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Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
Developing Friendship
Joe O'Donoghue has been a force in local politics since 1987, when he founded the Residential Builders Association. But it took until 1996, and the advent of Willie Brown's mayoralty, for O'Donoghue to realize his full potential.

In Willie Brown, O'Donoghue had found the perfect soulmate, a mayor who would understand him the way others didn't.

The fruits of the Willie-Joe pairing have been mutually bountiful. For three years, Mayor Brown has received large amounts of campaign money from O'Donoghue's group. During that time, Brown has ignored city law and allowed members of the RBA to build thousands of huge, ugly, character-killing and job-eating loft projects for the monied winners of the Bay Area's economic recovery.

The deep and meaningful connection between Joe and Willie is nothing less than a modern political love story, a coupling of kindred spirits. In nearly all aspects, they are alike.

Certainly, both men have the same temperament: They are loud, threatening, posturing bullies. And they both practice the same crude and shallow form of politics, in which power is everything and principle is called into play only when it advances narrow self-interest.

The Germans call it Machtpolitik. Regardless of language, in this variety of essentially value-free politics, groups without power are ignored, and those with power are rewarded, regardless of their aims.

Power politics is not identical to hardball politics. The late Phil Burton -- who built the city's Democratic machine with his bare hands -- played hardball. But he played hard when he pushed around bullies on behalf of the powerless -- miners with black lung, welfare recipients, and others of limited means.

Willie Brown, on the other hand, pushes around the powerless on behalf of the bullies. If, like O'Donoghue, you exhibit power -- if you show that you can help or hurt the mayor, or both -- you are given the keys to the kingdom.

Not because you are a good person.
Not because you have interesting ideas and admirable principles.
No, in Willie Brown's San Francisco, you are favored and rewarded precisely because you have no principles, and plenty of power. And under Mayor Brown, the riches of the city flow to guys like Joe O'Donoghue.

Guys who push people around.
Guys who wouldn't hesitate to use a housing crisis as cover for a speculative real estate binge that hurts most everyone, and helps a favored, powerful few.

Actually, I don't care all that much about Joe O'Donoghue. Joe is an advocate for a group of builders. He has never pretended to be anything but an advocate.When you run an interest group, you're going to put that group's interests first.

What does makes me mad is Willie Brown's cynical decision to turn the city landscape over to aesthetically challenged real estate speculators, just so he can retain the support (or, more accurately, forestall the opposition) of a self-interested loudmouth like O'Donoghue.

In theory, a mayor looks out for the interests of an entire city, not just the blowhards with the loudest voices and the deepest pockets. But the visual character and demographic diversity of San Francisco as a whole are now threatened by the construction of thousands of tacky, ill-placed, yuppie-friendly lofts. This threat exists because -- and only because -- we have a mayor too shallow and cowardly to stand up and say: "Hey, Joe O'Donoghue, you can't have everything you want."

As near as I can figure, O'Donoghue started latching onto Brown during San Francisco's 1995 mayoral campaign.

O'Donoghue had been a staunch supporter of incumbent Mayor Frank Jordan. Joe explained his passion for the former police chief-turned-mayor to the Examiner this way: "Sure, we have our criticisms of the mayor, but he has the support of the Irish community. We have a deep, deep level of loyalty."

Three months later, when it was clear to everyone and his mother that Jordan was a loser, O'Donoghue explained how deep "deep, deep" really is.

He publicly switched sides and began supporting Willie Brown.
I'm sure Willie appreciated Joe for his ability to sense power, and his insensitivity to such antique notions as loyalty. But Willie and Joe may eventually have joined forces, whether the building lobbyist publicly stabbed a friend in the back for Willie's benefit or not. Willie Brown and Joe O'Donoghue, you see, are made for each other.

All that summer, O'Donoghue had screamed and yelled at Planning Commission hearings and candidate forums about a government plan to limit add-ons to San Francisco residences. There was a move afoot, then, to stop the construction of "Richmond Specials" -- additions that resulted in boxy, ugly, oversized residences that dwarfed nearby homes and were the favored moneymaker of RBA members.

O'Donoghue had hooked up with two ambitious Chinese-American neighborhood activists, Rose Tsai and Julie Lee. Together, these three odd allies went about town charging, loudly and disingenuously, that curtailing big ugly boxes was racist, because it discriminated against cultures that favored extended families. "This is racism and NIMBYism gone bananas," O'Donoghue was quoted as saying.

Willie Brown, loud, disingenuous race-card player extraordinaire, must have taken an immediate shine to the pugnacious Irishman with the deep brogue and the affinity for spurious ethnic propaganda. And the piles and piles of campaign money.

In 1996, Joe O'Donoghue and his fellow RBA politicos sold a building they owned on 37th Avenue for $172,000. They dumped that cash into the Residential Builders Association Political Action Committee account and started doling it out to campaigns Willie Brown might favor.

Brown's old friends in the California Legislature -- Assembly members Carole Migden and Kevin Shelley and state Sen. John Burton -- received thousands of dollars. The effort to pass an affordable-housing bond issue -- a measure placed on the ballot by Brown himself -- received a $10,000 contribution. The builders gave $2,000 to a Democratic club, which in turn used the money to fund get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Brown and his allies. Brown appointees to the Board of Supervisors were awarded the maximum contributions allowed. And a Democratic Party fund received $11,000 to spend as it saw fit.

About The Author

George Cothran


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