The Last Seduction

Spurned by term limitations, Willie Brown turns his political affections on San Francisco. But how long will our small-town ways hold his fancy?

"Hey, hey, heyyyy. Wait! Fuck you!"
I've called Burton to ask about Willie Brown's ethics problem. For years, Brown has been accused of using his legislative office to enrich his law clients and of selling out to campaign donors. Since the allegations are a central issue in the mayor's race, I'd hoped for a reasoned analysis from Willie Brown's best friend.

Instead, Burton bristles at the queries.
"Are these real questions?" he asks, having righted his craft enough to talk. "C'mon, you're smarter than that."

Finally, Burton and the traffic cool off, and he lays out the party line on Willie Brown, Power, and Money.

"He pushes right up to the boundary," Burton says. "What's the speed limit? Sixty-five? You go up to 65 and you're obeying the law. You go 66 and you're breaking the law. Does Willie Brown do anything illegal? No. But what he does legal stops just short of being illegal."

Brown has been crowding the speed limit since he became speaker of the Assembly 15 years ago. As far back as 1986, he was dubbed "The King of Juice" by reporter Mark Dowie in California magazine. Dowie's investigation charted how lobbyists and campaign money had corrupted the Legislature, and provides one of the most damaging anecdotes about Brown's power-brokering on behalf of his political benefactors.

In June 1985, a bill opening the state's $500 million-a-year optometry business to corporate franchises had wound its way through the Assembly committees and was having a hard time on the floor. Brown was working the bill on the floor but had come up eight votes short.

He returned to the speaker's rostrum and began summoning members one by one. Some refused out of principle. One, Richard Floyd (D-Los Angeles) even flew into invective, stunning the House. "Go ahead, take away my committee chair," he said to Brown. "Take away my office, I don't care. I made a commitment to a constituent, and I'm not voting for this bill."

A half an hour later, Brown was still one vote short of passing the bill, the importance of which, he told one legislator, constituted a "personal matter."

"Mr. Papan," he called out to Lou Papan, a San Mateo Democrat. "Would you come up here, please." After a brief conversation, the content of which has never been revealed, Papan switched his vote, astonishing his colleagues because he had so vociferously argued against the bill just minutes earlier. "It was the most extraordinary exercise of raw power I'd ever seen," a legislative staffer told Dowie.

The "personal matter" Brown spoke of had nothing to do with the retinitis pigmentosa he suffers from, which has rendered him nearsighted. Brown's personal stake was the close to $1 million that four national eye-care chains had sluiced into his campaign coffers over the previous three years.

Dowie termed the practice of pushing juice bills for political donations "a new form of moral corruption plaguing the California State Legislature."

The same outrage has exploded locally over Brown's courtship of the tobacco lobby. In a recent article, Examiner reporter Lance Williams outlined the industry's campaign to purchase influence from the speaker: Over the years, the tobacco industry has given nearly $1 million to Brown in speaking fees and legal fees, as well as campaign donations.

Brown voted against anti-smoking legislation or bottled it up in committees where it died quietly, Williams reported, and also limited product liability awards in suits against cigarette companies. The most damning Examiner allegation, however, centered on a New York trip Brown took in 1991 where he allegedly -- Brown denies it -- advised an industry group on how to defeat San Francisco-style anti-smoking measures. Brown's alleged advice, contained in an industry memo leaked to the press at the time, was to adopt weaker statewide restrictions that would pre-empt local ordinances. Though Brown voted for the bill here in California, it was killed in the Senate.

The Achtenberg campaign has made the most of the tobacco lobby allegations, taking a pedantic stance about the immorality of smoking -- even though the last time we checked, smoking was still legal.

One of Achtenberg's top aides went on to me about a relative who was dying of cancer. Hard-core progressives, which fairly describes the bulk of Achtenberg's support, have always had a problem with pragmatic pols like Brown. But the disdain cuts both ways.

A liberal legislative aide who's worked closely with Brown over the last 12 years jumped to his defense and savaged priggish San Franciscans who have a problem with power and money.

"So he milked the tobacco companies," the aide says. "You tell me: Is it easy or more difficult to smoke in California? It's more difficult. The policy is moving away from the industry agenda. He milked the industry for money to elect Democrat after Democrat and what did he give them?"

But Brown advised the companies on how to defeat local anti-smoking ordinances, didn't he?

"Did that bill ever pass?" the aide asks. "Do you think if Willie Brown had wanted it to pass it would? That's the genius of Willie Brown. He took their money and then he screwed them, and they never knew it."

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