I have been on the receiving end of O'Donoghue's temper. I remember one phone call. It came after I'd written a small item critical of his tactics. In the ensuing discussion, he detailed with great Irish specificity the amount of force and pressure his boot would apply to the back of my head, and the effect said force and pressure would have on my face, once that face was conjoined with the pavement.
I didn't take Joe's threat seriously, even though the phrase "sue the shit out of you" ran as a leitmotif throughout the phone message. I know he will always be jovial old Joe in a week or two. For Joe, shrillness and threats are just part of the game.
But longevity in my job is not tied to Joe O'Donoghue's feelings about me. However when he fills a Planning Commission hearing with his beefy contractors, and starts making threats, he is taken very seriously, indeed. In 1997, you see, O'Donoghue supported an effort to remove Planning Commissioner Esther Marks from her post for her anti-development stands.
For whatever reason, in 1998, Joe O'Donoghue turned on Willie Brown.
O'Donoghue joined a group of people fighting to replace Laguna Honda Hospital, a public facility that tends to senior citizens and other vulnerable and poor populations, with a new building. The federal government had issued a scathing report on the hospital and was threatening to shut it down.
O'Donoghue joined with Jack Davis (Brown's former campaign manager), Ted Fang (the publisher of the San Francisco Independent), and labor officials in calling for a Laguna Honda construction bond to be placed on the ballot.
They threatened to oppose any other city bond measure until construction of a new Laguna Honda was funded. In a rush, they presented the Board of Supervisors with a rickety proposal. It lacked specifics; at some $500 million, it would also have been the most expensive bond measure in city history. The matter was pulled from consideration when it became clear it had insufficient support to make the ballot.
In the aftermath of this debacle, O'Donoghue and other supporters of the Laguna Honda issue took a Brown-backed bond proposal hostage. The Residential Builders Association PAC gave $6,000 to the campaign working to defeat a bond measure that would have rebuilt the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The museum bond issue indeed lost at the polls. It was a humiliating defeat for Willie Brown.
It's impossible to know why, exactly, after backing Brown for three election cycles, O'Donoghue turned on the mayor who had been so good to him. But I think I know why he did it. I think he did it to show Brown that he could hurt him as well as help him. I think this, because I know that O'Donoghue kept feeding the hand he was biting.
The RBA PAC donated $10,000 to the Democratic Party's Assembly Victory Fund, the money spigot Brown had controlled when he was speaker of the Assembly. The PAC also gave $40,000 to the Senate Democratic Victory Fund, a pot controlled by Brown's lifelong ally and friend, state Sen. John Burton.
As 1999 dawned, 1,115 live-work projects were awaiting approval by the San Francisco Planning Department.
Willie Brown is an immensely unpopular mayor. The only thing that could possibly save his pathetic political hide is if he were to run unopposed by a credible challenger.
For too long, Brown has run San Francisco as if it were the California Assembly, a clubhouse where the simple arithmetic of power politics could reliably be followed. Where guys like Joe O'Donoghue -- big-money bullies -- give you what you need to survive.
The degree to which Willie was oversold still amazes me. Upon further review, the so-called master of politics is really nothing more than a rank pol, and a rather stupid one at that. I mean, this is a guy who represented San Francisco in the Assembly for 31 years, and who still didn't learn the most basic and obvious truth about San Franciscans: We hate power politics, and power politicians. We hate bullies, and we love to teach bullies and the people who cater to them lessons.
There are small indications that Mayor Brown might be beginning to understand the real meaning of power politics in San Francisco. For a few weeks now, he has been meeting in his office with Calvin Welch, an affordable-housing advocate who's arguing that the mayor should curtail the live-work binge.
I have no idea what the specifics of the discussions between Calvin and Willie are. But if Brown wants to be re-elected mayor, I have a suggestion or two he might want to follow:
Ban the construction of new live-work lofts. Repeal the law and rewrite it so it applies only to industrial buildings where artists and artisans have taken up illegal residence. In other words, return the law to its original intent. And do it fast, Willie. You have 10 months to make up for three years of mistreating San Francisco and catering to the RBA. I suggest you listen to Calvin Welch.
At the very least, yank Joe O'Donoghue's face out of the slop trough, wipe him, burp him, and send him on his way.
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