What is the legacy of Willie Brown? He entered politics with exceptional brains, brass and appetite, yet he struts through his last term as mayor with little to show for it. Da Mayor's ego may be richer for his entrance into city politics, but San Francisco is not. The renaissance that a strong economy and able officeholders brought to New York and Los Angeles has bypassed Baghdad by the Bay. It's hard to figure which is dirtier: San Francisco's streets or Brown's reputation.
He's delayed vital construction to make the eastern span of the Bay Bridge safe, because he wanted to protect pet construction projects. Elected leader of a city that is 43.6 percent white and 7.6 percent black, he happily has returned the slur "'white boy" to the political lexicon. Still, Brown's priorities are intact. He gilded the dome of City Hall. And as Lance Williams and Chuck Finnie reported in their five-part series, Brown has larded the city payroll with some 350 extra "special assistant" positions.
In his superb biography of Willie Brown, author James Richardson introduces the reader to young Willie Brown. Handicapped with a substandard education from a segregated Texas public school and a childhood stained by racism, Brown worked his way through college and law school in San Francisco. He became a public figure when his wife went to an open house at a new development, where employees ran from the scene rather than talk to her.
The visibility he gained from protests at the development, Forest Knolls, that followed eventually helped get Brown elected to the Assembly seat of Ed Gaffney, an entrenched incumbent who clung to power even as he had lost touch with his minority constituents.
That description now fits Willie Brown. And the more voters try to tell Brown that they'd like him to think less about himself, and more about them, the worse he gets.
The only reason Brown ran for mayor was his legacy as Assembly speaker: voter approval of a term- limit initiative in 1990. Voters approved the measure because they blamed Brown for greasing the way for legislation favorable to big contributors and turning the state capital into a perk palace. (Brown fondly referred to himself as the Assembly's "Ayatollah.") Unamused voters approved term limits to make the Legislature more accountable.
Brown, of course, blamed voter racism for the measure's passage. Asked if he had a chip on his shoulder about race, Brown once answered, "I don't have a chip, I got a redwood forest on my shoulder."
Yet, rather than work to help minorities without political connections, Brown has befriended those who have scammed affirmative action. In 1984, crony Charlie Walker went to prison for felony abuses of a minority set-aside program. His trial judge said contractors paid Walker off "to be able to pay and hire just one black, Charlie Walker, in effect so they wouldn't have to hire any others."
Walker is doing business with the city again. Brown may argue that he is not responsible for the corruption around him. If so, he certainly isn't responsible for trying to stop it. Instead, he treats the city as a tool for self-aggrandizement, and the troops follow suit. Hence, Yolanda Jones, Charlie Walker's daughter, pleaded guilty to 10 felony counts and admitted to doing no work for her $52,000 salary at the Housing Authority. Instead, she spent her day collecting bribes from tenants.
Presiding U.S. District Judge Charles Legge remarked, "I thought it was only in Third World countries that people were forced to pay bribes to get services they're entitled to from their government. But we find it right here in San Francisco."
That is Willie Brown's sorry legacy.