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Wednesday, Jun 4 1997
Honest Shaft
Last December, campaign consultant and Yber-lobbyist Jack Davis took one of his clients, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, to visit representatives of another client, Home Depot, the megaretailer of household-improvement products.

The mayor was not in need of a tool belt or a tube of grout. Rather, the outing -- a visit to the Home Depot store across the San Mateo County line in Colma -- was meant to persuade Brown to drop his opposition to the company's desire to open one of its massive, ugly, partly orange outlets in San Francisco.

Although massive, ugly, and orange, Home Depot had strong fiscal arguments on its side. Half of its Colma patrons are from San Francisco. If they shopped in a Home Depot here, the sales tax on their purchases would fatten the San Francisco treasury.

Moreover, Home Depot was offering givebacks. If allowed to develop its store, the company agreed, it would make $3 million of permanent improvements to Pier 80, home to a closed Port of San Francisco cargo terminal.

But Home Depot wasn't taking chances that the public policy advantages of the offer would be sufficient, in themselves, to sway Brown. So, the firm did something political.

It paid Davis, the mayor's chief campaign strategist, a $30,000 fee to make the company's case to the mayor himself. And you'll never guess what happened. Soon after his visit to the Colma Home Depot, Willie Brown became a convert.

He is now one of Home Depot's biggest backers.
"He had a very positive experience there," Davis says of Brown's visit to Colma, "and changed his mind."

The role of the campaign manager/lobbyist is about to get some close attention in San Francisco. Supervisor Tom Ammiano intends to unveil a retooled version of legislation vetoed last year by the mayor. The legislation aims to end a phenomenon -- campaign managers who hire themselves out to lobby the very elected officials they recently helped into office -- that does, indeed, have sordid aspects.

Of course, the proposed law would also be an obviously unconstitutional infringement on the free speech and free association rights of a small group of people Ammiano and a few of his soul mates dislike intensely.

But why quibble about the Constitution when an opportunity to screw Jack Davis, Robert Barnes, and John Whitehurst is at hand?

To be sure, campaign managers and lobbyists who cross-dress, changing from one into the other at the drop of an election, present the body politic with a glaring potential for conflict of interest.

These politicolobbyists gain enormous leverage over both their public- and private-sector clients. They become the middlemen in those chains of events -- the sleazy trading of legal favor for legal favor to get an illicit result -- that Boss Tweed once called "honest graft."

Businessmen and businesswomen bow before the politicolobbyists, believing (not unrealistically) that their unrivaled access can cause the government to do things that will help the men and women who do the business.

The officeholders, meanwhile, believe (not unrealistically) that hiring campaign managers who already represent deep-pocketed business clients will increase campaign contributions flowing to the men and women who hold, or want to hold, the offices.

The abuses of the politicolobbyists clearly extend beyond the Willie and Jack show.

There was, for example, the push by a certain city supervisor (Leslie Katz) for a ballot measure that would have paid off big for big cab companies. As it happens, the taxi industry was at that time being represented at City Hall by a lobbyist (Robert Barnes) who also happened to be running the supervisor's re-election drive.

As Abbott and Costello asked, "Who's on first?"
Then, there was the decision by Board of Supervisors President Barbara Kaufman to block a timely audit of San Francisco zoo finances. The audit might have complicated the life of Kaufman's campaign strategist, John Whitehurst, who was also managing the campaign for a $48 million zoo bond measure.

So, you see, it is all happening at the zoo.
Supervisor Ammiano is absolutely aghast at these monkeyshines.
"The electorate wants this to stop," the supervisor aghasts, vowing that if his anti-politicolobbying bill -- called, ever so humbly, Honest Elections -- fails to pass the Board of Supervisors, he'll make it a ballot initiative.

And when Supervisor Ammiano aghasts, everybody should listen.
Well, let's qualify that.
Ammiano's Honest Elections legislation deserves the support of everyone who believes that:

1) The local press corps is incapable of employing the most basic of public records to keep tabs on the mayor and the supervisors, and

2) The First Amendment of the Constitution should be suspended when there's a chance to jack with people you don't like.

Ammiano's legislation would make it illegal for any elected officeholder or candidate for office to hire a registered City Hall lobbyist to run his or her campaign.

It would also bar anyone from hiring a campaign manager who has already signed up to handle the race of another candidate or ballot measure in the same election cycle.

To make sure the field of campaign consulting is rendered financially unrewarding and legally treacherous, the legislation allows for penalties of up to $5,000 per breach, and gives civilians the right to file lawsuits against supposed violators. And if the citizens win, they get to recover their attorney's fees and take home half of any penalties imposed against the offending officeholder candidate or campaign guru.

Ammiano has slightly altered his legislation this time around, hoping to circumvent the constitutional problems that led to the veto of his 1996 proposal.

But the new version of Honest Elections remains abjectly unconstitutional and an offense to anyone with a speck of respect for civil liberties.

This legislation is so off-base that even City Attorney Louise Renne's office, normally the most compliant of rubber stamps for supervisor brainstorms, has raised questions.

Renne's office has told Ammiano his bill runs roughshod over the rights to free speech, to political association, and to petition the government for redress of grievance.

Ammiano says he smells a rat inside the offices of City Attorney Renne, who is up for re-election this year -- and is rumored to have secured Davis' services to run her campaign.

"We're talking fee speech here," Ammiano quips, "not free speech."
But the situation is just this simple: Renne is absolutely right, both on the facts and the law. Ammiano is completely wrong.

Constitutional rights are not absolute. Even the rights to free speech and association can be abridged to serve a compelling government interest. But that can only occur when the interest is genuinely compelling, and only when other, less drastic measures won't suffice.

Ammiano's legislation fails on both counts.
First off, the activities of politicolobbyists, as sleazy as they may seem, do not appear likely to threaten the overall health of the San Francisco political system. No one is forced to vote for Willie Brown, just because Jack Davis is both his campaign manager and a business lobbyist.

That's constitutional strike one against Ammiano's proposal.
And there are plenty of tools available to reduce the influence of the politicolobbyists.

Candidates for office are already required to disclose who gives them money and how that money is spent.

Lobbyists are already required to register and identify their clients.
Reporters already have the tools necessary to tell the public about conflicts of interest involving Davis, Barnes, Whitehurst, and any other cross-dressing politicolobbyist who happens down the pike.

And this remedy -- the public humiliation of politicolobbyists and the public officials who employ them -- does not require trespass on the Constitution.

Strike two. Ammiano's out.
Room does exist, of course, to cleanse electoral politics in San Francisco. The city could end the practice of allowing elected officials to carry large debts on their campaign books. As it now stands, consultants can provide expensive services to political candidates and then suspend collecting those debts indefinitely -- gaining influence over candidates and officeholders that can verge on the extortionate.

How many times have you refused a request from someone to whom you owe $50,000?

But the so-called Honest Elections legislation being carried by Ammiano is less about reform than it is about petty political paybacks. To understand why that is, you need to know a little San Francisco history, and a little bit about who is friends with whom, and where the long-term political hate resides.

You see, reliable sources advise us that the Honest Elections law Ammiano is touting was ghostwritten by one Larry Bush, a former staff writer at SF Weekly who was also once an aide to former Mayor Art Agnos. Bush now serves as Agnos' spokesman at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where the former mayor is regional director.

Art Agnos hates Jack Davis.
Back in 1991, Davis recruited a retired police chief to challenge Agnos for re-election as mayor. Davis' candidate, Frank Jordan, won.

So you won't see Agnos at any satanic birthday parties anytime soon.
But you will see Agnos doing whatever he can to chop Davis off at the knees.
Late last month, an opinion column ran under Agnos' byline in a Sunday San Francisco Examiner. The

column -- oh so innocently -- urged passage of Ammiano's bill.
"Too many politicians are more afraid of the wrath of political consultants than that of the citizens," Agnos wrote.

Most of the time, we support the right of anyone, even former mayors, to do bad stuff to Jack Davis, especially if the bad stuff is sneaky. But the answer to spinelessness among elected officials is not a new law criminalizing it. No, the way to get rid of the elected jellyfish who hire cross-dressing politicolobbyists is to set them out in bright sunshine, on top of the front page of the local newspaper.


About The Authors

George Cothran


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