Bedlam by the Bay

S.F. Mayor Willie Brown has a 30-percent approval rating. But can anyone knock him out of office?


Anthony York
August 5, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

When Willie Brown took control of San Francisco City Hall in 1995, he became a national media celebrity. The man who once dubbed himself the Ayatollah of the Assembly during his 15 years as speaker earned style points for his flamboyance and quick wit, and the broad coalition that backed him heralded a new cooperation among racial groups, and between business groups and urban reformers. Newsweek paired him with Rudy Giuliani as one of the new breed of take-charge mayors, and a flattering New Yorker profile followed.

But Brown's first four years in office have been a disappointment. The city continues to be plagued by homelessness, the public transportation system -- which he promised to fix in his first 100 days as mayor -- is in a shambles more than 1,000 days later, the city is choking on traffic thanks to nonstop development, and his human rights commission and housing agency are under FBI investigation for possible illegalities in awarding minority contracts. In a recent poll, Brown's approval ratings languished at an anemic 30 percent.

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The poll was a good news/bad news affair for Brown, however. The bad news is that his approval rating is 30 percent but he's still leading all potential challengers in early polls, and to date has only one declared opponent.

Welcome to Planet San Francisco.

Still, a wild cast of characters is flirting with the idea of running against Brown. Final decisions must be made by 5 p.m. Friday. The field of possible challengers includes a brawling, millionaire political consultant, a gay comedian, a Chinese-American career politician and the city's former mayor, Frank Jordan, an Irish-American ex-police chief who saw his career go down the drain when he took a shower with two Los Angeles radio DJs on the eve of the last election.

Political consultant Clint Reilly, the only declared candidate, is also the only wannabe mayor who has not held public office. Instead, he has been a behind-the-scenes man, making his millions as one of the state's most prominent political consultants. But California Democrats most recently remember him as the man who helped Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown squander a double-digit lead against Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 -- and got wealthy doing it. Brown was eventually trounced by Wilson in the Republican tidal wave of 1994.

Reilly has already spent more than $1.3 million, including $902,000 he contributed himself. Though the war chest is impressive, and Reilly has plenty of his own money for reinforcements, Brown's political consultant Jack Davis promised that Reilly would be "Benihannaed" in the course of the campaign. There's plenty to carve up: Already in California political circles, Reilly's history of domestic abuse is known, though he claims it was related to his drinking before he quit cold turkey. Just a few years ago, he got into a brawl with San Francisco Examiner editor Phil Bronstein, who broke Reilly's ankle in a fight over the paper's political coverage.

Reilly's best hope is for others to get into the race, taking away from Brown's core support among progressives and the city's powerful Asian community, in hopes of squeaking into a runoff against a weakened Brown. And already San Francisco is ripe with anybody-but-Brown conspiracy theories linking the centrist Reilly with politicians on Brown's left in a Faustian political bargain.

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Reilly's money notwithstanding, Brown's chief rival may be San Francisco Board President Tom Ammiano, who came to national attention for championing the rights of the transgendered. Ammiano, 57, is a gay stand-up comedian and special education teacher who is the darling of San Francisco progressives. Since assuming the board presidency last year, he has pushed issues like the living wage proposal, which would raise minimum pay for city workers to $11 an hour, and paid parental leave for city employees. He is also pushing a local ballot measure that would prohibit banks from charging fees to use their automatic teller machines, and one to implement commercial rent control in the booming San Francisco real estate market. The Chamber of Commerce hates him with a passion.

Ammiano often seems like a substitute teacher trying to keep order at unruly Board of Supervisors meetings. Most of the board opposes his policies, and he is consistently overruled on key issues like cable deregulation and the living wage. Although he may have the best chance of forcing Brown into a runoff, purveyors of conventional wisdom give him little chance in a head-to-head match-up with Brown.

Ammiano now seems to be relishing his public flirtation with a mayoral run, playing the role of reluctant warrior thrown into the race by an overwhelming ground swell. For months, he denied he was running, and last year, he exchanged his endorsement of Brown's re-election for Brown's public backing of his as supervisor. But the deal didn't stick. Brown is running a touch scared, even enlisting progressive patriarch Jesse Jackson to place a personal call to Ammiano pleading with him not to run. The preachy left-wing Bay Guardian, on the other hand, ran a cover story begging him to enter the race.

Leland Yee, another potential candidate, moved up from the school board to become one of two Chinese-American supervisors. Brown's advisors have been trying to keep Yee out of the race, hinting that they'll back him for mayor in 2003 if he stays out of the running this year. Chinese-American support has been crucial to Brown, and he would hate to lose it to Yee. But Yee has held out, and the prospect of becoming the city's first Chinese-American mayor seems too enticing to say no to outright -- just yet. Yee chairs the board's Finance and Labor Committee, which clashed with Brown in last year's budget wrangle, in which Brown called for the hiring of more than 1,300 city workers.

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Yee's core support comes from the heavily Chinese-American pockets of the city's outer neighborhoods, which have been galvanized over a never-ending fight about a downtown freeway. Progressives like Ammiano have called for the freeway's removal, while Yee has been the freeway's primary supporter on the board. If Yee does throw his hat into the ring, the freeway issue will be a central tenet of his mayoral campaign.

Sensing a glimmer of hope, former mayor Frank Jordan, who Brown vanquished in the last election, is all but certain to announce his political comeback. Jordan's one term was lackluster, marked by rising homelessness and declining city services. The genial but ineffectual former police chief sealed his defeat when he allowed himself to be photographed naked in the shower with radio shock jocks from a Los Angeles station -- a photo that got national play. Jordan said he was posing for the photo to show that he "had nothing to hide." And who was the campaign manager who gave his OK to Jordan's fateful plunge? None other than Clint Reilly.

Brown's re-election could still be a cakewalk. None of his likely challengers is without serious political flaws. He has survived worse than the current chaos: A multi-year FBI investigation of corruption in the state capital resulted in the indictment of legislators and staff, but Brown walked away unscathed.

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Politicians have gone to defeat underestimating Brown's intelligence -- and endurance -- before. But his current problems are a comedown for a man whose first election seemed to herald a new era of multiracial urban reform politics in San Francisco.


Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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