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Lee Way 

The public career path of Andrew Lee explains a lot about what's wrong with Willie Brown's style of politics and governance

Wednesday, Nov 5 2003
I wasn't present last month when Sunset neighborhood political broker Julie Lee and her dutiful son, Andrew, entered the office of Supervisor Chris Daly, sat in his two extra chairs, and made their case for why he should confirm Andrew Lee for a seat on the city's Public Utilities Commission. But having previously witnessed the meanderings of this peculiar pair, I found it easy to imagine Julie Lee, stout and proper in her fashionable lady's overcoat, two-toned blazer, pumps, and handbag, straightening her skirt and settling into her chair before Andrew sat down, too.

"I have two chairs in my office. In one sits Andrew Lee, and in one sits Julie Lee," Daly recalls. "I said, 'Andrew, tell me what you know about utilities.' He said, 'I don't know anything about utilities.' You've got to respect his honesty. I said, 'Then how are you qualified?' He said, 'Customer service.' I kid you not; that's what he said: 'Customer service.' I said, 'How is that going to serve you in the PUC?' He said, 'I'll have to get back to you on that.'"

Daly was in an extraordinarily fine mood when we spoke on Oct. 27, day five of San Francisco's constitutional crisis, which he sparked last month when, as acting mayor, he made two renegade appointments to the PUC and put Andrew Lee out of his promised job.

His action made him world famous; newspapers from Edinburgh to Des Moines reported the story. It also inspired a chorus of San Francisco cluck-clucking of the type that erupts every time the left-wing members of the Board of Supervisors take independent action that defies the mayor.

"They're children who don't behave unless they're properly chaperoned," this line of criticism goes. "They're radicals who can't be trusted with city business."

Soon after Brown jumped a plane back to San Francisco from China, he held a press briefing to call Daly "venal" and "demonic," comparing him to Osama bin Laden and Hitler. Brown's supporters said, "Hear, hear." Supervisor Tony Hall, an often-sober man, called Daly's action a form of "hypocrisy," saying Daly advocates for the poor and homeless, then "steps on everybody else." The everybody, presumably, being Willie Brown. The ordinarily sagacious Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, was quoted in the Chronicle as saying Daly's appointments were "a conscious move to politicize the [Public Utilities] Commission." And Chris Nolan, who writes a usually insightful blog on San Francisco politics, said that Daly's action proved San Francisco progressives were "in love with their own power," and concluded that "they're not really Liberals, they're not really Progressive. They're just out for themselves. And that means they're not out for anyone else. Not now. Not in the future. Not in the past."

If one takes a close look at the event that precipitated the whole flap -- Julie and Andrew Lee's visit to the office of Chris Daly -- this harping vision of San Francisco politics, in which "immature" liberal politicians periodically defy a wise mayor, turns upon its head. The saga of Brown's four-year link to Andrew Lee's meager political career is bizarre, eccentric, and yet representative of lowest-common-denominator San Francisco politics. It's an ontological S.F. Passion Play that should be examined in light of Brown's eloquent, yet fudging, State of the City address last week; it should be parsed with a view of the new mayoral administration to follow Tuesday's election. (I didn't know at press time whether or not there would be a runoff.)

I disagree vehemently with San Francisco's left-wing supervisors on nuts-and-bolts issues such as how to create housing and jobs. But, oddly, the "stop them before they kill again" hand-wringing typically has reached its zenith when these leftish supervisors have confronted what they saw (quite reasonably) as Willie Brown's political payola approach to governance.

This sort of loud fretting followed Matt Gonzalez's efforts two years ago to rein in San Francisco's Housing Authority, long recognized as America's most dysfunctional. Similar finger-wagging followed hearings last year when supervisors (including Daly) questioned the Municipal Railway's plans to sell rail cars as part of a private tax shelter, the legality of which the IRS has questioned. It's the line of protest S.F. boosters used when they denounced Supervisor Aaron Peskin's three-year effort to investigate apparent corruption, waste, and mismanagement at the San Francisco International Airport.

San Francisco's born-again protocol enthusiasts denounce Daly's supposed usurpation of the mayor's right to appoint members of the PUC as childish. Political maturity, they seem to say, means elevating process over product.

But to me the trajectory of the political careers of Andrew and Julie Lee, which constitute a minor but emblematic footnote in Willie Brown's career, suggests that the supervisors' work in confronting Brown's patronage-first legacy has been the work of adults.

During the victory speech after he defeated Tom Ammiano in the mayor's race four years ago, Willie Brown exuded real emotion. He said that growing up in Texas he'd decided to seek opportunity by heading west, and that during the 1999 campaign, he'd gone the same direction. He went west to the Sunset District, and sought out Julie Lee, who'd earlier led an Asian-American neighborhood association in backing a successful ballot measure to rebuild the Central Freeway (the measure was put back on the ballot the following year and defeated). Brown won her support in the '99 mayoral race, and sufficient votes to stay in office. Lee subsequently engaged in a relentless campaign to collect on the political debt Brown owed her. In due course, the mayor appointed her to the commission that oversees the Housing Authority, but Lee has focused much of her collectioneering efforts on the plodding career of her son.

She helped Andrew get a Brown administration job as director of neighborhood services. Then she went to work to persuade the mayor to create a Sunset District Neighborhood Resource Center, and he put Andrew in charge. She obtained Brown's help trying to elevate her son to the Board of Supervisors: The Mayor's Office improperly funneled money through the Sunset resource center to print fliers and other materials supporting Andrew Lee's campaign for supervisor. When he lost the supervisor's race to Fiona Ma, Andrew then got a job in the office of Brown ally Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. Earlier this month, it seems, Willie Brown promised Julie's son a post on the Public Utilities Commission, historically a spittoon filled with inept patronage appointees who have allowed the city's public infrastructure to crumble.

And when Chris Daly saw his chance to undermine the plan to put utility novice Andrew Lee on the PUC, he jumped at it. It was a brilliant bit of political theater and the right thing to do, but now, as his progressive allies on the Board of Supervisors waver in their support, his good work may be undone.

Before his farewell State of the City speech last week, it seemed that Willie Brown did not have the eight supervisorial votes needed to overturn Daly's appointments. But after the speech, Supervisor Aaron Peskin told me he was so moved by the mayor's performance that he wasn't so sure the board would vote to uphold the Daly appointments.

During the speech, Willie Brown praised the skill of department managers such as former Planning Director Gerald Greene, an unqualified yes-man whose ineptitude demoralized and divided the Planning Department staff and enraged the city. He praised Airport Director John Martin, a man who routinely misled the public about massive cost overruns and illegal diversions of funds. He praised his appointees to city commissions -- including those that oversee the Police Department, the airport, the port, the Housing Authority, and public utilities policy -- that have turned a blind eye to charges of abuse, corruption, and mismanagement.

But the way he praised his unworthy minions may have buried Daly.

"As the words came out of his mouth, I could see that it was all over. It was pretty amazing. He appealed to the ultimate interests of the city as our power in Sacramento was waning," Peskin said minutes after the speech was over. "He spoke extemporaneously for 1.5 hours about his life from Minneola, Texas, his philosophies of governance, how he sees the world, what he's done in S.F. He did it with dignity and aplomb."

Willie Brown is the former Hastings student who legend says didn't have to take notes, his memory was so perfect. He's the hotshot progressive lawyer whom my dad invited to speak to an Epworth United Methodist Church youth group in the early 1960s, and who was so mesmerizing Dad didn't stop talking about the appearance for 40 years. He's the gifted, idealistic political leader who two decades ago, with a heart-rending speech on the state Assembly floor, moved his colleagues to reject college fee increases. He's the long-lived Assembly speaker who chaperoned Democrats in a way that blunted the damage serial Republican governors attempted to inflict on the state. He's the mayor who oversaw the construction and renovation of myriad grand San Francisco edifices, including City Hall, the Ferry Building, the Moscone West convention center addition, and the Mission Bay campus of UCSF. He built new museums and new railways, and vastly expanded the airport. The bricks-and-mortar part of his legacy is worth honoring.

But as the supervisors consider whether to back or to scrap Chris Daly's appointments to the PUC, and as they subsequently consider their approach to working with a new San Francisco mayor, they should remember that Willie Brown was a political leader so enthralled by the romance of deal-making that he allowed public agencies to become bastions of patronage, built fabulous monuments while allowing the city to be mismanaged, and set a remarkably low standard for public integrity in San Francisco.

If polls are any guide, our next mayor will be heir to that legacy. My hope is that next year, when Julie Lee calls in her chits and shops her son around for confirmation to a patronage job, our immature leftist supervisors will honor product over process, and find a way to shut the door.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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