Poor Willie Brown! The flamboyant new mayor of San Francisco and former kingpin of the California Assembly seems to be losing his touch. One of the consummate deal-makers of our time, Brown has finally encountered one special-interest group that even he can't tame: the homelessness lobby.
Brown rode into the San Francisco mayor's office in January promising to end Matrix, the groundbreaking quality-of-life initiative created by his predecessor, former police chief Frank Jordan. Under Matrix, the police systematically enforced public-nuisance laws that had fallen into disuse—laws against public urination and defecation, public drinking, camping in public places, and aggressive panhandling. Widely credited with restoring some sanity to San Francisco's unruly streets, Matrix had predictably drawn the fury of homeless and welfare advocates.
During the mayoral campaign, Brown had blasted Matrix for persecuting the poor. Upon taking office, he declared Matrix dead and dismissed nearly 40,000 outstanding citations issued under the program. Adding insult to injury, Brown appointed as his affordable-housing chief a vocal opponent of former mayor Jordan's most innovative policy—a requirement that single homeless adults use their welfare checks for housing.
So what more could the advocates want? Plenty, it turns out. Though Brown has ended Matrix, he has not suspended all enforcement of nuisance laws. And in the advocates' view, that makes him barely distinguishable from his predecessor. A recent case of dueling demonstrations at the San Francisco Police Commission highlighted the dilemma in which Brown now stews. Merchants and residents, protesting the sudden deterioration of their streets, faced off against Brown's erstwhile allies, who themselves charged him with betrayal for continuing to arrest vagrants and aggressive panhandlers—albeit at a reduced rate—for quality-of-life violations.
For San Francisco, of course, this is politics as usual. For Willie Brown, however, placating the forces of disorder while preventing open rebellion in the business community may prove to be the biggest challenge of his career. His dilemma should provide dramatic political theater over the next four years.