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Thursday, March 28, 1996

How Will Willie Wear?

However much it was assumed during the campaign that Willie Brown's only opponent was his own hype, public certification was still lacking. Achieving that, he now runs uncontested, with himself as his sole competition. Looking toward the city's April 16th economic summit, the mandate he received to wield his legerdemain faces its first -- and stiffest -- test, with the spotlight glare henceforth calibrated to induce blinking.

Brown knows this, and is also aware that in any convening of high-profile invitees like George Shultz and Robert Reich, the latter are mere props. As the new champion of urban America, Brown monopolizes the public's gaze. The broker and lightening rod of the state legislative apparatus is now feeling his way around the sticky seams of local politics.

He's done it with his customary verve, thin-skinnedness and mediator's instincts: alternately quick with the jivey bon mot , the retaliatory harangue, and ostensibly on-the-run ideas disseminated to gauge their effect.

Brown came into office with a definite focus to complement his considerable self-regard. His mailers and statements comprised a comprehensive package. What we've seen from him thus far however has been fitful, the approach of someone who has acumen enough to recognize that this job will be his swan song, his memo to posterity, and who wants to ensure that his methodology will deliver future plaudits.


Brown's interim dilemma involves moving from the role of conciliator to that of public policy proponent. It entails -- if he wishes to leave a legacy -- transforming himself from a prominently quantifiable Democratic Party entity into a less predictable San Francisco Democrat, of the sort the crusty Jeane Kirkpatrick equated with Bolshevism. To provide leadership here, as Brown already senses, is to regard San Francisco as a unique city-state, and nothing less than the conscience of the United States.

How completely he makes that leap will define his administration and, because they are inseparable, his own notion of self-fulfillment. Brown is surely cognizant of the fact that no other Democrat in America could stick his finger in Clinton's eye and get away with it. Similarly, he must face the fact that that is precisely what he should do. It is impossible, as he will learn, to laud San Francisco for its innovative and humane proclivities and remain tethered to a Democratic Party now mainstreamed into sniveling obsolescence.

In outline, at least, Brown's preelection agenda is one in which progressives can feel some reassurance. And in coming to terms with the means needed to implement its various facets Brown will find himself more in accord with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader than with the Democratic Leadership Council and its coveted suburban constituencies.

Eventually, given the distinctive politics of the city, Brown must assume a fixed stance and deal from that position. What renown he has as an arbitrator should be applied to further a set mode of operation -- a philosophy and vision, if I may be so crude. Squishy, myopic liberalism here provides no imitable tone for the rest of urban America.


Economics is politics, someone not to Jeane Kirkpatrick's liking once wrote. Ironically, corporate patriots currently subscribe to that truism, and many of them, along with their federal nanny-subsidizers, will attend the economic summit. It will be an unparalleled opportunity for Brown, through the singular locus of San Francisco, to assert the interests of working people.

Brown must utilize his leverage with admiring CEOs and wealthy friends to create and expand employment. Keynote declaration: We rise and fall together in this resplendent city-state; we're unique, a beacon to the country, and the objective and the reward is fashioning community consistent with our view of ourselves.

Semi- and unskilled labor-intensive jobs paying at least $8 an hour are the first priority. The notion that the U.S. must relinquish such jobs to slave labor countries or through odious trade agreements demands Brown's input. All vacant commercial buildings should be considered potential factory sites (put a damn moratorium on new restaurant openings). Strive to have 100% of hires be city residents, with the able-bodied homeless hired first. ESOP businesses should be encouraged, and tax breaks given to companies instituting such plans; enterprise zones should be expanded to attract new businesses. Capital accumulation for other start-up ventures could be accomplished with sports franchises, restaurant and entertainment venues and hotels contributing a few day's proceeds to a general fund. Have the social types put on a yearly Black and White Ball expressly to raise investment capital, and explore the use of pension funds for the same purpose.

Revitalize the port by emphasizing break-bulk cargo. Explore the possibility of the city buying and operating some older freighters from the Suisun Bay Fleet, thereby controlling revenues while boosting maritime employment. Look long-term at an industrial role for the city with electric cars. Coordinate existing environmental, agricultural, planning and alternative energy efforts into a "habitat" industry, and make it a model for the nation.

Define your world view early-on. Accompany Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris and Global Exchange on their forthcoming trip to Cuba. Afterward, inform Clinton that you and your corporate pals will test the embargo. Not only for our commercial expertise in organic farming, bio-tech, software and eco-tourism which the Cubans want, but also because that's the sort of thing a San Francisco Democrat does.

Copyright John Hutchison 1996
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