If all one knew about the San Francisco mayor’s race came from the daily newspapers and Bay Guardian, one would think that city voters were about to return a shadowy and corrupt former mayor named Willie Brown to City Hall. The SF Chronicle described the Ed Lee campaign as a virtual front group for “Willie Brown, Inc.,” while the Bay Guardian’s Tim Redmond proclaimed that “the years when Willie Brown ran this town were really, really bad” and “the thought of even a small part of that rotten era of sleaze coming back makes me very, very nervous.” But Brown’s actual record (1996-2003) conflicts with such accounts. Brown’s first term was the most progressive of any mayor in modern San Francisco history, and explains why even such long-time Bay Guardian heroes as the late Sue Bierman, Calvin Welch and Dennis Antenore backed Brown’s 1999 re-election campaign against Tom Ammiano. The facts of the Brown years raises questions why the media is identifying a 77-year old African American who has exercised significant power in San Francisco since 1965 as a sudden threat to San Francisco’s future.

As a longtime San Francisco elected official, Willie Brown has had influence at City Hall under Mayors Gavin Newsom, Art Agnos, George Moscone, Joe Alioto, and Jack Shelley. Yet never until the 2011 Mayor’s race has Brown’s role become a major campaign issue, with critics claiming that he “controls” Ed Lee and that Lee must be defeated to deny Brown access to power.

Curiously, the media never made Brown’s influence an issue in the 2003 Mayor’s race – even though Gavin Newsom’s political career was launched by Brown appointments. In fact, the media went out of its way to distinguish Newsom from the incumbent mayor.

Reporters and editors either concealed Brown’s influence with Newsom, or felt that the white candidate of Pacific Heights would stand up to the African-American Brown in a way that fellow non-white, Chinese-American Ed Lee – will not. The media did write a few stories on Newsom potentially being beholden to the Getty’s, his Pacific Heights benefactors, but this never became an issue.

I’ll let others explore the racial stereotypes underlying this contrast. But notwithstanding the underlying reasons, the media ignored Brown during the 2003 race involving his protégé but has made him a major issue in the current campaign.

The Willie Brown years were tumultuous in San Francisco not because of the Mayor, but because of a dot-com boom emerging outside the City’s borders that drove housing prices through the roof. San Francisco homeowners saw their property values jump, rents on vacant units skyrocketed, and construction of “live-work” lofts and condominiums rose dramatically to meet the increased housing demand caused by the influx of dot-com workers.

Mayor Willie Brown lacked the legal authority to limit home prices or rents on vacant units, and the law allowing live-work lofts passed during the Frank Jordan Administration. And while many believe that Brown fiddled while the city’s tenants and low-income residents burned, the record is to the contrary.

Brown’s Housing Record

In 1996, his first year in office, Brown led the campaign to pass a $100 million affordable housing bond. It was the first such bond to pass in San Francisco, and the only one to this day; two subsequent bonds as well as a housing set-aside measure on the 2002, 2004 and 2008 ballots all failed.

The 1996 bond passed because Brown assembled a broad political coalition that has not been replicated. And the bond passed just as the dot-com tsunami hit, which an objective observer might see as a particularly timely use of Mayor Brown's political clout on behalf of the low-income beneficiaries of non-profit housing programs.

Tenants got off to a rocky start with Brown. I know because I helped organize the first protest of any type against Mayor Brown, in which tenant activists circled his car. I was pressing Brown on getting Supervisors to pass owner move-in legislation when he responded to me with his famous remark about the Supervisors being “mistresses you have to service.”

But after a disappointing first two years, Brown reversed course. Tenants passed more critical pieces of legislation during Brown’s first term (including new owner move in restrictions) than in all prior and subsequent mayoral administrations combined.

Had the courts not thrown out Supervisor Sue Bierman’s 1999 legislation requiring Planning Commission approval of the conversion of residential rental units to non-rental use (thus deterring TIC’s), most of the Ellis Act evictions that have occurred since 1999 would not have happened (the court struck down the law by inventing a landlord constitutional right to convert property to non-rental use, despite the California Supreme Court previously finding that landlords had no constitutional right to go out of the rental housing business, which is why the Legislature passed the Ellis Act).

This point must be understood. Willie Brown, widely viewed as callous to tenant concerns during the dot-com crisis, won unanimous Board of Supervisors passage (8-0, as 3 members were recused) for the most sweeping eviction protection measure ever legislatively enacted in San Francisco.

Willie Brown was always pro-development. But he came into office after both housing and office development had stagnated for nearly a decade, and any of his predecessor or successor mayors would have backed the projects that began to seek approval in 1996. This includes the controversial live-work lofts approved during the Jordan Administration, and which provided the city’s first new market rate housing in years.

Many on the Left are not comfortable with market rate housing development, and blame the Brown Administration for approving thousands of new units. But the chief increase in housing costs during Brown’s tenure was for single-family homes and vacant rental units, and the Mayor had no legal authority to control either.

Brown Shifts Right

After passing historic tenant legislation (including new owner move-in restrictions) and the city’s first affordable housing bond, Brown entered his re-election campaign believing he had earned progressive support. But when the city’s Left flocked to Tom Ammiano’s insurgent campaign, Brown found himself unfairly attacked in “Evict the Mayor” protests and treated as if he had spent four years promoting landlords.

The tragic result for progressives was that an embittered Brown took a sharp rightward turn after beating Ammiano in the December 1999 runoff. He became loyal to constituencies that backed Frank Jordan against him in 1995 (including the Republican Party), and angry with the progressives whom he felt had turned against him despite him delivering on their behalf.

2000 was Brown’s first post-election year, and his worst as Mayor. This was the year that Brown backed the outrageous “Bryant Square” project in the Mission that brought hundreds to Planning Commission protests, and led to a November ballot measure to stop the expansion of commercial uses in residential neighborhoods.

To this day, much of what is negatively remembered about Brown’s tenure involves actions that occurred in 2000. In the context of San Francisco politics, however, it is worth remembering that even Brown’s far more conservative second term was more progressive than any of Dianne Feinstein’s nine years and as least as progressive as Gavin Newsom’s tenure.

For example, Brown’s rightward turn did not change his continuation of Agnos’ progressive direction for homeless policies. Brown killed Jordan’s “Direct Rent Program’ (a major subsidy program for slum SRO operators) on his second day in office, and funded the hotel leasing program that provided permanent housing for thousands and became the linchpin of Newsom’s Care not Cash plan.

While the ballot measure prompted by the approval of Bryant Square narrowly failed, the November 2000 elections brought a complete defeat to Brown’s slate of district supervisor candidates and what was described at the time as a progressive majority to the Board. And here is where I strongly deviate from the Bay Guardian view that San Franciscans should be “nervous” about Willie Brown.

When Brown moved right in 2000, the voters responded by cutting down his power. Activists did not act as some powerless cadre trembling at the all-powerful Willie Brown; rather, they mobilized and seized power.

For the remainder of the supposedly all-powerful Brown term, the progressive majority carried the day. And powerful progressive leaders like Chris Daly, Matt Gonzalez and Aaron Peskin learned how to match and often beat Brown at his own game.

This included passing ballot initiatives that gave restricted mayoral appointments to the Planning, Police and Board of Appeal Commissions, and which gave the Board of Supervisors appointments to each body (I split the Building Inspection Commission appointments between mayor and board when I wrote Prop G, which passed in 1994). It also meant overriding Brown’s veto of the McGoldrick TIC legislation, which was later also thrown out by the landlord controlled courts.

The progressive movement that almost brought Matt Gonzalez victory in the 2003 mayor’s race despite his being outspent 10-1 was revived and galvanized during the Willie Brown years. The period from 1996-2003 was not only not “really bad,” but at the time many progressives saw this as when the city’s left began exercising the greatest level of power in its history.

That’s why trying to scare people about Willie Brown is a profoundly disempowering approach. It also reflects a deeply inaccurate understanding of how real political power is built in San Francisco, which is through grassroots activism not backroom deal making.

Willie Brown had to face voters every two years while in the Assembly and won both his mayoral races quite handily. The media appears out of step with the people of San Francisco regarding Brown’s contributions to the city, which may also explain why attacks on Brown’s alleged influence may actually be helping Ed Lee.