Lee Way

The public career path of Andrew Lee explains a lot about what's wrong with Willie Brown's style of politics and governance

I wasn't present last month when Sunset neighborhood political broker Julie Lee and her dutiful son, Andrew, entered the office of Supervisor Chris Daly, sat in his two extra chairs, and made their case for why he should confirm Andrew Lee for a seat on the city's Public Utilities Commission. But having previously witnessed the meanderings of this peculiar pair, I found it easy to imagine Julie Lee, stout and proper in her fashionable lady's overcoat, two-toned blazer, pumps, and handbag, straightening her skirt and settling into her chair before Andrew sat down, too.

"I have two chairs in my office. In one sits Andrew Lee, and in one sits Julie Lee," Daly recalls. "I said, 'Andrew, tell me what you know about utilities.' He said, 'I don't know anything about utilities.' You've got to respect his honesty. I said, 'Then how are you qualified?' He said, 'Customer service.' I kid you not; that's what he said: 'Customer service.' I said, 'How is that going to serve you in the PUC?' He said, 'I'll have to get back to you on that.'"

Daly was in an extraordinarily fine mood when we spoke on Oct. 27, day five of San Francisco's constitutional crisis, which he sparked last month when, as acting mayor, he made two renegade appointments to the PUC and put Andrew Lee out of his promised job.

His action made him world famous; newspapers from Edinburgh to Des Moines reported the story. It also inspired a chorus of San Francisco cluck-clucking of the type that erupts every time the left-wing members of the Board of Supervisors take independent action that defies the mayor.

"They're children who don't behave unless they're properly chaperoned," this line of criticism goes. "They're radicals who can't be trusted with city business."

Soon after Brown jumped a plane back to San Francisco from China, he held a press briefing to call Daly "venal" and "demonic," comparing him to Osama bin Laden and Hitler. Brown's supporters said, "Hear, hear." Supervisor Tony Hall, an often-sober man, called Daly's action a form of "hypocrisy," saying Daly advocates for the poor and homeless, then "steps on everybody else." The everybody, presumably, being Willie Brown. The ordinarily sagacious Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, was quoted in the Chronicle as saying Daly's appointments were "a conscious move to politicize the [Public Utilities] Commission." And Chris Nolan, who writes a usually insightful blog on San Francisco politics, said that Daly's action proved San Francisco progressives were "in love with their own power," and concluded that "they're not really Liberals, they're not really Progressive. They're just out for themselves. And that means they're not out for anyone else. Not now. Not in the future. Not in the past."

If one takes a close look at the event that precipitated the whole flap -- Julie and Andrew Lee's visit to the office of Chris Daly -- this harping vision of San Francisco politics, in which "immature" liberal politicians periodically defy a wise mayor, turns upon its head. The saga of Brown's four-year link to Andrew Lee's meager political career is bizarre, eccentric, and yet representative of lowest-common-denominator San Francisco politics. It's an ontological S.F. Passion Play that should be examined in light of Brown's eloquent, yet fudging, State of the City address last week; it should be parsed with a view of the new mayoral administration to follow Tuesday's election. (I didn't know at press time whether or not there would be a runoff.)

I disagree vehemently with San Francisco's left-wing supervisors on nuts-and-bolts issues such as how to create housing and jobs. But, oddly, the "stop them before they kill again" hand-wringing typically has reached its zenith when these leftish supervisors have confronted what they saw (quite reasonably) as Willie Brown's political payola approach to governance.

This sort of loud fretting followed Matt Gonzalez's efforts two years ago to rein in San Francisco's Housing Authority, long recognized as America's most dysfunctional. Similar finger-wagging followed hearings last year when supervisors (including Daly) questioned the Municipal Railway's plans to sell rail cars as part of a private tax shelter, the legality of which the IRS has questioned. It's the line of protest S.F. boosters used when they denounced Supervisor Aaron Peskin's three-year effort to investigate apparent corruption, waste, and mismanagement at the San Francisco International Airport.

San Francisco's born-again protocol enthusiasts denounce Daly's supposed usurpation of the mayor's right to appoint members of the PUC as childish. Political maturity, they seem to say, means elevating process over product.

But to me the trajectory of the political careers of Andrew and Julie Lee, which constitute a minor but emblematic footnote in Willie Brown's career, suggests that the supervisors' work in confronting Brown's patronage-first legacy has been the work of adults.

During the victory speech after he defeated Tom Ammiano in the mayor's race four years ago, Willie Brown exuded real emotion. He said that growing up in Texas he'd decided to seek opportunity by heading west, and that during the 1999 campaign, he'd gone the same direction. He went west to the Sunset District, and sought out Julie Lee, who'd earlier led an Asian-American neighborhood association in backing a successful ballot measure to rebuild the Central Freeway (the measure was put back on the ballot the following year and defeated). Brown won her support in the '99 mayoral race, and sufficient votes to stay in office. Lee subsequently engaged in a relentless campaign to collect on the political debt Brown owed her. In due course, the mayor appointed her to the commission that oversees the Housing Authority, but Lee has focused much of her collectioneering efforts on the plodding career of her son.

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