Democrat exposes his naked ambition

Mayoral election: An interview in the shower backfires on candidate in liberal San Francisco
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The Independent Online

San Francisco

Even here, under the Golden Gate, all good things must come to an end. On Tuesday San Francisco will lower the curtain on its latest political derby - the two-month-old race for its next mayor - and by any standards it has been a rollicking and, as befits this city, thoroughly left-of- centre affair.

In voting, meanwhile, the city's residents are expected to make a little history. Ahead in the polls in this two-man run-off - the first round on 7 November had a field of 27 candidates - is Willie Brown, Speaker of the California Assembly for the last 15 years. If indeed he defeats the incumbent, Frank Jordan, Mr Brown will be San Francisco's first black mayor.

The politics of this city have always been different from the rest of America. It remains stubbornly untouched by the Republican "revolution" of Newt Gingrich. San Franciscans are overwhelmingly Democrat, so much so that the only Republican candidate in November got 2 per cent of the vote.

"San Francisco can be an extreme kind of place in the best sense," remarked a local political consultant, David Binder. "It's typical that at a time when the rest of the country seems to be tipping more and more to the right and conformity, we are reaffirming our tradition of tipping to the left and non-conformity."

In San Franciscan politics, being too liberal is a contradiction in terms. While in Washington, it may be suicidal to court the gay constituency, here, where the gay population is large and vocal, it is vital to do so. Both remaining candidates are scrambling for the former supporters of Roberta Achtenberg, the openly-lesbian former member of the Clinton administration, who came third in November with 27 per cent of the vote.

Mr Jordan, a former police chief, is in trouble for several reasons. Though a Democrat, he is decidedly more conservative than Mr Brown and has attempted in his first term to rid the city streets of the homeless and to privatise some government services. Most of all, though, he is a rather stodgy public figure, in stark contrast with the flamboyant style of Mr Brown, who has a taste for sports cars and thousand-dollar Italian suits. As one Brown insider put it: "Jordan is like cold oatmeal thrown against a wall."

Back in November, Mr Jordan, 60, was presented with an opportunity (he thought) to lighten up his image. Two local disc-jockeys turned up at his home and challenged him to give them an interview with all three stripped naked in the shower. The mayor obliged, apparently unaware of the presence of a photographer who got busy taking full-body portraits.

The stunt, recorded in pictures (cropped just above the waist) in all the local papers, proved an unmitigated disaster for Mr Jordan, who was subsequently forced to apologise. Even to San Franciscans, it looked like a serious error of judgement and taste; to Mr Jordan's more conservative supporters it was simply offensive. "It certainly did not help them," confirmed a Brown spokeswoman. "He is the mayor, after all, and people still expect a certain decorum and a certain authority from the office."

In his glee, Mr Brown triggered further controversy by implying that Mr Jordan was a "white mother". The Brown quote, to do with tan-lines rather than race, was: "I've heard of things being white, but you can damn near see through this mother". But the mayor angrily accused Mr Brown of using racial language publicly to insult him.

Mr Brown, 61, has loomed over Californian politics for three decades and is widely touted as the most successfulblack politician in America. As the Speaker in Sacramento since 1980, he wielded total control over state legislators and earned a reputation as a consummate deal-maker. His tentacular contacts with many of the most important state industries, such as the tobacco lobby, have left him open to attack for being too bound up with special interests. But there is little sign that such concerns are worrying many San Franciscans.

The poet Maya Angelou has travelled to the city to support Brown. At a fund-raising dinner she exhorted San Franciscans to vote for Mr Brown and "change the flavour of the day". Reworking an old spiritual refrain, Ms Angelou concluded: "Moving out of darkness, moving toward a Brown morning."