Smooth Willie Brown


November 01, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mayor Willie Brown, continuing to get by on a smile and shoeshine, is favored to top 13 challengers tomorrow in his bid for re-election. But if he fails to gain a majority of the vote -- now considered likely -- he will be forced into a runoff against the second-place finisher in December.

His chief competition is the popular president of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, gay activist Tom Ammiano, who entered the race late as a write-in candidate. The other leading candidates are former Mayor Frank Jordan and former political consultant Clint Reilly.

But Mr. Brown is as unfazed as he was when he dominated the California Assembly as its speaker; term limits forced him to move his flamboyant political act from Sacramento four years ago. As mayor, his roguish style and a gift for gab continue to infuriate his foes while delighting his followers.

At a recent pro-Brown breakfast with San Francisco women's groups, chuckles were heard through the crowd when one speaker (without cracking a smile) said of the dapper Mr. Brown that "understandably, he does well with women."

The featured speaker, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, subsequently explained why -- because more than half of Mr. Brown's senior staff is female, and because of his support for such things as increased child care for working women.

At the end of her spirited speech, Ms. Richards took note, perhaps unwittingly, of Mr. Brown's reputation as a charming rascal. "We do not want to raise Willie Brown to sainthood," she said. "We want him to run the city of San Francisco."

Mr. Brown immediately launched into his routine, telling the amused breakfast crowd that "it was easier getting elected the first time than getting re-elected." The reason, he confessed, is that the first time around, he could answer questions "without knowing what I was talking about," but after four years, he can't get away with that.

After reciting what he has done to improve life in San Francisco, Mr. Brown told the audience he will continue to be "your servant, no matter how distant I may be from sainthood."

There are many in the city who believe that distance is great. Mr. Jordan is trying to convince voters that they were better off before Mr. Brown got his hands on the mayor's office. And Mr. Reilly is pouring more than $3 million into his effort to beat the incumbent.

Mr. Brown's playful demeanor masks an instinct to go for the jugular. He has thrown Mr. Reilly onto the defensive with some blistering negative advertising, including the allegation that Mr. Reilly roughed up an old girlfriend 20 years go. This has left Mr. Reilly struggling to recover ever since.

Last month, the Brown campaign ran a mock "Jeopardy" commercial with the host asking derogatory questions about Mr. Reilly's personal behavior and the contestants quickly responding with his name. And a Brown billboard plays on the general low esteem of politics among voters, proclaiming: "A Political Consultant for Mayor? That's nuts!"

Mr. Reilly has spent lavishly on his own television ads, direct mail and campaign brochures, hammering at what he says has been Mr. Brown's mismanagement of the city's notorious homeless problem and its often snarled surface transportation system. But nothing sticks to the slippery Mr. Brown. Meanwhile, Mr. Reilly seems to be proving that running somebody else's campaign is a lot easier than running yourself.

"Nobody can beat me in a runoff," Mr. Brown insists. If re-elected, however, he would face his old nemesis, term limits, again after a second four years as mayor.

By that time, he would be 69 years old, but he would be ready, he says, for another election to another, unspecified, office.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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