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 real Jack Davis has paused from eating his meatloaf and mashed potatoes to eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table.

Larry Matthews, a local commercial property owner, is sounding off about Brown.

"With Willie, it's, 'If you want this permit that'll cost you 10,000,' " Matthews says. "He can get by on his mayor's salary."

Matthews goes on about other San Francisco mayors, relating stories about payoffs and corruption. The Marin resident gets George Moscone's name right but keeps calling Agnos "Annes."

The bad-mouthing steams Davis. "I'm trying to figure out if I'm going to paste him, the white, racist son of a bitch," he says.

The businessman walks by us on his way out, and Davis can't help himself.
"Hey, you should run for office," Davis says.
"Oh no, I wouldn't want to do that," Matthews replies.
Davis introduces himself as Brown's campaign manager and Matthews blanches.

"Oh, I didn't mean anything derogatory by what I said. He's a crook. But he's a smart crook. I'd vote for him if I didn't live in Marin." Stammering and fidgeting with his hands in his pockets, Matthews retreats.

I ask Davis how he's going to handle the perception that Willie is a crook.
"Fuck 'em," he says. "Fuck 'em." He considers people with that attitude beyond the campaign's reach. "Absolutely," he stresses.

Davis' dismissal of the ethics issue is mere bravado. The recycling of old stories will no doubt wound Brown, but the ethics allegations won't turn the election against him, according to independent pollster David Binder.

"People are immune to it," Binder says. Binder, who's been taking San Francisco's pulse for more than 10 years, says most voters are well-acquainted with Brown's reputation for rule-bending and they're most likely to overlook it in favor of his leadership skills.

It boils down to this: Brown has survived the scrutiny of the FBI and the state's best investigative reporters. To expect Jordan or Achtenberg to tag him with an ethics punch is dreaming.

Still, the close scrutiny appears to have soured Brown's honeyed manner. Over Mexican food at El Toreador in the West Portal, Brown departs from his gregarious patter to launch a scathing, almost Nixonian attack on the Ex's Lance Williams.

"He's so screwed up," Brown says, delicately holding a napkin on his lap. "Those guys are so desperate, so tragically desperate. They have a thorough dislike of me."

Why? I ask.
"Because I won't talk to them. Because I think he's stupid and dishonest. It wouldn't be worth it to talk to him. He's abusive to my staff. He just thinks the world twirls around him.

"I have respect for bright guys," he continues. "Williams is just stupid, he really is, he doesn't understand anything, he's like a blockheaded FBI guy that I dealt with."

I call Williams and read Brown's quotes to him. He pauses before giving a one-word response: "Bummer."

Actually, Williams is more loquacious than that. He says that the intent of his reporting isn't to damage Brown's reputation but to "ventilate" legitimate issues to educate voters.

To Brown, the ethics harping is racist.
"It's my lifestyle," he says when asked why he's at the center of so many controversies. "I'm black and flashy. You can't do that in this system. It's unacceptable."

As mayor, he would continue to wield power and court special interests the way he always has. If you think that's corrupt, don't expect an apology. If anything, expect ridicule like that heaped on Williams. Remember, this is the man who thumbed his nose at critics in 1990 by playing a corrupt politician in the opening scene of The Godfather, Part III.

Brown alights from his car and walks toward the Shoreline Apartments, a housing project in Bayview-Hunters Point. The air is cooling as dusk creeps in. Rap music booms from four massive speaker cabinets someone has hauled out onto the sidewalk. Children run by or ride past on their BMX bikes.

Brown isn't recognized at first, but his visual anonymity is fleeting. Making his way to a small park where volunteers have organized a block party, Brown's people come down the hill from the park, from across the street, from inside the apartments. Pretty soon, he's surrounded.

Everyone wants an autograph. He's running late and his driver, private investigator Marcel Myres, is growing impatient. But Brown won't leave until all the brochures, scraps of paper, and baseball caps are signed. Then there're the photo-ops. Brown strolls across the street and sits in a high-back wicker chair. Scores of people gather round. When the woman snapping photos informs the crowd that she can't see Brown, the crowd parts, revealing the candidate panting from a deep, hearty laugh. Myres shrugs. The schedule is dust.

Getting down to business, Brown speaks into a microphone.
"I came out here to deliver a message," he says. "If you do the right thing and register to vote, the next time I come out here it will be to celebrate a Willie Brown mayoralty."

The applause gets you in the gut. Nine little girls standing nearby can barely contain their joy as they jump, clap, and dance. He cradles the head of one of them and says, "I must be doing something right, the kids are coming out."

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