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Derailing the Jaye Train 

Why Matt Gonzalez should stick with his progressive roots, and ignore pressure to act "responsibly"

Wednesday, Nov 19 2003
As the son of preachers, I've always fancied great oratory. I'm also a fan of Biblically proportioned drama. So I felt quite content as I witnessed a daylong pageant of passion-play politics last Wednesday at City Hall.

In the morning, I attended a Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing to take in the proselytizing stylings of Willie Lewis Brown Jr. The committee was considering appointments Chris Daly made to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission last month while serving as acting mayor. In defiance of Brown, Daly appointed two environmentalists to the commission. Brown had appointed (but had not sworn in) Andrew Lee, the son of a political backer, and had planned to appoint an unnamed African-American. The City Attorney's office last week determined that only one of Daly's appointments, former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach, would stand, because Brown had appointed Lee before Daly took advantage of his status as acting mayor.

But both the Werbach appointment, and the decision of City Attorney Dennis Herrera that upheld it, were, for Brown, complete outrages.

The mayor approached the dais, paused a moment, then spoke for half an hour, without notes, without averting his gaze from the faces of Supervisors Tony Hall and Matt Gonzalez. Approving Daly's appointments would spoil the decorum that binds San Francisco, Brown said, adding that he has prided himself on an open, collaborative approach to naming experts to city commissions. Daly's PUC picks, he said, were made in secret, in a back room.

"This is a road down which you do not want to go," Brown said.

The dramatic battle between Brown and the progressives he considers his enemies continued in the afternoon, when the board's Budget Committee considered a measure, introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, that would kill a Brown-linked $200 million waterfront project, already in advanced planning. Brown's camp again went into full court press mode, characterizing Peskin as grossly irresponsible, and suggesting that the board's liberal members would prove they're not real leaders but irresponsible yahoos if they approved Peskin's measure.

By day's end, mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez faced a Rubicon: He could stand pat in support of the erratic actions of his progressive allies, Daly and Peskin, and thus prove to voters he's not adult enough to be mayor. Or he could take the high road, reject his colleagues' antics, and alienate the left-wing constituents that voted him into next week's mayoral runoff.

By this manner of thinking, Wednesday was a grand day for mayoral frontrunner Gavin Newsom. But I'm not so sure.

The extraordinary fuss Brown is raising about his right to control the Public Utilities Commission should certainly raise eyebrows, but not in the way he or the Newsom campaign would like. That agency sits atop $1.6 billion in funding authority dedicated to a massive rehabilitation of the Hetch Hetchy water system. Experts that Brown himself enlisted to study the matter told him that's $800 million more than the Commission needs to do the job. Brown ignored the advice and went to voters asking for twice the needed amount; can anyone say "slush fund"?

Brown's platitudinous defense of his committee appointments shouldn't fool anyone, either. As I've said before, PUC appointee Andrew Lee is a patronage hack.

Publicizing the can of worms that constitutes the dispute over developing Piers 27-31, meanwhile, flatters none of the participants. Newsom's chief campaign consultant, Eric Jaye, ran the peculiar, Willie Brown-backed, mau-mauing campaign that helped the Mills Corp. win exclusive negotiating rights to build an office, retail, and entertainment complex on the piers. For that matter, Jaye seems to take a starring role in all the political issues that have been set before Gonzalez.

Jaye skippered Andrew Lee's failed campaign last year for a Board of Supervisors seat.

He was campaign consultant for last year's Proposition A, Brown's Hetch Hetchy bond.

Now, supporters and opponents of Brown have been debating the odd notion that Matt Gonzalez risks showing himself to be an unfit leader if he defies the interests of Jaye's clients.

No matter how eloquent Brown's speechifying, or how numerous the automated telephone calls to voters, Gonzalez doesn't have to decide between proving himself a lonely statesman or a popular yahoo. Actually, he's faced with an easy choice: He can buck Willie Brown's legacy of quid pro quo politics, and thereby champion public integrity, or he can act like a go-along hack.

After Brown finished his speech last Wednesday, I headed down to the City Hall basement to look through the files of the Department of Elections. There I found the Willie Brown Rosetta Stone, also known as the 1999 list of contributions received by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. Thanks to recent upgrades in the city government's electronic database technology, the list can be cross-referenced to show committee appointments, city jobs, favorable city rulings, and lucrative government contracts obtained by those who have given campaign contributions.

During the mid-to-late 1990s, Brown used the little-noticed central committee bank account to funnel campaign money from favor seekers to political campaigns. After the 1999 elections, the committee slipped from his control, and, unfortunately, the department has discarded filings prior to 1999. Even so, the 1999 donation list provides a sort of road map through the seamless melding of money and politics that has characterized San Francisco during the past eight years.

There are tales of lives transformed, political dues paid -- an apparent demonstration of seeming [if unproven] quid pro quo. The list includes live-work loft subcontractors and corporations appealing city tax decisions. There are subcontractors hand-picked by Brown's office, in apparent violation of city contracting rules, who, according to a city audit, did inappropriate and superfluous work on an abandoned project to expand airport runways. And there are numerous contributions from Brown appointees to various boards and commissions.

The links between Willie Brown and money have been pointed out elsewhere and often. But I think it's important, during a week of pitched political battle over two of the city's most important commissions, to reiterate the radical transformation Willie Brown worked on San Francisco government during his eight years in office. Politicians everywhere give jobs to friends. Brown created a system of rule-by-sinecure so hermetic as to be unique.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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