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At the busy corner of Third and Palou streets, the business heart of San Francisco's African-American community, the political chatter is vastly different than it was five years ago. Then, Willie Brown took 80 percent of the vote in Bayview/ Hunters Point and became the city's first black mayor. When Brown triumphed, joyous high-fives erupted in the shops, bars, and restaurants of San Francisco's most vibrant black neighborhood.
Before Brown's election, many of the city's 70,000 African-American residents had felt shut out of the city's political system, which distributes billions of dollars in contracts, jobs, and grants each year. "People just assumed," says Malik Rahim, a prisoners' rights activist working in Hunters Point, "that a black mayor would be loyal to black folks."
It was not to be.
"During the last [five] years," says vocal Brown critic Marie Harrison, "the mayor's administration has done so little for the black community that Third Street businesses have actually slid downhill during an economic boom." Harrison, who is the lead columnist for the San Francisco Bay Viewnewspaper, is so disgruntled with the mayor's economic policies that she started running for supervisor last year. She has become a front-runner in what promises to be a close contest between African-American women. Harrison, a very outspoken community activist, has fashioned a platform centered on environmental and housing issues, but fueling her popularity is the mayor's increasing unpopularity in an ethnic group long considered to be his electoral stronghold.
"Being endorsed by Willie Brown is the kiss of death in this race," says J.R. Manuel, one of the dozen candidates for supervisor in District 10, which includes 40,000 voters in Bayview/Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, Portola, Silver Terrace, and Potrero Hill.
Not every candidate rejects the mayor's embrace so categorically, however.
Linda Richardson, a Brown-appointed planning commissioner who resigned to run for supervisor in District 10, has been strongly endorsed by Brown and openly supports his administration. Her campaign is benefiting from more than $80,000 in soft money and is staffed by political professionals, who have certainly made her the most visible candidate by plastering campaign posters up and down Third Street and even renting a huge billboard.
Sophie Maxwell, considered by most election handicappers to be a front-runner -- along with Richardson and Harrison -- says that Brown has done a few good things, such as building the Giants baseball stadium, but that he has let the minority neighborhoods down, especially Bayview/Hunters Point. "There is not a lot of shopping to see on Third Street, when you compare it to the changes going on downtown," Maxwell says. "Brown is not strong in the neighborhoods."
Looking to garner votes from the entrenched anti-growth crowd on Potrero Hill, Maxwell supports Prop L, which Brown vehemently opposes. From Potrero Hill to Visitacion Valley there seems little to be gained for a candidate by allying with the mayor, who recently failed to unite community leaders around Richardson.
Wade Crowfoot, an election analyst with David Binder Research, observes that African-Americans rallied around Brown when he ran for mayor against Frank Jordan and Tom Ammiano, both white. But Crowfoot does not expect Brown's ringing endorsement of Richardson to "resonate" with African-American voters when they are choosing among black candidates. "A lot of people in Bayview/Hunters Point are very dissatisfied with the mayor," says Crowfoot.
A stroll down Third Street reveals a tired potpourri of liquor stores, bars, nail and hair parlors, and cheap restaurants. (The shiniest new storefront in sight is Richardson's spacious campaign headquarters.) On the street, people's complaints are pretty much the same as they were during the last election, and the election before that, too: Not enough jobs. No city money for small business. Too much pollution.
In campaign debates, Richardson tries to paint a happy face on Brown's record. When she takes credit for helping Brown expand the local sewage treatment plant, other candidates ask why Bayview/Hunters Point has been saddled with the environmental onus of treating the city's smelly sewage. When Richardson hails the mayor for rebuilding a local swimming pool, her rivals ask why the pool is over budget and behind schedule.
Harrison, in particular, wants to know what happened to the 49ers' much-ballyhooed stadium mall, which city residents, with the overwhelming support of the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood, voted to give $100 million in 1997. The failure of the stadium mall to materialize epitomizes, for many, the failure of the Brown administration.
"In the beginning," says Harrison, "Brown made me believe that he understood the plight of the black community, that he would at least level the playing field for black businesses and black contractors to get city contracts. We would have pushed Willie all the way to the White House, that's how much we loved him.
"We were disappointed when Brown sold off the Hunters Point Shipyard to Lennar Corporation, with whom he had done personal business. And it's been two months since the underground toxic fire at the shipyard broke out. The mayor has done nothing to protect the community from the toxic release, like declaring a health emergency.
"But the straw that broke the camel's back," says Harrison, "was the 49er stadium mall deal. When Brown promised us 6,000 jobs at the stadium, it was like a hypnotic effect. We believed every word, and so many young men were -- and still are -- out of work, we were desperate for economic salvation. Then Brown's great buddy, Eddie DeBartolo, got indicted for bribing a Louisiana politician and the whole deal blew up in our faces."