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Wednesday, Jun 10 1998
Chronicle of Failure
One wonders what it would take for the San Francisco Chronicle to publish negative news about Willie Brown. Perhaps if Willie shot Dianne Feinstein three times in the forehead on the steps of City Hall at high noon during a press conference on crime reduction, and then calmly used the microphone to tell the assembled press, "I always wanted to do that ...."

Nah. It wouldn't be enough. Not for the Chronicle, which would probably cover the event this way:

Brown Calls for Gun Control
Shooting incident a Kopp ploy, mayor says

By Edward Yepstein

Repeating his call for strict handgun controls, Mayor Willie Brown decried the shooting that left U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein near death late Thursday. Feinstein was shot three times in the forehead earlier in the day as she and Brown conferred before the start of a press conference on crime. A San Francisco General Hospital spokeswoman said Feinstein, though alert as ever, was almost dead at 11 p.m. San Francisco police said they had no suspects in the shooting, which was televised live.

"Let me be the first to say that it will be a sad day for San Francisco if it is established -- if, indeed, it can be established -- that Dianne Feinstein has passed from the land of the living to the realm of inanimation," Brown said. "But let me also say that such horrible events could not occur if the type of gun control laws I support had been in place, and if Quentin Kopp had not criticized City Hall cost overruns."

Brown added that, should Feinstein's death somehow be confirmed, a closet in City Hall would be named in the senator's honor.

In last week's elections, San Francisco voters approved two propositions that cut the symbolic heart out of Willie Brown's program of governance (if one can call an incoherent barrage of real estate dealing and capital works contracting a program). One of the ballot measures is an attempt to bring some sanity to the out-of-control restoration of City Hall; almost as an aside, it also cuts off a $1.5 million-per-year mayoral slush fund euphemistically known as the City Protocol Office. The other initiative is aimed at loosening Brown's secretive grip on the redevelopment of Treasure Island.

The passage of these propositions is, in any reasonable estimation, a significant defeat for the mayor and, therefore, big news. So the Chronicle's first-day coverage of the election plays this major local story ... where? Of course not on the front page. And not on the front of the second section, either. No, an inquiring voter had to turn inside that second section to learn that the mayor of San Francisco had had his metaphorical ass handed to him. In my edition of the paper, in fact, Chronicle editors judged some damn Contra Costa County supervisors' race to be more important than Willie Brown's electoral drubbing.

The next day, a story that dealt with Willie's election-day fortunes was written. It had (I kid you not) this headline: "Sharing the Spotlight/Voters and Jerry Brown turn focus away from S.F. mayor."

The headline, of course, had nearly nothing to do with the story it ran above. And it had absolutely nothing to do with what actually happened a week ago Tuesday. But that's our Chronicle, which never bothers you with hard news if the trivial and cute can be conjured up.

To the extent that the Chronicle ever reports that Willie Brown has failed to walk on water, it inevitably personalizes, and thereby downplays, the mayor's difficulties. If Willie Brown is having trouble, the Chronicle chronically suggests, it must be because state Sen. Quentin Kopp and/or political consultant Clint Reilly has scared that trouble up. And the trouble, in Chronicle-ese, is always political, never substantive.

The two anti-Brown propositions that passed last week were indeed sponsored by Kopp. There is a set of loosely allied political types, Reilly among them, who would love to dethrone Willie Brown. But Kopp and Reilly are symptoms, not causes. Willie Brown has political problems. But those problems stem from Willie Brown's performance as mayor, which has not matched the needs of a city that is changing, almost minute to minute, in concert with the high-tech explosion centered in Silicon Valley.

Since his election, Willie Brown has run San Francisco as a 1970s-style Democratic fiefdom. While giving lip service to liberal bromides appropriate (perhaps) to the Nixon era, Mayor Brown has consistently sided with the inside powers, the downtown finance-and-development clique, the players of San Francisco. He has shown great interest in high-level political patronage and large construction and development projects, while paying relatively little mind to improving the management or operation of the government. He became mayor, but kept doling out the pork as if he were still at the state Capitol.

The indications that Mayor Brown does not distribute the local pork in entirely straightforward ways are everywhere. It isn't just a City Hall renovation project that is tens of millions of dollars over budget. The city's Redevelopment Agency has passed out so many unwarranted subsidies that it is essentially broke. Brown's former aide, Billy Rutland, is pulling down hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in lobbying fees, creating the unmistakable appearance that the way to a greasy city contract runs through him and on to the mayor. The litany of questionable and downright sleazy-looking deals goes on and on.

San Franciscans don't need Quentin Kopp or Clint Reilly to tell them their mayor seems not to be playing the game straight, or even particularly well. They see a historic economic transformation create amazing opportunities and daunting new challenges for their city -- and they watch a mayor try to play them for fools while he and his friends play with the pork. Eight days ago, San Franciscans demonstrated that they are not amused -- or nearly as gullible as their mayor and their largest daily newspaper assume them to be.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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