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?

The aide finishes her lesson impatiently. "God, I just wish all these damn knee-jerk liberals in San Francisco would just realize that."

Brown's response to his critics is essentially the same.
"I raised money from everyone and I used it to elect Democrats and keep a Democratic majority in the Assembly for 15 years," he says.

But he lacks a similarly effective defense when it comes to the more discomfiting issue of his law clients. There is no grander political purpose to deflect criticism that he's used his legislative position to assist his clients and help build his law practice.

And un-like the more philosophi-cal issue of Brown's fund-raising, his relationship with his clients poses more immediate problems for San Franciscans. Everywhere one looks in the city there are Brown clients: the garbage company, the tourist industry, major developers, grocery chains, and high-rise owners. If he's elected, Brown will have to shut down his practice, but these professional relationships could still have an effect on his decisions. For example, one Brown client, Catellus, the developer of Mission Bay, will be coming to the next mayor requesting massive amendments to its development agreement. If that mayor's name is Brown, can he be impartial? And if he has to recuse himself from the decision, will he truly remove himself?

Driving by Pier 39 with Brown, he looks out the window and says, "That piece of shit should have never been built." Pier 39 is yet another Brown client.

But the comment, most likely made to impress the reporter in the back seat, is hardly a gauge of his attitude toward his clients. To guess about how he'll treat his clients as mayor, one needs to look at how he allegedly tended to them as speaker of the Assembly.

Allegations concerning his law practice have often centered on his longtime friend and client developer Ron Cowan, owner of Harbor Bay Isle Associates and Doric Development. In April, two months before Brown's entry into the mayor's race, the Examiner reported that he had steered a $22 million loan from the pension funds of two local unions to Cowan, who has been trying for more than a decade to build an industrial park and biotech center at Harbor Bay Isle. At the time Brown allegedly arranged the loan -- he and pension fund officials deny Brown was involved -- the two unions, the Operating Engineers Local 3 and the Northern California Carpenters, were lobbying on as many as 100 bills in the Legislature. Cowan defaulted on the loan, drawing a lawsuit from a pension fund trustee.

Similarly, the Oakland Tribune reported in 1990 that Brown pushed a bill in Sacramento that benefited a lottery company in which Cowan owned tens of thousands of shares of stock. At the same time, Brown pushed a bill that would have generated millions of dollars in state money for Cowan to build a biotech center on his Alameda land. The bill never passed.

Brown's handling of the lottery bill and its connections to Cowan brings to mind Burton's speed-limit analogy: Racing along at 66 miles an hour, Willie downshifted to the legally mandated speed limit. After the bill passed, Cowan gave Brown a $10,000 Cartier watch, and the speaker, cognizant of the appearance of a payoff, deducted the cost of the watch from his legal fees to Cowan, thus removing the requirement that he report it in financial disclosure forms.

Not that Brown always eludes radar. In 1985, the FBI investigated accusations that he had pressured the state treasurer into steering lucrative state contracts to his law firm client and personal investment banker, Grigsby Bradford & Associates, a San Francisco firm that underwrites government bonds.

Former acting State Treasurer Elizabeth Whitney told federal agents and the Los Angeles Times that Brown urged her twice to help Grigsby get state business, once in 1985 when she as a top deputy to then-Treasurer Jesse Unruh, and two years later when she was acting treasurer. Unruh complied with Brown's request, Whitney told the FBI. In 1988, when she was acting treasurer, Whitney had a heated argument with Calvin Grigsby in a San Francisco restaurant when she refused to give the underwriter the largest share of an upcoming state bond issue. Up until then, Brown had said he would support her for state treasurer against an attempt by then-Gov. George Deukmejian to replace her. After the confrontation with Grigsby, Whitney has said, Brown stopped returning her phone calls and she lost the treasurer's seat.

Brown denied the allegations and the FBI never brought charges, so perhaps the best analogy for the Whitney episode is the time in 1965 when a blowout in his white Riviera sent Brown careening toward a guardrail at 90 miles an hour. Coolly, Brown calculated that he must wait until the last second and steer hard away from the railing. He glanced off and went hurtling into a nearby creek, rising from his car uninjured.

The owners of the Double Play at 16th and Bryant have decorated their patio with a miniature of the San Francisco Seals' baseball diamond that once stood kitty-corner to their bar and grill. Over the center field "fence" is a building sporting a Jack Davis and Associates billboard. Painted in the building's window is a portrait of the pugnacious political consultant, a Double Play regular.

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