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Thursday, January 16, 1997


I chanced upon a choice bit of Hollywood fluff the other night, a movie about a once-famous black bluesman, now elderly and indigent, who manipulates an aspiring young white blues guitarist (Ralph Macchio) into helping him leave New York for a final visit to his Mississippi delta roots.

As a youth, the old man had stood at the town crossroads one Saturday night and made the legendary -- if apocryphal -- bluesman's compact with the devil. Of course, the downside usurped the promised fame and success, and 60 years later a journey of expiation to that same intersection is undertaken to force the devil to annul the contract.

It was impossible not to revel in this clunker once I realized that the old character's name was Willie Brown. It surpasses understanding how opportune and ready-made cheap allegory can sometimes be.


The pertinent and furtive moment in the odyssey of the Willie Brown we know occurred in medias res -- his Sacramento days. Brown's ascendancy to the Speakership was a brokered compromise between both parties in an effort to stave off the prospect of a coalescence around the left/liberal Howard Berman/Tom Hayden axis. The price Brown paid for his compliance in that preemptive putsch would remain shrouded for years.

Brandishing his metier in a backwater was crucial. Sacramento might as well be a thousand miles away for all the scrutiny it receives, and Brown's emerging neoliberal positions were consequently well-veiled. The sideshow which is Assembly politics enhanced Brown's reputation by default; his calling card soon became, in effect: Fools to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, caught in the middle with you. It was a sensible persona, a strategic fit for the 1980s and for the furtherance of his ambitions, and it was accessorized by Brown's penchant for stylishness and his acquisition of a personal clothier who steered his instincts beyond Nehru suits and plaid sports jackets. The aura, such as it may be, of a professional fop-of-color, melded with increasing legislative mastery, provided Brown a substantial scrim of Teflon, and in the eyes of many hoisted him into the realm of legitimate stature. That the results of Brown's daily gavelling seemed effortless is hardly surprising; he had quickly assayed the terrain, carefully noting that alternately flanking him were those toting the baggage of out-of-favor political notoriety, and sundry hicks of the sort he had spent his Texas boyhood outsmarting. By the mid-1980s his wizard rep was established, and he availed himself of the broadest parameters of the law to avoid conflict-of-interest opprobrium, quietly jaunting into San Francisco regularly to personally attend to the legal interests of his adoring downtown corporate clientele.

This was a far cry from the Willie Brown who welcomed arrest at civil rights demonstrations in the early 1960s, but the residual perceptions about that idealism and his celebrated legislative adroitness combined to ensure his mayoral election. Any suspicions that Brown was perhaps nothing more than a mainstream Democratic Party functionary -- of the highest echelon, to be sure -- were held in abeyance. The flash and the glitter, those consummately wielded props, increased to chain mail strength as the already indolent media savored each incident of WillieWear/WillieWheels.


The Brown we encounter a year into his tenure is someone whose ego and notion of fulfillment are inseparably tied to his mayorship. This job, he senses correctly, will constitute his footnote in history, and his honed political antennae provide him sufficient insight to know it is not to be regarded as a stepping-stone. Not surprisingly, Brown is foundering in the attempt to move from capital ringmaster to the role of administering and propounding urban policy. He mistakenly seems to think it's merely a matter of fine-tuning the methodology he's always employed.

The assent to neoliberalism which has served Brown so well politically and professionally ought by now to be giving him second thoughts. His increasingly petulant reactions to the klieg-light heat generated by his inability to apply vaunted Willie Brown fixes to the city's persistent problems indicates as much. The blistering he received from departing Supervisor Alioto's final salvo characterizing him as a "ceremonial conservative" was a long time incubating and mirrored David Binder's latest poll which revealed undercurrents of growing dismay at Brown's handling of major issues.

Brown, in throwing up his hands and frankly adjudging the most troublesome issues as insolvable, confirms the perception that the public, surfacing from previous mayors' diffidence and ineptness, was too eager to project its sensibility as a humane and novel city-state onto the guy with the legendary derring-do. Specific evidence that its faith has been misplaced in fitting the man with the job has recent manifestations: Brown's frantic personnel juggling is a throwback to his Sacramento days, where only 41 votes were needed to win the day, and the correct committee appointments got you there. Concurrently, Brown has avoided the problematic by indulging in corporate liberalism's pulpy mania for chatfests, convoking banal summits and outreach workshops which provide him runways to do his vogue-ing.

If Brown is holding a trump card, it is this: An underlying assumption about his election was that he was the only Democrat in the country who could thumb his nose at Clinton and make him like it. Brown hasn't disclosed if his fealty has waned since Clinton destroyed the party with his welfare reform bill. That bill, cojoined with chronic homelessness, represents Brown's most fractious problem. To date, Brown has informed us that his heralded poverty czar, Michael Wald, will be authorized to relay reports from Clinton's and Pete Wilson's people about the abiding health of the safety net and the latest news about when non-existent jobs should start arriving.


A crossroads looms ahead for our Willie Brown. And the first signpost might well be the request by the homeless to be granted sweat-equity occupancy of the Presidio's Wherry Housing complex. Last month Brown directed his staff to investigate the legal and fiscal implications of the city's leasing the properties from the Park Service.

Such negotiations will be singularly notable. Inasmuch as politicians are now boosterist front office help for the overlords of commerce, the spectacle of one bureaucracy making entreaties to another over property destined for corporate subdivision, is a quintessential '90s tableau. The irony may be lost on Brown at first, though an eventuality where some 600 buildings worth $80 million are leveled while homeless corpses multiply in the streets will doubtless get his attention. We can safely surmise that it would be impolitic of him not to notice.

Brown can then actually lead the ensuing defiance and accompanying mass civil disobedience, or he can stand back and can watch as his constituents make plain that they are no longer interested in plumbing the intricacies and depths of his reputation.

If it isn't the Presidio that starts it off, something else will. Historically and by temperament San Francisco has always gone boldly into the breach. The mayor is welcome to come along, or he can stick with the devil he knows.

Copyright John Hutchison 1997
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