SANTA BARBARA, CA — Former mayor, ex-state Assembly speaker, clothes horse, raconteur, and legendary political power-player Willie Brown has been a San Francisco fixture for so long that he’s often called, simply, Da Mayor. He is also a regular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, writing a weekly compilation of about-town items called “Willie’s World.” But his appearances in the Chronicle are by no means limited to the space under his own byline. Here are the opening paragraphs of a recent column by the Chronicle’s longtime local politics columnists, Phil Matier and Andrew Ross:
Big sit-down the other night at the 5A5 Steak Lounge on Jackson Street to try to seal the mega-development deal that Mayor Ed Lee hopes to sign on his upcoming trip to China.
At issue: finalizing a $1.7 billion deal with China Development Corp., the Chinese national railway and Lennar Corp. to construct 12,500 homes on the Hunters Point Shipyard and a string of high-rises on Treasure Island.
In addition to Lee, attendees included Lennar VP Kofi Bonner, former Mayor Willie Brown — who besides his gig as a Chronicle columnist is working to bring in Chinese citizens whose investments here will earn them green cards —and Chinese Chamber of Commerce powerhouse Rose Pak. She’s setting up the mayor’s trip to Beijing at the end of March.
Also in attendance was a representative from the Chinese end of the deal.
For some observers, these four short paragraphs paint a clear picture of Willie Brown’s influence at work: Ed Lee became San Francisco’s mayor not just as a protégé, but almost as a creation of Willie Brown. Lee had been a colorless municipal bureaucrat for more than two decades before Brown engineered his 2011 appointment to serve out the unexpired mayoral term of Gavin Newsom, who had been elected state lieutenant governor. Brown and Pak were also instrumental in Lee’s subsequent, successful campaign for a full mayoral term. So the “big sit-down” really was big: A mayor, two of the mayor’s main political patrons, and representatives of two business entities poised to benefit from enormous city development initiatives were meeting in advance of a trip to China that aimed to secure financing to make those initiatives into reality. Players were playing, and more than $1 billion was at stake.
In another city, the dinner might be the type of insider activity that the power brokers keep under wraps, as a matter of form. But in San Francisco, Willie Brown is not just a former mayor, a prominent attorney, and an acknowledged Democratic Party leader; he is also the exemplar of a certain roguish public style that emphasizes bravado and the clever tweaking of the good government crowd’s pinched conceptions of propriety. Matier and Ross have expounded for year after year on Da Mayor’s wily connectedness; Brown’s own Chronicle column sometimes revels in his insider status, puffing political friends, scoffing at adversaries, assessing current and coming political events and business deals, and burnishing Brown’s flamboyant image generally. But the column also deals with San Francisco’s social scene, the movies Brown has seen and liked or disliked, the people he runs into on the street.
A recent edition of “Willie’s World,” for example, riffs on a lunch he had with George Lucas to talk about the eventual disposition of the filmmaker’s art collection (perhaps in a museum to be created at a coveted site on The Presidio, a former military base at the city’s northwest corner now overseen by the National Park Service); Brown’s introduction of boxer Sugar Ray Leonard at a benefit luncheon for a child-abuse prevention nonprofit; Brown’s appearance at a 150th birthday of the San Francisco Port Commission, which he used as an excuse to predict that the bohemian flavor of part of the San Francisco waterfront now taken up with artist-occupied warehouses “won’t last, given plans for a basketball arena and the ever-escalating interest in waterfront property”; his panning of Tom Cruise’s new movie, Oblivion (“That’s where you’ll wish you were if you sit through this collection of rehashed plots, bad special effects and cardboard characters”); and, to end the piece, a groaningly forced joke about the San Francisco mayoral term limits and prison terms for Illinois governors.