This summer, former Mayor Willie Brown, now a Sunday columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, explained to a cabbie why he favored Ed Lee to win the city's mayoral election.
“Because he’s the best in the race,” Brown said, according to his Aug. 21 "Willie's World" column — an example of the bits of news, insights and slices of city life he doles out weekly.
On Nov. 6, Brown reported that former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana was endorsing Lee for mayor. "That's even bigger than my support for Ed," Brown added.
In his column, Brown paints himself as an urbane, avuncular San Francisco insider similar to the public personality cultivated by the late Herb Caen, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning column in the Chronicle offered wry observations about San Francisco life from 1938 to 1997.
Lee, the city's interim mayor, indeed looks like a winner, leading in the polls and benefiting from campaign spending of more than $1.6 million. But a largely overlooked asset is Brown's column for the largest newspaper in Northern California, with a daily circulation of 220,515. Unlike other newspaper pundits who might endorse a candidate, Brown has a political and financial stake in people and events depicted in his column.
Brown helped orchestrate Lee’s January ascension to interim mayor, and he remains a key advisor to Lee. He is also a consultant, advising clients involved in city policy.
“This is an effective advertising gimmick for Willie Brown,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a consumer rights group. “The benefits are very direct. He advertises himself as being a kingmaker in San Francisco. Most serious businesses that might have any issues pending before the city realize he would be a very, very valuable player to hire. With that image, he would also come at a very high price tag.”
Brown did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.
Lee said he is a loyal reader of Brown's column. "He has unique insights. I don't know about half the stuff he's writing about. But I enjoy his take on the city," Lee said.
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The San Francisco Chronicle’s ethics policy, drafted in 2004, prohibits staff members from engaging in outside work activities that “could create or appear to create a conflict of interest.”
Chronicle editor Ward Bushee said the ethics policy does not apply to Brown.
“Willie is not a journalist or a member of the Chronicle’s news staff. He is a newsmaker who is politically active, of which our readers are quite aware,” Bushee said in an email. “While he’s not bound by the ethics policy, Willie has shown his respect for his readers and the rules of conflict of interest. Readers love (or hate) his column, but we know they look forward to reading it.”
Ever since Caen died in 1997, the Chronicle has sought to re-engage a readership that reportedly sent the columnist 1,000 postage-stamped letters per week.
Brown, a witty raconteur, had held movie roles and hosted radio and television talk shows over the years. In 2008, when Bushee took charge of editorial operations, “I sought out Willie Brown and began a discussion about whether he would consider being a celebrity columnist,” Bushee wrote.
It was an unusual proposition, in part because Brown has long acknowledged he suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. The solution: Brown dictates, rather than types, his column. The transcribed text is then put into shape by “one of our most experienced editors,” Bushee explained.
The result is an engaging read, which combines behind-the-scenes observations about local, state and national politics; movie reviews; and humorous asides about the ex-politician’s daily life and the people he meets. For some Chronicle employees, however, the arrangement has been an embarrassment for the newspaper, which has lost more than half its Sunday print circulation during the past decade.
“He writes a pretty good column, and it’s largely interesting because it’s Willie Brown writing it. And it’s not a secret he’s pals with some very rich, powerful people,” said Carl Hall, a union representative at the Pacific Media Workers Guild and former science writer for the Chronicle. “But if he’s in some way disguising business interests and promoting private interests without that being apparent in the piece itself, that’s where ethical questions would be most salient.”