start chattering like monkeys in the trees.

"Let her speak! Now! Let her speak! Now!"

"Let Lucrecia speak! Let Lucrecia speak!"

While it seems unlikely that debate organizers will suddenly take this advice to heart and allow anyone so inclined to take the stage and scream their narrow political agenda, everyone takes the flap in stride. In any other city in the United States, Lucrecia would be immediately shot in the temple by a security marksman, and her body would be dragged off, handcuffed, and hit with a stick. Here in San Francisco, we merely chuckle at the interruption, and remove the irritation, so that other sovereign individuals can continue to enjoy their own personal space.

Reilly shuffles his notes and stares at them. Brown looks out on the horizon, at nothing in particular, practicing lines of defense in his head. Jordan smiles, his eyes darting back and forth. Moderator and KSFO radio personality Barbara Simpson, possessing a magnificent, swirling PTL Club hairstyle, warns the crowd:

"Please do not laugh too much."

Does she know something we don't?

Opening remarks commence, and each candidate's voice and presence quickly grows irritating in its own way. Reilly emits a nasal whine, and since he's been around the political block a few times, this makes him sound even more whiny. On the positive side, he keeps mentioning that he "has developed a plan," or that he "has written a book." Besides eliciting chuckles from the crowd, this also makes it sound like anyone who has ever written a book is eligible to be mayor. If books are the criteria, let's elect Danielle Steel. She's sold more books than any author in history. Her kids could make coffee and help with xeroxing.

Jordan still looks like Dr. Seuss' Grinch character, and he still reminds you of a pissy social studies teacher. But his formerly wussy demeanor has benefited from a few years away from City Hall. He seems to have grown an extra set of testicles since leaving office, and has been coached well. But he still whistles through the letter "s ."

And Brown, of course, radiates smartassed confidence. When the others are speaking, Brown turns and looks them right in the eye, as if to say, "How dare you." Brown never forgets to acknowledge the City and County of San Francisco. He must have a computer chip at the base of his brain, because he can never simply say, "San Francisco." It's always "the City and County of San Francisco," delivered with the proud authority of a Greek orator addressing a packed Parthenon. For a moment, it seems as if Brown could suddenly motion with his arm and someone would be taken away and beheaded.

As the candidates rip through the issues -- Muni, the city budget, the homeless, education -- the mayor continually gets it from both sides. Jordan's already had the job once, and Reilly has run campaigns. Both know exactly which buttons to push. Throughout, the game is that of one- upsmanship. Who can instantly recall the best set of statistics? Will Brown remain charming and not lose his temper?

If Brown were to lose his temper, 300,000 journalists would gleefully quote his angry attacks in tomorrow's news. He keeps it in check tonight, and reiterates the obvious: "We are building what needs to be built."

Obviousness is the key in discussing the issues. Affordable housing: needed. Homeless: icky. Parking: not enough. Traffic: bad. Muni: really bad.

What hurts Brown most tonight, and what his opponents hammer on most enthusiastically, is the current FBI probe into City Hall. Brown's position -- everyone will cooperate with the probe, and the bad people will be dealt with -- is weak and prompts boos. Jordan accuses the mayor of taking the Fifth Amendment, and gets a big reaction.

Brown snaps back, and rattles off praise for his administration. Apparently, Seventeen magazine has listed San Francisco as the best city in America to raise a teenager. It's also the best city for teenagers to loiter in cafes on cell phones, and buy LSD on the street, but you don't see Seventeen writing about that.

In closing, Jordan compares Brown's tenure to a dictatorship. "I'm a workhorse," says Jordan. "He's a show horse." Making Reilly what? A hobbyhorse?

Brown closes with the classic leading-the-city-into-the-next millennium rhetoric. Getting kind of old, but judging from the crowd's reaction, still effective here. So what if he doesn't have his name on his Web site domain?

Reilly promises to "dismantle the Brown machine." Lots of cheers. A noisy mob waits on the steps, thrusting signs, 80 to 20 favoring Reilly over Brown. At times, the "We want Clint!" and "Four more years!" chants overlap, creating a neutral white noise of blind passion, which is kind of cool, actually.

A Jordan volunteer, wearing a backpack, explains why Frank has no buttons or signs.

"Reilly's been in the race for 15 years," he says, shoving fliers into faces. "Jordan doesn't have the money. You'll see 'em after Labor Day."

Journalists scurry around the street like the parasitic rats that we are. More notepads, more tape recorders. The Examiner's Rob Morse chuckles it up with a bottle-blond Jack Davis, who has worked with all three candidates. During the debate, Davis sat in the front row, his arm around Tosca owner Jeannette Ethridge, representing both the hair dye and house cappuccino demographics.

A big, sweaty guy elbows through the crowd, clutching an armful of "It's time for a living wage" signs.

"The mayor's ducking me," he complains to two women. "Reilly's people don't talk to me."

The general consensus: Brown is still charming, but his two big problems remain Muni and the FBI probe. Jordan came on strong, and Reilly brought a lot of supporters tonight. And all three have memorized lots of statistics. Which we'll no doubt hear in debates to come.

Political junkies wander off into the fog, heads dizzy with excitement, contriving vast and useless analyses of tonight's event. A small group stands chatting at the bus stop. They look up the street in vain, hoping for the 31 Balboa. They check their watches again. Good old Muni.

About The Author

Jack Boulware

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