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Get Me Rewrite

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
I breakfasted a few weeks ago with someone who, depending on one's point of view, might be described as either a wise man or a wise guy of the local scene, and he insists the Willie Brown story has run its course. His contention is that the mayor's 60-40 election victory over Tom Ammiano makes it senseless to continue reporting possible cronyism and corruption in and around Brown's administration. After all, voters knew Willie Brown and all the possibilities that have swirled around him for a long time now, and re-elected him overwhelmingly, knowing what they would get. So why bore people by telling them what they already know, and not only don't care about, but support?

After an initial, tepid flash of subdued indignation, and after much thought, I -- well, to put it plainly, I came to agree. Of course, such a thoroughgoing change in outlook did not happen instantly. First, I had to acknowledge the obvious: Voters clearly understand -- and believe in -- something about Willie Brown that I have been missing. Over the course of several weeks, I made an honest effort to erase preconceptions, and to look at the mayor in the way one of his supporters -- someone uninvolved in the conventions and gossip of journalism and politics -- might. When I did this, something else became suddenly obvious: If I wasn't looking for a story, if I was just looking to explain (even if the real explanation was rather boring), all of the blaring but unproven allegations of untoward behavior that hover around the mayor seemed remarkably empty. In fact, the more I looked at the general run of coverage of the Brown administration, the more I saw it not just as slanted, but repeatedly, almost purposefully off-point.

For a while, I could not think how to respond; after all, I was one of those who had written most harshly about the mayor. Every idea for correcting or balancing the media portrait of Willie Brown that I had helped paint seemed, on second and third thought, insufficient and insincere, especially coming from me. Yet I couldn't just stop writing about the mayor altogether, just because his story was no longer sexy, as my wise friend was suggesting.

In the end, I decided on a straightforward approach. I would re-report and rewrite a few misconstrued news stories from recent weeks, adding the context missing from the original accounts. And I would continue this service through the end of the second Brown term as mayor, hoping my changed view of the mayor would, however gradually, win out in the marketplace of ideas. This hope may be naive, but in this special case, it seems to me that naiveté may be the best policy.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mayor Willie Brown has named Emilio Cruz, a dynamic young executive who previously served as the top executive for the Municipal Railway, to lead the city's economic development efforts. Because of his extensive political and private-sector connections -- he is state Sen. John Burton's son-in-law, and recently worked at one of the nation's largest construction management firms -- Cruz is expected to be able to tap into a broad array of resources as he does for San Francisco's economy precisely what he did for Muni. Sue Hestor, Bruce Brugmann, and Fidel Castro hailed the appointment. "Only a good, long, deep recession can stop the dot-com boom that is ruining this city with clean, high-paying jobs," Hestor said. "And Emilio may be the only person who can create recession less than an hour from Silicon Valley."

"Ditto, ditto dum, da da dum, da da dee," Brugmann and Castro intoned in unison.

San Francisco tenant activists also supported the move, saying they expect a Cruz-led business downturn to reduce residential rents to mid-1970s levels by the end of the year.

Sources close to Cruz say he plans to push the city's economy toward past levels of inactivity by hiring several thousand surly, ill-trained union workers to handle all applications for everything businesses need quickly from the government. Other past-reclaiming initiatives under consideration are a per-minute tax on Internet usage, a Palm Pilot ban, and subsidies aimed at encouraging the re-formation of the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead rock groups. Starbucks stock fell 93 percent on news of the Cruz appointment.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Economists are hailing San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's plan to apply means-testing to beneficiaries of rent control, saying it could become a national model for achieving housing equity. Although the mayor has not released details of his plan, it would apparently make people designated as "too rich" ineligible to lease apartments at rent-controlled rates. Milton Friedman, dean of American conservative economists, says the combination of means-testing and rent control has a unique power that essentially vaporizes the law of supply and demand. Whereas ordinary rent control is a form of price restriction that inevitably leads to supply shortages and high rents, Friedman says that adding means-testing to the mix creates a rental situation so confusing that ordinary market considerations simply vanish.

"It's called the 'Poof Effect,'" Friedman says. "A similar plan has already made Manhattan's residential rent problems go poof. There's no reason Mayor Brown's plan can't stimulate poofing in San Francisco and, indeed, cities across the country."

According to Friedman, under the Brown plan, people who are "too rich" would flee the city, rather than pay non-controlled high rents; this flight-of-the-rich, or poof, mechanism would increase the supply of available apartments and reduce rents for regular people to historic lows. The expected Cruz recession would only enhance the effectiveness of Brown's rent-control plan, Friedman says.

As for suggestions the plan would lead landlords to let their apartments to wealthy tenants, who could pay high rents, and avoid renting to regular people, who would pay only much lower, rent-controlled rates for the same apartments, Friedman said, "I hadn't thought of that, and I'm a lot smarter and greedier than most landlords."

SAN FRANCISCO -- A group of mayoral appointees to a new commission overseeing the Municipal Railway provides the experience needed to make the city's transit agency work in a reliable, safe, and timely manner, unbiased observers say.

H. Welton Flynn, who has served on the current Public Transportation Commission and its predecessor, the Public Utilities Commission, for almost three decades, will use his position on the new commission to continue the program of rapid management improvements he instituted at Muni 29 years ago, independent public policy analyst Jack Davis says.

Meanwhile, hotel and restaurant union president Mike Casey and Shirley Breyer Black, the child movie star, ice cream heiress, and retired president of a service employees union, will team up to help the new Muni commission ensure that the long-standing dedication to customer service shown by Muni's unionized workers will continue unabated, neutral transit specialist Joe O'Donoghue predicted. "Fast Pass my ass -- do you want to step outside, or should I mash yer face right here, runt?" O'Donoghue said.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Charlie Walker, a salt-of-the-earth businessman who has been repeatedly targeted by law enforcement authorities solely because of his race, has turned over records from his trucking firm to the City Attorney's Office, even though most legal authorities believe civil rights law prohibits the city from reading the documents. Sources within the City Attorney's Office acknowledge that the records show Walker, an African-American, has done nothing but be black, foulmouthed, and a loyal friend of Willie Brown, and that an FBI investigation of city contracting practices is based on complaints already debunked by the bureau's X-Files unit.

SACRAMENTO -- The reported appointment of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to the 13-member California Public Employees' Retirement System board of directors heralds a new age of beneficial synergy in government, public policy experts agree.

The Sacramento Bee reports that Gov. Gray Davis will soon appoint Brown to replace former Long Beach Mayor Tom Clark, who serves in the position on the CalPERS board reserved for a local government representative. CalPERS currently has about $168 billion in assets; because Brown has effective control of the multibillion-dollar City of San Francisco budget, experts say, once the mayor joins the CalPERS board, he should be able to exert significant influence on all major investments, public and private, in California. The picture for national and international finance is less clear, but experts believe the mayor will eventually control most economic activity in 27 states and 11 foreign countries, including Russia.

Brown's ascension to the CalPERS board should show some of its most startlingly positive effects in San Francisco development circles, finance experts say. Through his positions in CalPERS and city government, Brown will be able exert enormous pressure on developers operating in San Francisco, simultaneously influencing their access to capital and city development permits. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan says this leverage will allow Brown to extract a wide variety of concessions from prospective developers, to the benefit of everyone living in San Francisco, including the mayor.

Of particular note, Greenspan says, is Catellus Development's multibillion-dollar Mission Bay project, in which Brown will play the role of mayor and, as a member of the CalPERS board, owner. CalPERS owns approximately 20 percent of Catellus, and should be as eager to make Mission Bay a success as the company, the mayor, and the citizens of the city, observers say. Greenspan adds that Brown's position on the CalPERS board also will help him deal with cocky financier Warren Hellman, who derives significant portions of his investment capital from CalPERS, and whom Brown should be able to humiliate at will during his tenure on the board.

The vast power created by the synergy of Brown's mayoral and CalPERS posts creates no conflict-of-interest problems of any kind, good-government groups say. Even his ownership interest in a CalPERS-funded golf-course development near Sacramento poses no potential for conflict, Common Cause President Mister Magoo says. "Why would he do anything that directly impacted his holdings in California," Magoo asks, "when he has $168 billion and an entire world to play around in?"

John Mecklin ( can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

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John Mecklin


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