Brown Finally Makes a Decision
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown -- the nondeclared candidate for mayor -- decided last week to oppose Mayor Frank Jordan's challenges to the city's new campaign spending limit law. This marked a turning point of sorts for Brown, who had adroitly avoided making any decisions in this race, including whether or not to enter it.
By embracing campaign spending limits, Brown disarmed political opponents who had hoped to use his big-money reputation against him. No one expected Brown to follow this course, and his foes doubtlessly hoped he wouldn't. Brown's campaign spending stand doesn't appear to be self-serving, like those of candidates Roberta Achtenberg and Angela Alioto. Everyone knows Brown can raise enough to outspend any opponent. Last year, he collected more in campaign contributions -- $6.8 million -- than any other California assemblyman or senator.
Jordan, who is leading the effort to undo the spending limits and run an unprecedented $3 million campaign, had already indicated his intention to attack Brown as a big-bucks politician. In a recent phone interview with a New York Times reporter, Jordan tried out his latest one-liner about Brown: "When Willie Brown was elected in 1965, he was poor and California was rich. In 1995, Willie Brown is rich and California is poor." The line didn't make it into the article.
But support for capping campaign spending is deep and broad in San Francisco. Last year, a David Binder poll showed that nearly 80 percent of voters support the caps, and strong majorities were recorded among every constituency, including Republican voters. The Board of Supervisors approved Sup. Terence Hallinan's measure last month on a 10-0 vote, even though some privately opposed the proposal, precisely because they feared the consequences of obstructing legislation widely viewed by voters as a needed reform.
Brown's position isn't vitiated by the fact that Superior Court Judge Stuart Pollack is likely to rule against key provisions of the limit, or that the $100,000 petition campaign to suspend the law by Jordan campaign manager Clint Reilly will probably succeed. Rather than vanquishing the campaign spending law, the legal and ballot challenges have insured that the law will be on the November ballot, and on voters' minds, when they choose the next mayor. For the next six months, Jordan, Brown and other mayoral candidates will be asked at every turn about their positions.
By not taking a public position on the campaign spending limits, Brown left many to assume that he was quietly signaling his desire to see it overturned. This was a reasonable assumption because many Brown supporters had lobbied against the law in the first place or tried to undo it.
Now Brown simultaneously tilts against the limits and doesn't take a position.
"I have always been opposed to any campaign spending measure," Brown says in an interview late last week, as if reciting familiar lines. "I believe in public financing of campaigns, and that is the legislation I have carried."
Brown also reveals that Reilly and the Jordan administration asked him to lobby against its passage when the measure was before the Board of Supervisors, but that he declined.
"I chose not to use my influence to do that. I will not touch the spending or contribution limits," he says. "Many of my supporters have a different view .... I obviously can raise a lot more money."
The accompanying statement Jordan issued that day made excellent fodder for his opponents: "It is critical that ample resources exist to communicate to the voters of San Francisco my vision for the city and why I should be elected."
So much for "My record speaks for itself."
After four years as mayor, Jordan needs to spend millions of dollars to make certain that his record doesn't speak for itself. Jordan's announcement was silent about his earlier -- and laughable -- pretense that he opposed campaign spending limits because it violated the City Charter or the bizarre claim that the law gave him an unfair advantage over challengers because he is the incumbent. (Jordan, however, made sure his lawyers made both points in their legal brief opposing the limits.)
Brown made his decision about the law prior to reading it, and was unaware of Jordan's court declaration filed late last week urging that the law be overturned.
The would-be candidate is not slow to see the political vulnerabilities of an opponent who says he needs millions to communicate.
"You pique my interest," Brown quips after Jordan's declaration is read to him. "I'm going to get a copy of his declaration and read it. I'm going to get a copy of the law and read it."
"No candidate for mayor should try to undo this law," Brown declares. "I think it should be applied in this election. I'm going to be at a political action committee meeting on Monday night, and I'm going to say that."
Backing spending limits is a win-win for Brown. While he could raise more than any other candidate, he doesn't need to. Money buys positive identification with voters; Brown already leads in that category. It buys brochures and TV ads, which present a two-dimensional candidate. Brown's strongest asset is the electrifying effect he has in person, and the more he appears before community groups, the stronger his candidacy will grow. For that matter, the more debates he forces Jordan to enter, the stronger he will look to voters.