Heavy left leans on liberal Willie Brown

November 07, 1999|By George F. Will

SAN FRANCISCO From his black snapbrim fedora sporting a red feather in its band, to his mirrorshiny black tassel loafers the solid purple tie complements the shirt of robin'segg blue with white collar and cuffs; there probably was a comma in the price of the doublebreasted suit Willie Brown, a mayor as histrionic as this city's geography, is his usual resplendent self this Election Day as he emerges from the union headquarters.

Resplendent, but not altogether chipper, even after a onelegged man, whose flannel shirttails flap as he swings himself across the street on crutches, assures Mr. Brown of 60percent majorities in the housing projects.

(Citywide, Mr. Brown did not get the 50percent plus one vote he needed to avoid a Dec. 14 runoff. Instead, he received 38.7 percent of the vote.) Still, as he heads downtown for a breakfast, Mr. Brown, the once and, undoubtedly, future Tribune of the Downtrodden, unburdens himself of hard feelings against those he calls "the heavy left."

They, he says, "want to double taxes on the wealthy, on businesses, they want to tax every stock transaction, to control rents actually, they want to roll back rents and they want neighborhoodbased, not citywide, landuse controls, and they want a referendum on every decision by government." Yes, mayor, such people are called "San Francisco Democrats."

They are criticizing Mr. Brown for the "Manhattanization" of the city (allowing highrises) and for "the Starbuckization, Blockbusterization and Rite Aidization" of the city (allowing national chains to taint the uniqueness of neighborhoods). Above all, there is the matter of the homeless.

Parts of this city, including stretches of Market Street downtown, literally reek with the residue of '60s liberalism: The city spends substantial sums steamcleaning sidewalks, and still the smell of urine is assaultive. The city's generous welfare provisions make it, Mr. Brown says, "clearly a magnet" for homeless people.

Earlier in his term, he celebrated such policies as proof that "we're humanistic." Now he says "we give them tokens" for public urinals that the homeless don't use. When the police began seizing stolen shopping carts in which the homeless store their possessions, he was accused by some of initiating "blitzes and sweeps," and criticized by others for not doing so.

This city, which still flaunts its tolerance of everything except anything not "progressive," has reached the limits of its tolerance, and not just regarding the homeless. An infestation (as some see it) of cyberyuppies they get rich in Silicon Valley and live here is driving up housing prices as rent controls and other regulations restrict the housing stock.

Hence the leaflet handed out at the union headquarters, saying Mr. Brown gives working people "hope that there will still be a place for us" in the city. There is, Mr. Brown says, a 1percent vacancy rate in residential housing.

"Never," he says, "did I think a liberal leftwinger, former housing authority resident would be regarded by the left as other than a hero." But he is a hero to the publicemployees unions. He has increased the budget 40 percent, from $2.9 billion to more than $4 billion, has increased the city work force by more than 4,000 (even so, overtime has increased 60 percent), and he would perish on the barricades fighting to prevent serious privatization of public jobs.

He also is a hero to the building trades unions because he helped persuade the University of California (the city's largest employer, other than the city itself) to build a huge new facility near the Giants' (privately financed) new ballpark.

Born in the Depression and into segregated Texas 65 years ago, Mr. Brown rocketed from the cultural ferment of '60s San Francisco to serve 31 years in the state legislature, 15 of them as assembly speaker, which he would still be had the voters not done him the (at the time) bitterly resented favor of imposing term limits.

Today, luxuriating in his executive life, Mr. Brown says, "I've outgrown Sacramento."

But he has not really outgrown urban liberalism characterized by government support of every environmental, diversity and fairness fad. Most places, a conservative is, as the saying goes, a liberal who has been mugged by reality. In San Francisco, where someone called a conservative can probably sue for slander, a postmugging liberal is just a liberal with bruises and a deepened determination to eradicate the "root causes" of reality.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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