The Stealth Campaign

At a seemingly innocuous event in the Sunset, Willie Brown proves again why he's the patron saint of patronage

Dressed in pressed gray slacks, brown short-nap suede shoes, a dark blazer, a pert black fedora, and lavender socks, shirt, and tie, Mayor Willie Lewis Brown Jr. looked stunning as he pressed through a small crowd of sign-carrying protesters and took his seat beneath a 15-foot-high arc of red, white, and blue balloons.

The mayor is never quite so resplendent as when he's performing minutely choreographed governmental theater, and last Saturday's second annual Westside Environmental Fair was an exquisite, multilayered pageant. On its surface this was a midday neighborhood fair, organized by a local community center and promoted by the Mayor's Office, to encourage energy conservation among Sunset District residents. Volunteers gave away energy-efficient light bulbs and water-efficient showerheads. More volunteers staffed a voter registration table. The event opened with a Chinese dragon dance, which Brown and a dozen Cabinet members and political allies watched from the stage. Around 300 neighbors watched from folding chairs.

But it was also a strangely important political event, held to promote the Board of Supervisors campaign of Andrew Lee, the son of Brown's fixer in the city's southwest, Chinese-American voting districts. In both its promotion and execution, the event gave every appearance of serving as a conduit to use city funds to promote the mayor's favored candidate for supervisor in the Sunset District.

But for obvious reasons of legal propriety, the event had nothing to do with politics -- officially speaking. The fair, along with the fliers, mailers, and newspaper advertisements promoting it, which all prominently featured a photograph of Lee's face, was financed with city money channeled through the San Francisco Neighborhood Resource Center, chartered two years ago as a collaboration between Brown and fixer Julie Lee. Lee's son Andrew was made executive director. Promoting Lee's supervisor campaign in any overt way with these funds would have violated state and federal law. What's more, Mayor Brown had just put a measure on the fall ballot to make the use of public funds for political campaigns a municipal crime.

Yet the event glowed with politics. It was a rubber-chicken-circuit event, in which Lee, Brown, and several members of Brown's Cabinet made speeches. (Rather than overcooked chicken, the largely Chinese-American audience of 300 ate pork buns.) It was a fence-mending event: Seated below the balloon arc to Brown's left, supervisor and state Assembly candidate Mark Leno murmured apparent wry asides into the mayor's ear, just months after Brown had been telling supporters he would end Leno's political career. It was a trial-balloon event: The dais also featured embattled city Assessor Doris Ward and Brown's new police chief, Earl Saunders, along with a battalion chief, a deputy police chief, a city administrator, a public utilities commissioner, and a handful of other public servants. It was a machine candidacy event, an inside-the-beltway event, a grass-roots activism event, a political coattails event. But the event was also apolitical in a surreal way: Aside from City Administrator Bill Lee's terse endorsement of a political slate drafted by Julie Lee's San Francisco Neighbors' Association, speakers painstakingly avoided political themes, instead praising the crowd of largely non-English-speaking Chinese-American attendees for their supposed commitment to the environment. When I repeatedly asked Lee about his campaign, he said, "I can't talk about that here."

Lee wasn't the only scrupulous one.

Speakers whose duties barely intersected with issues of energy conservation or the environment spoke only about energy conservation, the environment, and the exceptional work done by the San Francisco Neighborhood Resource Center, as managed by Executive Director Andrew Lee.

"This neighborhood center came about as a dream of Julie Lee during a time when we were trying to bring city services to the west side of the City and County of San Francisco," Brown said. "Let me thank Executive Director Andrew Lee, his mother, Julie, and the city staff for what certainly is a very successful fair."

San Francisco is about to lose Willie Brown, the poverty-born Texan whose lust for the conduct of government, in all its splendid, banal, marvelous, and awful manifestations, has made him the greatest story in modern California politics. And for all the fuss San Francisco's coffee-mug-clinking classes make over notions like narrative forms, contemporary myth-making, and modern communicative paradigms, they give precious little credit to the Brown administration for producing some of history's most exquisite, live-action political literature. Brown's name is poison in much of the city now, and not without reason; his enthusiastic use of power and patronage has given his administration an aura of arrogance and corruption. Even if his successor is more honest, forthright, and committed to good government than Brown has been, we'll forfeit something special when this city no longer hosts California's grandest political saga. Last Saturday's environmental fair, with its back story of brazen patronage, blatant conflicts of interest, and inappropriate use of city funds, was the latest chapter in this tale. During the coming months of the fall election season, this Westside Story of tawdry political deal-making will be worth watching on literary merits alone.

Three years ago, facing what appeared to be an unpredictable mayoral campaign, Willie Brown realized that San Francisco's Asian vote would be key to winning future elections. He also saw himself opposite a burgeoning Asian-American neighborhood movement in the 1998 fight over whether or not to rebuild the Central Freeway, a spur that brings traffic over Market Street and into the city's western neighborhoods. Julie Lee, who founded and led the San Francisco Neighbors' Association, and her neighbor Rose Tsai promoted a successful ballot initiative to rebuild the freeway section, against the apparent wishes of Brown and a number of his allies. So Brown did the reasonable thing: He appointed Julie Lee as a city housing commissioner, gave her son a Cabinet job as director of neighborhood services, then funded the creation of the San Francisco Neighborhood Resource Center, with the younger Lee getting the job of executive director. For the past two years Julie Lee has been using her Neighbors' Association to back her son as a candidate for supervisor. Hence the political, yet apolitical, 2002 Westside Environmental Fair.

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