Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Ringmaster Willie 

Although Mayor Brown's opening acts have impressed, he's also allowed more than a few rogue elephants under his Big Top. We begin our stampede watch.

Wednesday, Aug 7 1996
"Two things only the people anxiously desire," wrote Juvenal, "bread and circuses." No one understands that better than Mayor Willie Lewis Brown Jr. In acts large and small, in both his bravura performances and quiet talent scouting, Ringmaster Willie has spent his first months in office trying to erect a circus tent large enough to accommodate San Francisco's political zoo while keeping the throngs from feeling as if they've been relegated to the cheap seats.

Take a close look at the labor agreement that's dominated the papers in recent weeks, the one that will cost taxpayers an estimated $50 million a year.

Previously, Brown has given smaller command performances. He's handed off juice jobs in the Police Department to Rose Pak, his Chinatown diva. He's appointed politically active multiculti aesthetes to the Art Commission. He's graced his old friend the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial Church with a few million dollars to expand his social service empire in the Tenderloin.

But the labor agreement, set to hit the ballot in November, signals that seven months into office, Brown is deadly serious about amassing an impenetrable power structure.

Passed by the Board of Supervisors July 29 amid a flurry of last-minute changes and profound confusion about what exactly the measure will do, the agreement is a straight-up giveaway to the unions who supported Brown for mayor. Nothing more. It gives city employee unions the ability to bargain to set their retirement benefits, a power currently reserved for the voters. The measure could possibly cost the city up to $50 million a year in extra pension costs. Expense be damned, Brown seems to be saying, he has a more important goal in mind: taking care of that base.

Brown claims the measure will give him greater control over city government by granting him close to 500 political appointees at midlevel management posts in various city departments. He says that will mean greater governmental efficiency and accountability. While that is certainly true, a greater truth operates: The measure will give Brown a vast patronage system with which he plans to repay political allies.

Where taxpayers and business executives see a big-ticket item (future budget deficits and tax hikes), Ringmaster Willie sees the tent stakes for his Big Top.

It's an approach Brown used to his advantage in Sacramento, while he served as speaker of the Assembly. Brown brokered deals between his constituents on the one side, meaning his fellow Assembly Democrats, and the lobbyists and special interests they represented. In one hand he took in campaign money, in the other he handed out legislation benefiting special interests. The arrangement served most players well. Democrats kept a majority. Brown kept his speakership. The special interests got their bills. And, don't forget, San Francisco got its chestnuts pulled from the fire during budget negotiations.

Watching Brown take that show into San Francisco is starting to make some members of the audience squirm in their seats. Things are slightly different here.

Instead of giving out bills favorable to special interests, Brown is handing out money and favors to political constituencies: unions, corporations, tenants, housing activists, minority communities. Like Sacramento, they will return the favor with campaign money, and more important, political support. But the gifts will be made in taxpayer money, a much more limited and publicly monitored pool than the deep, often invisible, pockets of special interests Brown was accustomed to in Sacramento.

In the state capital, Brown could pick and choose the acts he'd put on his stage. Winning the mayoralty in San Francisco, on the other hand, Brown has had to host his share of amateur hours, promising countless stage mothers spotlights for their kids in exchange for political support.

What's still unclear is whether the mayor will be content serving as mere showman, basking in the huzzahs of his cast, or if he has the will to crack the whip and perform an act of enduring value for the city -- say, improved bus service.

Alas, to date the mayor has been happy to toss raw meat to the lions and peanuts to the gallery. But these are stubborn animals and a fickle crowd. Either could turn on him long before intermission.

Meanwhile, the mayor continues to conduct auditions. Many of his old friends -- Sacramento lobbyists and campaign contributors and workers -- are descending on San Francisco like ... well, we'll let you complete the metaphor. Brown cronies are registering as lobbyists and taking on clients with city business to cash in before the crowd turns ugly. Some have already been filing in and out of the mayor's office on a regular basis. One has already delayed a city contract to benefit a client.

If you want to see more of the acts -- new and old -- that Brown is assembling for his (and let's hope your) entertainment, if you want to follow the lobbyist-connected jugglers and clowns who will be auditioning for the mayor, if you want to divine whether Brown's three ring circus can mollify the masses (while he dodges the possible stampede of rogue elephants), just turn the page.

To assemble his extravaganza, Brown knew enough to court the local circus performers' guild. Not only would he get a seasoned troupe; he would also avert a picket line on opening night. And when it came to getting the old acts to sign a contract, Brown had no trouble: Sussing out potential allies has always been Willie Brown's strong suit.

In the Assembly, he could tell if a legislator merely wanted a larger office and staff or if the lawmaker wanted more -- a bill passed, a committee chairmanship, or campaign money. He loved playing the fatherly role. He loved to cut deals.

Those he cut them with, however, didn't always share the love.
In his historic wrangling to win the speakership in 1980, Brown cut the first of what would be a multitude of deals, promising, Republicans said, committee chairs and other goodies to the opposition party if they provided the crucial votes to elect him the second most powerful politician in California. After he had won with enemy votes, Brown reneged, the Republicans said. "They thought they had a marriage," says the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters, the dean of state capital political columnists. "But all Willie gave 'em was a one-night stand."

About The Author

George Cothran


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"