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Willie Brown, Still Influential, Shocks Allies with Prop. B Stand

Willie Brown at the St. Regis Hotel on Friday, Oct 8, 2010, where he lives. (Adithya Sambamurthy/ The Bay Citizen)
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Willie Brown at the St. Regis Hotel on Friday, Oct 8, 2010, where he lives. (Adithya Sambamurthy/ The Bay Citizen)
Former mayor and long-time powerbroker working hard -- and losing some friends

For a long-lived politician famous for keeping his friends happy, San Francisco’s Willie Brown has in recent weeks made considerable progress in antagonizing his oldest friends and allies.

He enthusiastically endorsed Proposition B, a pension- and benefits reform measure on the November 2 ballot -- even crossing a union picket line to host a September fundraiser for the initiative. Public-employee unions, stalwart supporters of Brown during his 15 years as speaker of the California State Assembly and his two terms as Mayor of San Francisco, do not try to mask their sense of the betrayal.

“Willie Brown was one of the greatest American champions of civil liberties and economic justice in modern times,” said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, the local affiliate of the AFL-CIO. “I witnessed him crossing a picket line. I am just flabbergasted with what he has been doing in the last month or so.”

Brown further vexed old allies at a breakfast for about a thousand friends and supporters at the Moscone Center on October 19. There, Brown criticized Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown’s lack of a credible get-out-the-vote operation – which can be especially important in a midterm election year. The comments prompted John Burton, head of the state Democratic Party and one of Brown’s closest friends and allies for a half-century, to denounce Brown in harsh words to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. Burton declined to speak with The Bay Citizen about the contretemps.

 At 76, Willie L. Brown Jr. is still very much The Mayor. Freed of the constraints of public office (and the nagging allegations of cronyism that dogged him over the years), Mr. Brown is free to do – and say – as he pleases. It is a role that suits him as well as his famously natty wardrobe.

“Influence is a matter of perception in politics. When you have politicians beating a path to Willie Brown’s door seven years after he left office, that is influence,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, who spoke at Brown’s breakfast along with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Willie Brown now has the luxury [to] speak his mind, to say what he wants, do what he wants. Burton blew back on Willie Brown because he understands that when Willie Brown makes a pronouncement, people listen.”

There is even talk swirling around City Hall that Brown could be a good choice to serve as interim mayor, should Mayor Gavin Newsom win the lieutenant governor race on November 2 and thus need to resign his mayoral post in January. With the next regular mayoral election scheduled for November 2011, the Board of Supervisors would appoint an interim mayor, and the idea of appointing someone who does not intend to run for a full term is a scenario attracting considerable attention. Other names floating about include Art Agnos, another former mayor, city controller Ben Rosenfield and former controller Ed Harrington, who now heads the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

“A lot of people are talking about it,” says P. J. Johnston, a longtime Willie Brown aide who is now a political consultant. “Willie Brown still has an army of supporters and admirers who are important to any political calculation,” Johnston says. Brown did not reply to a question about the mayoral speculation.

While Brown is not actively lobbying for the mayoral appointment, Johnston says, he might agree to serve if he were persuaded it was in the best interest of the city: “He would be extremely hard-pressed to actually do it. All those years in the public sector prevented him from earning the kind of money he can make in the private sector. Not that he was ever very guarded, but he can be even more outspoken as a private citizen and political commentator. He enjoys that very much. Going back to Room 200 (the Mayor’s office at City Hall) has not been in his plans at all. Nevertheless, if your city needs a mayor and people ask him to do it, he would be hard-pressed to turn it down.”

At an age when many would be slowing down, Willie Brown is working the levers of influence as busily as ever. At the Moscone Center “Breakfast Club” for friends and supplicants who paid $100 each to nosh with Brown and other political bigwigs, the governor heaped praise on Brown for his recent conversion to the cause of public employee pension reform, a favorite topic of Governor Schwarzenegger.

Brown played a key role “getting my pension reform finally done,” Mr. Schwarzenegger told the crowd, who gave him a standing ovation. Brown “provided the extra push that I needed.” Willie Brown’s willingness to publicly support pension reform despite the unions’ bitter opposition “really made everybody look at it again,” said the governor.

While acknowledging that he spent 40 years “as the number-one union legislative supporter,” Brown makes no apologies about turning his back on his old allies this time around. Brown said that he has been concerned about pension issues ever since his days on the board of CalPERS, the huge California public employee pension fund. The pension reform effort in San Francisco, led by Jeff Adachi, the city public defender, “needs to be supported,” Brown said in an interview. “There is almost no one else in politics willing to undertake dialogue on this issue, for fear of political reprisals.”

The unions protest that Prop. B is more about trimming health-care costs benefits than pension reform, but that will “not change my mind on how I vote on Prop B,” he said.

Brown has perfected the art of quelling controversy by not bothering to apologize in the first place. He has been married for 50 years and raised three children with Blanche Vitero Brown, though the couple has long been separated. While he was mayor, Brown, at age 66, cheerfully announced that he was having a child with a fundraising aide. His daughter Sydney lives in Marin County with her mother, now a partner at an executive-search firm.

Brown’s business life now includes making speeches at $10,000 to $25,000 a pop, and his legal clients include PG&E and the Chinese company planning to develop the Baylands project near Candlestick Park, he says.

Despite his skills as a political operative, Brown was unable to help PG&E pass Proposition 16 this June. The measure would have made it all but impossible for local governments to establish municipal power provoiders that could compete with PG&E.

Brown in March testified in front of the California Public Utilities Commission in support of Proposition 16. The measure lost however, despite PG&E having poured more than $45 million into the effort.

“I did participate in trying help shape efforts of Prop 16,” Brown said. “I did not like the results, of course.”

PG&E has been a longtime client of Brown. In 2008, his non-profit Willie L. Brown Jr. Institute on Politics and Public Service joined with the California Public Utilities Commission to host a symposium on green energy at the Yerba Buena Center. PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee appeared on the program, along with CPUC President Michael Peevey, CPUC Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon (a protégé of Brown’s) and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Brown’s Institute acted as the “fiscal sponsor” of the event, said Eleanor Johns, the organization’s executive director. Because of that, the Institute’s revenue reached $420,409 in 2009, about three times its revenue in either 2007 or 2009, according to the organization’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service. The Institute’s most regular big event is the Breakfast Club, which in 2009 generated revenue of $90,210 and cost $28,418 to put on.

The Institute’s funds are entirely separate from the Willie Brown Leadership Center at San Francisco State University, Brown’s alma mater. The SFSU program places students in government internship programs, and Brown speaks to the dozen or so students each semester, said SFSU spokeswoman Lisbet Sunshine.

Brown says he hopes his Institute and a related internship program at San Francisco State University will help attract and train people for government service. In the five decades since he first took elected office, he has watched with dismay as the state of California, once “best in the nation” by many measures, slid “right into the toilet.”

He blames the combination of the voter-initiative process—most devastatingly, Proposition 13-- and term limits for causing California’s low ebb.

Meanwhile, voters “all want all the services. But most do not want to pay for them,” Brown said. Voters are “firmly of the opinion that money grows on trees and comes from the tooth fairy.”

Willie Brown said that he hopes that Jerry Brown, if elected, can turn the tide so that “four, five, six years from now, California can get back to were it was prior to Proposition 13. We were a magnificent state.”

California, with all of its dire problems, is not a lost cause, Willie Brown said. “Democracy ultimately works. It may take a while, some additional pain, but ultimately it works. I stay in the game because of that.”

Also keeping Brown in the game is his concern for the fate of his nine-year-old daughter. Brown arrived in San Francisco from Texas as a 17-year-old with little education and less money. He was able to put himself through SFSU and then the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

The California his young daughter will inherit has a much cloudier future than the place Brown first encountered in 1951.

“I fear I won’t be around long enough to give her the same opportunities I gave my older children,” Brown said. “I in part continue working to improve the system just in case I am not personally around to help traverse it for her.”

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