I could have saved myself a lot of work if I'd placed one extra phone call to Larry Bush, publisher of the political journal CitiReport. More than a month earlier, he had set wheels in motion that would lead to Conroy's political demise. Bush commissioned
his own poll in which he asked a killer question: How would San Francisco voters react if they learned Conroy's party affiliation? The supervisor had wisely downplayed her GOP membership and successfully wooed Democrats, particularly women. The Bush poll, which he published in the September 30 issue of CitiReport, showed that Conroy would lose thousands of votes if she were tagged a Republican. The week of the election, Democratic Party apparatchiks acted on Bush's cue and circulated hundreds of thousands of "hit piece" fliers alerting voters to the Republican menace. On election night, Conroy sank like a pachyderm in cement pumps.
In the world of political big-game hunting, Conroy was quite a trophy: corporate lawyer, goddaughter of Mayor Jordan and champion of the city's right wing. But Bush eschewed credit for the kill, allowing obsequious Democratic Party chair Matthew Rothschild to preen and crow and display Conroy's tusks as his prize.
Larry Bush is the safari guide of San Francisco politics. He loads and cocks the gun, then lets others pull the trigger. Consequently, San Francisco has never been properly introduced to one of the its most influential political players -- the man who both allies and enemies call Cobrawoman.
Bush's newsletter, with a circulation of 500, makes a greater mark on local politics than both daily papers combined. And he has more vision than the mayor and most members of the Board of Supervisors.
Some call Bush a civic treasure, a muckraker who exposes hypocrisy and venality. "He's the I.F. Stone of San Francisco," says Public Defender Jeff Brown. Others insist he's a mean-spirited and obsessive manipulator who uses the mantle of journalism to pursue a petty personal agenda.
In an unprompted moment during a recent conversation, Mayor Jordan departed from his well-rehearsed remarks to attack Bush. "He's ridiculous," Jordan said. "He's never constructive. All he does is tear things down. For him, nothing is ever right; it's always wrong. Everywhere he goes all he sees is gloom and doom."
Bush's enemies characterize him as an irrelevant gadfly, a preacher with no congregation. Some have gone as far as suggesting he's mentally ill.
But to underestimate Bush is to invite peril. Gauging by the fear quotient, Bush is a force to be reckoned with. Nearly every one of the 36 people interviewed for this story asked for anonymity. "I just got off his list," said a staffer in the District Attorney's Office. "I don't want to go back on."
A prominent gay activist in Washington, D.C., who has neither seen nor heard from Bush in more than a decade, cut an interview short, saying, "I'm a little nervous about doing this on the record." Why? "Because I know Bush too well."
Hanging from Larry Bush's office wall is a slightly yellowed poster from a Fire Island cottage where he and his friends trysted in the heady days of pre-AIDS gay America. "Mother's Rules," it proclaims. "Article One: Mother is always right .... Article 11: You go into the kitchen with your personal ideas and you come out with Mother's ideas .... Article 13: The more you criticize Mother, the less favors you receive."
Bush sits behind his desk, obscured by a mountain of papers and books, bills and binders. He greets me with a digital sampling of Peter Finch's famous line from the movie Network: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
For most of the past decade, Bush worked as an aide to Art Agnos, first in the state legislature and then in the Mayor's Office. After Agnos' defeat in December 1991, Bush embarked on a campaign of personal and professional rehabilitation. He found a comfortable base of operations at CitiReport and at the Examiner as an occasional op-ed columnist.
Bush's fortnightly journal, which he publishes with the help of a graphic artist, is required reading for members of San Francisco's political elite. Journalists, politicians and activists pay the $45 annual subscription ($65 for corporations and organizations) to see if their ox has been gored or if Bush has broken another big story. He runs circles around every other paper in town when it comes to covering City Hall, and does a better job of holding local officials accountable than any other reporter.
But Bush is more than a journalist. He's also a freelance viceroy to local pols. With increasing regularity, elected officials are crafting policy based on Bush's coverage. Thanks to him, campaign finance reform is at the top of the political agenda.
Bush practically wrote Proposition K, the 1993 ballot measure creating the city's ethics commission. (Supervisor Kevin Shelley championed the measure. But Bush had nursed the reform in the pages of CitiReport for months before Shelley adopted it.) Supervisor Terence Hallinan recently took a handoff from Bush when he proposed a package of campaign contribution limits.
Put plainly, Bush is San Francisco's self-appointed ethics cop. Like an angry school marm who checks beneath her pupils' fingernails, Bush follows the flow of political money down to the account numbers on canceled checks in his unyielding pursuit of violations and influence-peddling.
His watchdoggery is unrelenting, and San Francisco can be damn thankful. No one else is doing the job. Bush is a big guy, more than 200 pounds of big guy. But the political vacuum he fills is even bigger: San Francisco is a city where the avuncular district attorney jumps on his chair eek-a-mouse style whenever a potential political crime crosses his desk; the city attorney ain't much better; and most members of the Board of Supervisors are too busy schmoozing big donors to give a farthing for reform.