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Left and Lefter 

Well-heeled Willie Brown dispatches challenger Tom Ammiano in San Francisco’s mayor’s race

Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
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San Francisco -- Whoever came up with San Franciso Mayor Willie Brown’s re-election slogan -- “He‘s One of a Kind” -- has a definite eye for turning lemons into lemonade. What other American big-city mayor would have the gall to make such statements as “Democracy is best served if I am unopposed [for re-election]” (a Brownism of a couple of years back), or “People shouldn’t live here if they don‘t make $50,000 a year” (Brown’s solution to the city‘s gentrification woes)? Or to muse about turning the old Treasure Island naval base in the middle of San Francisco Bay into a site for a casino? Or to proclaim “Exotic Erotic Ball Day” and “Marilyn Chambers Day” (“in the Barbary Coast tradition”), as Brown did earlier this year?

More seriously, the problems Brown had promised to address during his initial campaign for mayor four years ago -- the bloated and extraordinarily inefficient public-transit system known as the Muni (for Municipal Railway), and the burgeoning numbers and aggressive conduct of homeless people -- have only worsened during Brown’s first term. New problems have emerged as well. San Francisco has become an increasingly pricey place to live. Gentrification‘s set in; affordable housing has all but vanished; big chain outlets have displaced neighborhood stores.

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In the midst of which Mayor Brown embarked on a gentrification campaign of his own: a massive drive to refurbish the city’s once elegant City Hall, displacing some city departments in favor of statuary. Longtime Brown associates like Jack Davis, his campaign manager, cashed in on the boom, making hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations seeking to take advantage of the new commercialism. The city‘s housing and minority contracting operations became the focus of FBI probes, and some Brown associates were implicated in the allegations.

Still, it came as a surprise to many that Brown had to campaign so hard for re-election. The legendary political mastermind, speaker of the California Assembly for a record-setting 15 years, a sensationally popular mayor during his first year in office, saw his popularity plummet and an unexpectedly dramatic challenge to his re-election take hold.

Brown had to scramble hard to stave off the insurgency of his populist challenger from the left, San Francisco supervisor and self-styled “Queen of Gay Comedy” Tom Ammiano. The president of the Board of Supervisors, whose late-breaking write-in campaign swept him past former Mayor Frank Jordan and multimillionaire ex--political consultant Clint Reilly in the November 3 primary, forced Brown into a December 14 runoff.

But scramble hard Brown did. Turning the squeaker of six weeks ago into a landslide, he crushed Ammiano Tuesday night by a TK percent to TK percent margin. At his victory party at the Longshoremens’ Hall on Fisherman‘s Wharf, Brown was surrounded by a throng of liberal activists and a parade of pols, including Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who called Brown, “my big brother.”

“I didn’t win this,” Brown exulted to the crowd. “You all did!” But absent from view and mention were most of those who had provided Brown with the avalance of soft money that powered his landslide. Ammiano‘s energetic campaign registered 14,000 new voters in the past month, but they weren’t enough to overcome the big lead Brown and his free-spending business allies built up among the usual voters.

It wasn‘t supposed to have been this way.

Willie Brown’s election four years ago seemed to signal both the renewed ascendancy of San Francisco‘s fabled liberallabor political machine and the political flowering of the City by the Bay’s fascination with superstardom. Initially, Brown seemed perfectly attuned to the new San Francisco. A city entranced by its athletic superstars and status as the world‘s favorite tourist destination saw in the stylish Brown someone who would represent it well in the national media. First elected to the state Assembly in 1964, Brown had become a spellbinding speechifier, an elegant dresser and the master of backroom intrigue. Leaving his hardscrabble Texas upbringing behind him, Brown arrived in San Francisco at the end of the ’50s, educated himself in the public universities, and embarked on a career in politics through the patronage of the late Congressman Phil Burton, a towering figure in American liberalism. He moved to the pinnacle of power in California 19 years ago, when he took advantage of a split between Democratic factions to seize the speakership with Republican votes. From there, he went on to become a master of legislative logrolling and big-money politics, as well as the most powerful African-American elected official in America.

For all his mastery of the inside game, though, Brown became a symbol of a corrupt, entrenched political system in California. Though he escaped the fate of several associates swept away by scandal, he was powerless to stop -- indeed, was the poster boy for -- the initiative campaign for term limits, which state voters enacted in 1990. Forced by this constitutional amendment to give up his Assembly seat of 31 years, Brown decamped in 1995 to San Francisco, where he unseated the incumbent conservative mayor, Frank Jordan, an ex--police chief and a nostalgic throwback to the old San Francisco of Irish pols and cops, who had himself defeated a member of the Burton-oriented liberal machine four years previous.

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