Willie Brown Shows How Not to Run a City
By jettisoning the new urban wisdom, Mayor Brown is making San Francisco uglier, more dangerous, and financially shaky.
Two years ago, Newsweek ran a story on America's new urbanism, featuring Mayors Rudy Giuliani of New York and Willie Brown of San Francisco on its cover as exemplars of the innovative policies that are reviving the nation's cities. But Newsweek got it only half right: while Mayor Giuliani's bold, mold-breaking approach has slashed Gotham's crime rate, shrunk its welfare rolls, and civilized its public spaces, Mayor Brown has turned San Francisco into a museum of the discredited urban policies of the past. And with predictable results. San Francisco is overrun with homeless people, crimes go unpunished, the public schools fail, and the city's municipal budget rockets higher and higher. As an aide to California governor Pete Wilson put it, "San Francisco is the anti-New York." It is today's Exhibit A of how not to run a city.
In San Francisco, the countercultural ideas that ravaged America's cities—that one has a right to the state-subsidized "lifestyle" of one's choice, that the homeless are victims of a cruel economy, that crime is society's fault, that the purpose of education is to attack discrimination—still prevail, as if nothing has been learned about their destructive real-world effects. For a moment a few years ago, under then-mayor Frank Jordan, San Francisco seemed ready to liberate public space from the panhandlers and junkies who had made the city a crime-ridden dystopia by the end of the eighties. No more: under the flamboyant Brown, San Francisco's first black mayor, the city now stands with its back to the future, clinging to its old-paradigm past.
Brown himself, in his resplendent fedoras, $3,000 suits, and $500 Italian shoes, seems like a throwback to the past, a figure more like former Detroit mayor Coleman Young than like Rudy Giuliani. Born 64 years ago in segregated, depression-ridden East Texas, Brown grew up poor, shining shoes as a teenager. After earning a college diploma from San Francisco State University and a law degree from the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, Brown got swept up in the vortex of sixties' radicalism, angrily fighting for the rights of victims of America's racism, as he saw it—who often enough were merely "hustlers and pimps," as San Francisco Examiner columnist Rob Morse observes.
But Brown's career as a lawyer was short-lived: he proved a born politician. Elected to the California Assembly in 1964 as a left-wing Democrat with the backing of the Marxist W. E. B. DuBois Club, a hothouse of sixties' radicalism, Brown spent the next 31 years in Sacramento, the last 15 as assembly speaker. Until term limits finally drove him out of the Legislature, Brown favored friends and crushed enemies like a modern-day Florentine, becoming one of California's most powerful politicians—ever—and one of the leading black political figures in the country. Though he had allies in the corporate world—including the tobacco companies, from which he's taken more money than Jesse Helms—Brown relentlessly defended liberal causes, from affirmative action to the expansion of the welfare state, throughout his legislative career.
When Brown ran for mayor of San Francisco three years ago, his formidable political skills were on ample display. He forged a sizable leftist voting base out of quarrelsome feminists, homosexual activists, homeless advocates, minorities, municipal unions, and social workers. Yet Brown probably wouldn't have won the election if not for the self-sabotage of his opponent, incumbent Frank Jordan, a former police chief who drew support from middle-class home owners on the city's western edge. The mayoral campaign ran tightly until Jordan, seeking to loosen up his straitlaced image, posed naked in his shower with two popular male talk-show hosts—also naked. Nobody took him seriously thereafter, and his campaign died from embarrassment.
Three years later, Brown holds on to his patched-together support, though his imperial manner continues to get him into trouble. Until voters rejected the idea in a June ballot, Brown wanted to evict 350 workers from City Hall to make room for an opulent ballroom and a kingly new protocol office, part of an ongoing renovation of the old building—"Taj Ma Willie," critics dub it—which will cost taxpayers upwards of $140 million. He'd like, too, to establish an official mayoral residence at Nimitz House, a beautiful Navy-owned mansion on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay.
Then there's the chunk of landfill and mud next to Yerba Buena Island: the mile-wide Treasure Island. Still owned by the Department of Defense, "Willigan's Island," as critics call it, features a striking vista of the city from San Francisco Bay, though it's off-limits to most San Franciscans. Last year, the city's Board of Supervisors gave Brown control of the nonprofit corporation that will buy Treasure Island from the Navy and supervise its development. Since then, Brown has used it as a private preserve, hosting lavish parties and offering development contracts to cronies. Last June, though, voters grew suspicious of the mayor's plans for the island and passed a non-binding measure that calls on the Board of Supervisors to dissolve the Brown-stacked nonprofit corporation and hand the island over to existing city agencies. The board has refused to do so. "Da Mayor," as he calls himself, rules with such grandiosity that, Rob Morse complains, "the only job left is swinging the pot of incense."
Royal pretensions aside, it's in propping up the crumbling edifice that old-style urbanism built that Brown has done the most harm to San Francisco. The most striking result is the city's homelessness problem—and nothing threatens San Francisco's future more. Under the pressure of homelessness, the collapse of public order has grown intolerable. A stroll down Haight Street—the counterculture's ground zero—shows how bad the problem really is. Sallow-faced teenage runaways, sullenly propped against storefronts, beg for money, while wild-eyed street people harass pedestrians on every corner. Drug dealers brazenly ply their trade on the filthy, urine-drenched sidewalks. Once home to flower children and free love, Haight Street now mocks the emancipatory ideals of the sixties, its atmosphere of menace the Summer of Love's legacy. As even neighborhood civil libertarians admit these days, Haight Street's 70 social service organizations—many aimed at the homeless—inexorably draw in disorder. "In the 20 years I've been here, Haight Street has never looked worse—it has gone from cutting edge to ominous and dangerous," a grim resident told a local journalist a few months back. The owner of Haight Street's Ben & Jerry's—the self-advertised liberal ice cream chain—agrees. He has to paint over graffiti on his storefront three times a week, and, like other merchants, he frequently replaces store windows, cracked or shattered in the night. He's had enough, as have many in the neighborhood.
Dorothy Williams is a former nurse who now panhandles for a living near City Hall. She's still pretty, though it's clear that living on the street has started to take its toll. Bundled against the chilly wind in a blue down jacket, she is one of San Francisco's estimated 16,000 homeless; and looking past her, toward City Hall itself, one sees at least 50 homeless men and women hitting up tourists for spare change, slowly pushing shopping carts as if in a waking dream, or huddling in corners and on steps, half asleep.
"It can't stay like this," Williams admits, surveying the scene below her. She thinks homelessness has grown worse in the past few years—because of the city's lax policies. "Oakland, Fremont, Berkeley—they all make it harder," she says. "San Francisco makes everybody lazy." She's right: San Francisco's homeless population has more than doubled under Willie Brown's lax regime.
Things were already pretty bad during the eighties. As the Reagan years brought economic prosperity to America, San Francisco's then-mayor Art Agnos held the wrongheaded notion that homelessness results from lack of affordable housing, not from self-destructive behavior. San Francisco subsequently extended the most generous benefits to the homeless the country has yet seen, all of which remain in place: a $345-a-month general assistance grant for single adults, thousands of beds in dozens of shelters, free health and dental care, no time limits on receiving help, and an array of special services, from rental assistance to "permanent supportive housing."
As benefits ballooned, Agnos also told cops not to arrest homeless squatters in public parks—they weren't hurting anybody, he pronounced, and shouldn't be punished for being victims. Predictably, hordes of homeless people, many addicted or addled, descended on the city, transforming Civic Center Plaza—the open space in front of City Hall—into what the San Francisco Chronicle aptly dubbed the "Mecca of America's unwashed." Others sarcastically called it "Camp Agnos." As the homeless settled in, San Francisco's quality of life plummeted, and the city's public spaces became haunts for drug pushers and prostitutes soliciting the homeless. The financial cost to the city's business community was considerable: more than $170 million a year lost in retail and restaurant sales, according to an April 1992 study, as frightened customers stayed away. San Francisco was a city under siege.
In 1991, beleaguered San Franciscans had had enough; though they're normally bleeding hearts, they're also prosperous yuppies. They elected Frank Jordan to clean up Camp Agnos. Though at first he dithered with talk of tackling the "root causes" of homelessness—exactly the mind-set that created the mess in the first place—Jordan, feeling public heat, launched Operation Matrix. The program rested upon criminologist George Kelling's "broken windows" theory: that an unrepaired broken window or a stripped car left abandoned and untowed sends the message that no one cares, encouraging would-be thugs to act on their darker impulses. Conversely, a window quickly repaired sends the opposite message: that an energetic lawful order exists, and that a potential hood should think twice before he commits a crime. No longer, then, would San Francisco tolerate "victimless" crimes such as public urination: using the crime-fighting strategy that has since worked wonders in New York, police enforced long-unused ordinances that forbade public drunkenness, sleeping in public, obstructing sidewalks, and a host of other quality-of-life offenses. Operation Matrix worked: the homeless moved to friendlier locales or entered the city's abundant shelters, serious crime dropped 25 percent, public feelings of safety grew, and tourists, who bring $4 billion into the Bay area, flooded in. (See "San Francisco Gets Tough with the Homeless," Autumn 1994.)
Willie Brown changed all that. During the 1995 mayoral race, Brown made undoing Operation Matrix key to his campaign, describing the program, in language that recalled the fever years of the sixties, as "persons in uniforms operating as if they are occupational officers in a conquered land." In one of his first mayoral acts, he junked Matrix. Result: the homeless are back, in force. Though police claim to write citations for quality-of-life offenses as furiously as in the days of Operation Matrix (14,000 in 1997), no one tracks how many citations get paid or result in prosecution, and it's clear that, since Brown became mayor, few do. As one cop grumbled to the San Francisco Chronicle's Ken Garcia, the homeless advocates' sway with Mayor Brown ensures police citations for quality-of-life offenses disappear by the time they reach the municipal court system.
By 1998, the homelessness problem had sprawled out of control—worse than in the days of Camp Agnos. The city's Department of Human Services, wielding a gigantic annual budget of $320 million, will spend $66 million this year on the homeless through its Division of Homeless Programs and $50 million more through general assistance grants, given out to 13,000 adults every month—half of whom are employable, the department itself admits. All this in a city with a total population of 780,000 or so. "We're humanistic," Brown explains, defending the city's approach. But what's humanistic about allowing 16,000 folks, 70 percent of whom are substance abusers, 40 percent of whom are mentally disturbed, to continue their self-destructive and community-damaging behavior isn't clear.
These days, panhandling Dorothy Williams has a clearer grasp on the homeless problem than do city officials. City Supervisor Amos Brown (no relation to the mayor) is a case in point: he proposed that San Francisco supply the homeless with shopping carts in which they could store their worldly possessions—an encouragement to stay homeless. Supervisor Brown's foolish plan went even further: he wanted the city to create special parking areas for the homeless to lock up their city-provided carts—officially institutionalizing homelessness. While Mayor Brown hasn't yet endorsed the shopping-cart idea, a few months back he floated a notion just as absurd: setting up a mobile car park, replete with showers, toilets, and garbage service, for the 2,000 or so people in the city who live out of their cars—still technically a crime in San Francisco.
The mayor has also supported one of the pet projects of the city's homeless advocates: making the Presidio, formerly a military base and now a national park, into a fortress of homelessness. The activists want the complex's 466 vacant residential units, breathtakingly located at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, for the homeless, and San Francisco's Board of Supervisors agrees: last year, it unanimously approved a resolution asking the Presidio's board to lease the space to the city. But because many San Franciscans remain unenthusiastic about the idea, rightly fearing it would attract more vagabonds to the city, it has stalled.
For all his efforts to placate advocates, though, the homeless may yet prove Brown's undoing. San Franciscans are losing their patience—even those from San Francisco's Castro district, perhaps the most permissive community in the U.S. Castro residents and business owners, tired of frayed nerves and the drain on property values and profits that the legions of homeless sleeping in doorways and harassing customers have caused, recently formed an activist group, Community Pride and Revitalization. Their motto: Create change, don't hand it out.
In response, the mayor has grown defensive and testy on the subject. Last fall, Brown bragged that once-resplendent Golden Gate Park was vagrant-free, only to have a local television station show him, as he sat and seethed, live footage of the homeless shuffling through the park. Shortly afterward, a frustrated Brown suggested using city helicopters with heat-sensing cameras to locate and scatter homeless encampments, a sadly familiar story of unlimited tolerance suddenly giving way to authoritarian crackdown—and a plan the city thankfully hasn't yet used.
San Francisco, like most of the country, has benefited from a steep drop in crime over the past five years. Much of the credit should go to Operation Matrix and to California governor Pete Wilson's 1994 "Three Strikes" law, which metes out automatic jail sentences for third-time offenders and which by 1998 had brought about a 40 percent drop in California's homicide rate. Even after Mayor Brown took office, San Francisco continued to participate in the wider trend: in 1997 the city's reported crime fell 6.8 percent, and there were only 45 murders all year—a 27.4 percent decrease from 1996. But the city's lax law enforcement under Brown and his longtime ally, D.A. Terence Hallinan—rooted in sixties-style ideas that so-called victimless crimes shouldn't be punished and that crime in general is society's fault—threatens to make San Francisco dangerous again.
Terence Tyrone Hallinan is the hardest-left D.A. in the country and easily as colorful a figure as the mayor. As cultural historian Stephen Schwartz recounts, Hallinan was a student radical at Berkeley in the sixties, teaching seminars on Marxism-Leninism in his father's law offices, rechristened the "San Francisco School for Social Science." Back in those heady days he went by the nom de guerre "Kayo." He also helped run the communist W. E. B. Dubois Club at Berkeley, where he first met—and cultivated—a young lawyer, Willie Brown. Police arrested Kayo frequently in his youth for theft and several violent assaults, one of which landed a stranger in the hospital with a broken jaw in an unprovoked attack. A light-heavyweight boxer at Berkeley, Kayo was not averse to pounding political opponents—Trotskyists particularly irked him—into submission with his well-practiced fists.
While Hallinan might have toned down his Marxism in recent years, his ideas on crime remain vintage radicalism. The D.A.'s spokesman, John Shanley, for example, attributes San Francisco's plunging crime rates to prosperity. "With a better economy, there is less need to go out and commit crimes," he says, in a classic restatement of the "root causes" theory of criminal behavior that got America's cities into so much trouble over the past 30 years. "We target violent crimes rather than low-end drug crimes," Shanley adds—an inversion of New York's quality-of-life policing approach that has made Gotham's streets safer by orders of magnitude.
Without fail, Hallinan refuses to prosecute "victimless" crimes. He wants to legalize prostitution and has appointed a hooker to a task force formed to overhaul prostitution laws. Earlier this year, Hallinan openly flouted a Justice Department crackdown on the city's "medical" cannabis club, until San Francisco superior judge William Cahill, ruling it a "public nuisance," ordered him to comply. The poorly regulated club, which preexisted the 1996 California state referendum that legalized the medical use of marijuana for gravely or terminally ill patients, was a haven for illegal drug-selling and drug use. Prior to the judge's ruling, the D.A., perhaps wistful for his student radical days, eagerly joined a street demonstration in support of the dope club, haranguing the small crowd of activists.
Unsurprisingly, Hallinan resists implementing Governor Wilson's popular Three Strikes law. As David La Bahn, deputy director of the California District Attorneys Association, complains, "It is well known within the association that San Francisco doesn't support Three Strikes." Shanley admits as much: "No one is going to go to prison for 25 years to life for stealing a pizza." With Brown and Hallinan running the show, it won't be long before even the official crime rates start to creep up again.
In fact, there are already signs that crime is on the rise. For the first six months of 1998, murder is up a frightening 43 percent, and rape has increased too, up 21 percent. Burglaries have bumped up as well, though less dramatically. And many San Francisco residents report a heightened fear of crime. Typical is historian Stephen Schwartz: "I go outside for a walk and I think: this place has so much to love about it," Schwartz says, "but that lasts about five seconds. Then I think: God, am I going to get killed in my house?"
A San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting in May offers further evidence that crime is worsening. Frustrated merchants, prosecutors, and police argued that the city's low bail for drug-related crime has made San Francisco the place to go to sell drugs. For selling powdered cocaine, San Francisco sets bail at a paltry $2,500—$13,500 lower than any nearby county. Even for selling drugs to a child, San Francisco sets bail at only $10,000, while nearby Alameda County requires a more forbidding $25,000. Lieutenant Kitt Crenshaw, a narcotics cop, told the board that drug dealers flock to San Francisco from as far away as Pittsburg and Richmond to sell their wares. Along San Francisco's border with Daly City, dealers won't close a sale until they're safely on the San Francisco side, according to assistant D.A. Vernon Grigg III.
Nor is it just on Haight Street or in the Castro district that drug dealers reign. They've also taken over Dolores Park, a wooded, 13-acre, former Jewish cemetery in the city's Mission district. Garry Trudeau's graying counterculture comic strip Doonesbury recently poked fun at the ease with which you can buy drugs at Dolores Park. Police say they're doing what they can, but unless the city frees up more money for overtime, the cops can't increase their park presence, and the lax bail requirements mean that dealers are back in the park soon after they're arrested.
Criminality has made its way even into city agencies. San Francisco's Housing Authority, bringing back memories of such harebrained Great Society schemes as New York's Mobilization for Youth, has squandered taxpayer dollars employing neighborhood reprobates supposedly to organize their inner-city communities, according to a federal audit released last July. The audit excoriated the agency's Office of Community Relations and Involvement, headed by Brown's crony Thomas Mayfield, for pouring $1.7 million in grant funds targeted to fight drug abuse in the projects into either no-show jobs or into a pet program of Mayor Brown's that hires "at-risk" youth to patrol the projects. The patrols, critics charge, are often no more than government-subsidized drug runs by young hoodlums.
The fed-up feds have cut the authority's funding, and the city has reassigned Mayfield and given his duties to a man who turns out not to have the clinical social worker's license claimed on his résumé, because he lost it for embezzling funds from a nonprofit organization. The farce goes on.
Old-paradigm urban policies haunt San Francisco's public schools, too. Submerged in race and identity politics, they have among the worst math and reading scores of all California school districts. With Willie Brown as mayor, things won't change anytime soon.
To grasp what's wrong with San Francisco's public schools, start with a deal made 15 years ago between the NAACP and the San Francisco Unified School District. The NAACP had sued, claiming that black and Hispanic students weren't getting an education equal to that of whites. Rather than fighting the suit—despite no real evidence of discrimination—the district agreed to enter into a federally supervised consent decree.
The consent decree sets up a social engineer's paradise. It divides San Francisco's 63,000 public school students into nine ethnic groups: American Indian, Black, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Other Non-White, Other White, and Hispanic. Though California has allowed parents to enroll kids near work or day care since 1987, effectively making public school choice widespread, the decree limits the share of any one racial group to no more than 45 percent at any school. Thus Asian students, who score high on entrance exams, get shunted from the top schools, where they'd soon exceed the 45 percent quota, to less prestigious ones.
At distinguished Lowell High School, for instance, a Chinese-American must score 64 out of a maximum 69 on city admissions evaluations to get in, while a black student has to score only 56. "It's just absurd," says Amy Chang of the Asian American Legal Foundation. "The school district moves children around like racial objects." A group of Asian-American parents has sued to end the consent decree, but the NAACP arrogantly dismisses them, claiming to represent all minorities, including Asian-Americans. The suit has yet to be adjudicated.
Racial vigilance permeates the entire school system. The San Francisco Unified School District, for example, has sought to limit the number of blacks and Latinos suspended or kicked out of its schools. The district's false assumption, that only racism can explain the greater number of black and Hispanic students expelled, sends exactly the wrong message to unruly minority kids—that if they're black or Hispanic, they don't have to behave. In the same vein, several members of the board of education tried unsuccessfully to block a state-sponsored test that requires teachers to display tenth-grade-level reading and math skills, claiming it is racially discriminatory. And in March the board debated—and may yet adopt—a proposal to require that 40 percent of the books used in high school classes be by minority authors, as if a black or Asian kid can't learn anything from reading Dickens, because he's white.
The educational result of all this race consciousness? Though the district boasts of rising scores over the past five years, the numbers are highly deceptive. For while scores have gone up, the number of students taking the test has fallen each year, as the district prevents kids who would drag test scores down—"limited English proficient" students, special education students, and non-English speakers—from taking the test. Moreover, the black and Hispanic students who are the supposed beneficiaries of these policies have woefully low grade-point averages: 1.86 out of 4 for blacks, 2.04 for Hispanics—which, in the context of grade inflation, means that most of these kids are failing. As journalist Debra Saunders laments, the board of education "thinks more about race than they think about excellence."
Columnist Rob Morse has called on Willie Brown to help free the public schools from the quagmire of identity politics: "By the power of his personality," Morse wrote in the San Francisco Examiner, "Willie could influence what goes on in the schools. . . . I'd like to see him use his moral capital to bring change." Fat chance: after all, Brown has played the race card throughout his political career. Though pressing for an end to the consent decree would win him kudos even from blacks, increasingly frustrated with the public school system, Brown isn't likely to take on the NAACP, which has supported him for decades.
Brown's supporters argue that San Francisco's economy is healthy, and with unemployment at a remarkably low 3.5 percent—the statewide rate is 6 percent—and the city enjoying a $100 million budget surplus, what's to complain about? Vacancy rates in the city's central business district are a tiny 2 percent, while tourists, who flock to the city at the rate of 130,000 a day, spent over $4 billion last year in San Francisco. The city cannily used its surplus to refinance debt and improve its bond rating. Tax revenues are up 12 percent. The mayor has won grudging respect from the business community by not increasing taxes—a good thing, since San Francisco already has the highest city taxes in California, making it one of the most expensive cities in the nation. Property values have soared. The picture certainly seems rosy.
Look closely, however, and you'll see it's a bit of an illusion: San Francisco is fast becoming a strange, theme-park suburb of high-tech Silicon Valley, south of the city. San Francisco's manufacturing industry left town in the fifties, and the military, long a major employer in the area, closed up shop earlier this decade. Though 10 percent of the city's workforce still toils in finance, insurance, and real estate, San Francisco's economy increasingly depends on the spending of single, childless, twenty-something city dwellers who love the city's hip cafés, chic restaurants, and libertine culture but who work in Silicon Valley, where the average salary is a healthy $75,000. Traffic up and down Interstate 280 and Highway 101, the roads to Silicon Valley, has increased 20 percent in the past few years as a result. These cyber-yuppie reverse commuters, reflexive life-style liberals, have put up with the mayor's Great Society rerun so far, but whether they will continue to support Brown as the city's quality of life nose-dives remains to be seen.
As for San Francisco's internal economy, storm clouds are forming on the horizon. BankAmerica, which merged with NationsBank earlier this year to form a $64 billion banking colossus, plans to move its executive suite from San Francisco's financial district to lower-cost Charlotte, North Carolina, though its international operations will remain in the city. Since the firm employs more than 9,000 people in San Francisco, the move is sure to mean thousands of lost jobs. A spate of other recent mergers, swallowing up such San Francisco-based firms as Pacific Telesis, Montgomery Securities, and Robertson Stephens, threatens further corporate flight from this expensive city.
Equally worrisome, disgruntled noises are emanating from Multimedia Gulch, a ten-square-block area of converted warehouses that burst with software companies specializing in CD-ROMs, Internet services, and the like. Revenues of interactive media firms in San Francisco increased 150 percent last year, and Multimedia Gulch now employs 35,000 workers, up 70 percent from 1995. The highly mobile industry is worth approximately $2 billion to the city's economy. Multimedia executives could probably live with the city's inflated rents, but they grumble ominously about the long wait for required permits that makes expanding a successful business time-consuming and costly. A study by the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm reports that close to a third of these innovative companies are considering leaving San Francisco. Should the industry trickle out of town, San Francisco's economic horizon will darken further.
San Francisco depends on its rich cyber-yuppies, its growing local high-tech sector, and its booming tourism industry to fund a grossly bloated municipal welfare state. Mayor Brown has fattened the city budget by over $1 billion in three years—a whopping 30 percent increase. Taxpayers must support both a vast empire of social services, eating up 33 percent of San Francisco's $3.9 billion 1998-99 budget, and an expensive municipal workforce represented by powerful unions. Brown refuses to consider privatization seriously, and he has hiked city worker salaries 12.9 percent since taking office and has added 2,000 city jobs. San Francisco's municipal workers now earn up to 50 percent more than government workers elsewhere in California, making them among the best-off public employees in the nation.
Brown has also showered the city's private-sector unions with favors. In February, he pushed through a new city ordinance that makes it much easier for labor activists to unionize hotels and restaurants that operate on city property or that have received financial help from the city. Unions can now duck the formal secret-ballot elections, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, that were once obligatory before a union could gain representation of a particular shop. Now a union rep just hands out authorization cards and asks workers to sign them. If the union gets a majority of workers to sign, it's in. San Francisco is the first jurisdiction in the country to agree to this procedure, which makes unionizing a workplace quick and easy; if it spreads beyond hotels and restaurants, San Francisco businesses will crowd toward the exits.
In March, Brown gave the unions another gift: the Displaced Worker Protection Act, which protects the jobs of San Francisco's 10,000 janitors and security guards. The act requires, with few exceptions, that any contractor taking over another contractor's work must keep its janitors and security guards on its payroll for at least three months, regardless of whether it works for a city agency or a private firm. When the act passed, Ken Cleveland of San Francisco's Building Owners and Managers Association grimly concluded: "The business community got a blow to the solar plexus today." In addition, the city's Board of Supervisors will soon pass, with the mayor's blessing, a New York-style "living wage" law that guarantees anyone working on a city contract a minimum $11 per hour.
In exchange for Brown's piled-on gifts, the unions offer unflagging support. The city's powerful Labor Council just gave the mayor an unprecedented early endorsement for the November 1999 mayoral race. After hearing the council's decision, Brown told them, "I don't think democracy is well served with me having an opponent"—a sentiment more befitting a Third World dictator than the mayor of a major American city.
San Francisco has always courted the counterculture, embracing everything from Beat poetry (Lawrence Ferlinghetti was named the city's first poet laureate in August) to the frazzled music, easy sex, and psychedelic drugs of the sixties, to the decadent gay bathhouses of more recent times. In what other American city, after all, could the city's entire political elite, including the mayor, attend a much-publicized birthday party—for Brown's campaign manager Jack Davis—that featured a leather-masked sadomasochist first carving a bloody pentagram into the back of a naked man and then urinating on him? As birthday-boy Davis later gushed to the local media, "It wasn't anything compared to the after-party at my house." The mayor's only response? "This is a messed-up city." In fact, San Francisco's tradition of indiscriminate tolerance goes back even further than the sixties. When poet Kenneth Rexroth came to the city in the 1920s, he noted that "it was the only city in the United States not settled overland by the spreading Puritan tradition. . . . Nobody cared what you did as long as you didn't commit any gross public crimes."
What Rexroth didn't anticipate, though, is how fiercely intolerant San Francisco would turn in pursuit of a politically correct agenda. In November 1996, Willie Brown signed local legislation that requires any agency or firm contracting with the city to offer the same benefits it offers to employee spouses to the domestic partners—homosexual or heterosexual—of unmarried employees, on pain of having its operations in the city shut down. One of the law's first targets: Catholic Charities. Like other organizations tapping city money, the city's Board of Supervisors ruled, Catholic Charities must offer domestic partnership benefits to employees—in effect, sanctioning homosexual "marriage"—or give up its $6 million in city funding. Catholic Charities buckled. By contrast, the Salvation Army commendably refused to comply and continued to offer services without city reimbursement. When it became clear the city wouldn't offer it a waiver on the domestic partnership requirement—as it has for hundreds of other charitable and non-charitable groups—the Salvation Army left town.
San Francisco's intolerance has taken on international scope. In early 1997, it demanded that United Airlines extend domestic partnership benefits to all its 86,000 employees across the globe or lose its contract to operate out of San Francisco International Airport. In response, United—operating more than half of the flights and employing 18,000 people in the city—sued, claiming the city couldn't force it to follow the law, since the federal government, not local jurisdictions, regulates the airline. In April, U.S. district judge Claudia Wilkin ruled that San Francisco "reached beyond the limits of its power within the federal government." But the war isn't over: the city is now seeking to terminate United's leases for its flight kitchen and ground-maintenance facilities at the airport.
As Mayor Willie Brown's old-paradigm thinking tightens its grip on the city, it's only a matter of time before the apparently sizzling economy begins to fizzle and the tourism industry dwindles as crime and disorder increase. Yet Brown still stands a good chance of being reelected next year. His probable opponent will be political consultant and real estate magnate Clint Reilly, whom few consider a serious candidate. Brown may well take San Francisco into the new millennium, unless voters make the clear connection between the mayor's reign and the city's newly uncivil streets.
A few years ago, San Francisco seemed ready to abandon at least some of its antiquated ideals, tired of their disastrous real-world consequences. But with Willie Brown, San Francisco's past, like a scary acid flashback, has claimed it again.
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