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The Stealth Campaign 

At a seemingly innocuous event in the Sunset, Willie Brown proves again why he's the patron saint of patronage

Wednesday, Aug 28 2002
Dressed in pressed gray slacks, brown short-nap suede shoes, a dark blazer, a pert black fedora, and lavender socks, shirt, and tie, Mayor Willie Lewis Brown Jr. looked stunning as he pressed through a small crowd of sign-carrying protesters and took his seat beneath a 15-foot-high arc of red, white, and blue balloons.

The mayor is never quite so resplendent as when he's performing minutely choreographed governmental theater, and last Saturday's second annual Westside Environmental Fair was an exquisite, multilayered pageant. On its surface this was a midday neighborhood fair, organized by a local community center and promoted by the Mayor's Office, to encourage energy conservation among Sunset District residents. Volunteers gave away energy-efficient light bulbs and water-efficient showerheads. More volunteers staffed a voter registration table. The event opened with a Chinese dragon dance, which Brown and a dozen Cabinet members and political allies watched from the stage. Around 300 neighbors watched from folding chairs.

But it was also a strangely important political event, held to promote the Board of Supervisors campaign of Andrew Lee, the son of Brown's fixer in the city's southwest, Chinese-American voting districts. In both its promotion and execution, the event gave every appearance of serving as a conduit to use city funds to promote the mayor's favored candidate for supervisor in the Sunset District.

But for obvious reasons of legal propriety, the event had nothing to do with politics -- officially speaking. The fair, along with the fliers, mailers, and newspaper advertisements promoting it, which all prominently featured a photograph of Lee's face, was financed with city money channeled through the San Francisco Neighborhood Resource Center, chartered two years ago as a collaboration between Brown and fixer Julie Lee. Lee's son Andrew was made executive director. Promoting Lee's supervisor campaign in any overt way with these funds would have violated state and federal law. What's more, Mayor Brown had just put a measure on the fall ballot to make the use of public funds for political campaigns a municipal crime.

Yet the event glowed with politics. It was a rubber-chicken-circuit event, in which Lee, Brown, and several members of Brown's Cabinet made speeches. (Rather than overcooked chicken, the largely Chinese-American audience of 300 ate pork buns.) It was a fence-mending event: Seated below the balloon arc to Brown's left, supervisor and state Assembly candidate Mark Leno murmured apparent wry asides into the mayor's ear, just months after Brown had been telling supporters he would end Leno's political career. It was a trial-balloon event: The dais also featured embattled city Assessor Doris Ward and Brown's new police chief, Earl Saunders, along with a battalion chief, a deputy police chief, a city administrator, a public utilities commissioner, and a handful of other public servants. It was a machine candidacy event, an inside-the-beltway event, a grass-roots activism event, a political coattails event. But the event was also apolitical in a surreal way: Aside from City Administrator Bill Lee's terse endorsement of a political slate drafted by Julie Lee's San Francisco Neighbors' Association, speakers painstakingly avoided political themes, instead praising the crowd of largely non-English-speaking Chinese-American attendees for their supposed commitment to the environment. When I repeatedly asked Lee about his campaign, he said, "I can't talk about that here."

Lee wasn't the only scrupulous one.

Speakers whose duties barely intersected with issues of energy conservation or the environment spoke only about energy conservation, the environment, and the exceptional work done by the San Francisco Neighborhood Resource Center, as managed by Executive Director Andrew Lee.

"This neighborhood center came about as a dream of Julie Lee during a time when we were trying to bring city services to the west side of the City and County of San Francisco," Brown said. "Let me thank Executive Director Andrew Lee, his mother, Julie, and the city staff for what certainly is a very successful fair."

San Francisco is about to lose Willie Brown, the poverty-born Texan whose lust for the conduct of government, in all its splendid, banal, marvelous, and awful manifestations, has made him the greatest story in modern California politics. And for all the fuss San Francisco's coffee-mug-clinking classes make over notions like narrative forms, contemporary myth-making, and modern communicative paradigms, they give precious little credit to the Brown administration for producing some of history's most exquisite, live-action political literature. Brown's name is poison in much of the city now, and not without reason; his enthusiastic use of power and patronage has given his administration an aura of arrogance and corruption. Even if his successor is more honest, forthright, and committed to good government than Brown has been, we'll forfeit something special when this city no longer hosts California's grandest political saga. Last Saturday's environmental fair, with its back story of brazen patronage, blatant conflicts of interest, and inappropriate use of city funds, was the latest chapter in this tale. During the coming months of the fall election season, this Westside Story of tawdry political deal-making will be worth watching on literary merits alone.

Three years ago, facing what appeared to be an unpredictable mayoral campaign, Willie Brown realized that San Francisco's Asian vote would be key to winning future elections. He also saw himself opposite a burgeoning Asian-American neighborhood movement in the 1998 fight over whether or not to rebuild the Central Freeway, a spur that brings traffic over Market Street and into the city's western neighborhoods. Julie Lee, who founded and led the San Francisco Neighbors' Association, and her neighbor Rose Tsai promoted a successful ballot initiative to rebuild the freeway section, against the apparent wishes of Brown and a number of his allies. So Brown did the reasonable thing: He appointed Julie Lee as a city housing commissioner, gave her son a Cabinet job as director of neighborhood services, then funded the creation of the San Francisco Neighborhood Resource Center, with the younger Lee getting the job of executive director. For the past two years Julie Lee has been using her Neighbors' Association to back her son as a candidate for supervisor. Hence the political, yet apolitical, 2002 Westside Environmental Fair.

Andrew Lee's old department, the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, took out a three-quarter-page advertisement in the San Francisco Examiner to promote the event; oddly, it featured no images of environment-related things -- only a photo of Lee's portly, smiling face. Posters distributed around the city's west side had the same nonsense feel: Though they purportedly promoted an environmentalism fair, they looked an awful lot like Andrew Lee's campaign posters; both were dominated by a picture of candidate Lee. Mailings sent to Westside homes went a step further: They included Lee's face, a drawing of an American flag of the sort usually used to designate polling places, and a campaign-ese statement from Lee that said, in part, "I have seen how the Westside has often been neglected. As a concerned citizen of the Westside, I will continue to use all my efforts to get the City to provide the Westside with services and resources such as this Environmental Fair. I am looking forward to personally meeting you at the fair. If you have any questions, or if you need any help, please feel free to call me."

At around the time the Mayor's Office and the Resource Center were conducting their odd PR campaign promoting Andrew Lee and the Environmental Fair, Willie Brown placed a measure on the November ballot that would appear to outlaw just this sort of activity. Brown's Proposition Q would "prohibit City contractors and the recipients of City grants and loans from using City funds to participate in, support, or attempt to influence a political campaign for any candidate or measure."

The mayor sees no conflict of interest. "It's kind of ridiculous to suggest that that event or any other sponsored by the mayor is being used to bolster a political candidate," says P.J. Johnston, Brown's spokesman. "This is not a place where Mr. Lee was given a forum for his candidacy."

According to the Controller's Office, the Resource Center has received $108,933 in city money so far.

On the day of the fair, a handful of protesters outside the neighborhood center entrance brandished Chinese-language signs denouncing Julie Lee for her marionettelike campaign on behalf of her son.

"They're using whatever they can to get votes for her son," said Jane Kong, a Sunset homemaker who appeared to be leading the protest. "Why do the advertisements for the fair have his picture on it? I'd rather have a toilet or a light bulb. Why would I need to see his face?"

Just inside the center gate three volunteers staffed a voter registration table. Two tables over, the Examiner, the paper that published the ad featuring Lee's face, signed up subscribers.

After the dragon dancers performed, Andrew Lee, who was serving as master of ceremonies, introduced the mayor, who in turn asked Lee to sing the national anthem. Lee, it so happens, can belt out a version worthy of a minor-league stadium.

After the song, the mayor's speech, and speeches by Brown's various appointees, I caught up to Julie Lee, who was looking jubilant in a purple, felt-lined overcoat, a black-trimmed red blazer, black pumps, and a black skirt.

"What do you think of your son's performance as MC?" I asked.

"He's improving. You know, I'm getting older. It's going to be time for me to retire," she said, before turning to a small, elderly Chinese-American woman who'd just asked her about obtaining a free light bulb.

"Have you registered to vote?" Lee said by way of a non sequitur response.

In literary terms, it was a wonderful exit line.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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