Four more wacky years for Bay Area Browns

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The Independent Online
WHEN WILLIE BROWN first contemplated running for Mayor of San Francisco, he wasn't sure the job could hold his interest. "Street lights, dog-doo and parking meters are not my cup of tea," he said.

He needn't have worried. Four years into the job, and with a monumental re-election battle in progress, he can safely say his life is anything but boring.

He has officiated at mass gay weddings, appointed the Beat figurehead Lawrence Ferlinghetti as his very own Poet Laureate, although Ferlinghetti is yet to oblige with a single poem, and has been on the receiving end of three cream pies thrown by an agit-prop group called the Bionic Baking Brigade.

On the 50th birthday of his campaign manager, Jack Davis, he and the cream of San Francisco society were treated to a startling sadomasochistic sex show in which two performers lacerated each others' backs, performed Satanic rituals and put a Jack Daniels bottle to unspeakable uses.

Lack of boredom has not made Mr Brown popular, however. Lambasted for his harsh treatment of the homeless population and his painfully slow progress in fixing the bus system, his would-be successors are now sharpening their knives over everything from his choice of District Attorney - who has the worst conviction record in the city's history and likes to throw punches, even in court - to his uncanny knack of making friends with construction magnates grown rich on city contracts.

With election day just over a month away, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is crawling all over city offices to investigate allegations that contracts earmarked for companies run by ethnic minorities are going to shell organisations acting as fronts for powerful white friends of the man winkingly known as "Da Mayor".

Mr Brown is throwing every ounce of his considerable energy into a grand theatrical campaign. Determined not to appear defensive, he has organised groups of hecklers to drown out his rivals at mayoral debates.

Anxious to pick up every last vote, his re-election committee has been trawling through every old age home and housing estate to register poor and minority voters who can be talked into supporting him, if only because he is black. According to one report, they have even been visiting county jails to register eligible inmates.

If the political battles in San Francisco seem theatrical, then they are complemented perfectly by the goings-on across the bay in Oakland, where another famous Brown - former California governor Jerry Brown - is settling into his first term as Mayor.

The eccentric radical, who briefly gave up politics to study at Mother Teresa's knee, kicked off his term with a mass meditation ceremony and has since invited everyone from the Black Panthers to the Marine Corps to join his idiosyncratic campaign to revive the gritty industrial city.

The two Browns are having an electric effect on Bay Area politics, since both have a sure talent for attracting attention and gossip. When Willie, a famously suave dresser, was pied by the Bionic Baking Brigade he stunned just about everyone by applying the full pressure of the law against the perpetrators and having them sentenced to six months behind bars.

When Jerry the pacifist invited the Marines into Oakland for three days of noisy war games, he infuriated his city council. One member said the only benefit to the local economy would be increased custom for the city's prostitutes. It guaranteed reams of local media coverage. How much either of them is achieving in office is another matter.

Jerry has already modified his pledge to provide 10,000 new units of affordable housing in downtown Oakland - dropping the commitment to affordability. He has gone back on his pledge to community-based policing, encouraging an orthodox tough- on-crime approach. David Hilliard, the former black radical who returned enthusiastically to Oakland, saying that Jerry Brown sounded "more like a Black Panther every day", now says the Mayor has sold the African American community down the river. Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, a radical, now says: "He's not a team player. He is conscious of what he needs to do to be re-elected and focuses on meeting those political needs."

The story is similar in San Francisco, where Willie Brown failed to fix Muni, the municipal transport system, in 100 days as he had promised. He hasn't fixed it more than 1,000. And, faced with an unprecedented housing boom, he has torn down far more low-income housing than he created.

But Mr Brown is a politician's politician, a man who survived more than 15 years as speaker of the California state assembly and earned a national reputation as a deal-maker. So, despite abysmal approval ratings, he has engineered an electoral landscape in which the other candidates are even less popular

One challenger, the former police chief Frank Jordan, has made almost no headway in obliterating the lukewarm memories of his tenure as mayor in the early 1990s. Mr Jordan's career blew up in his face on the eve of the 1995 election when, incredibly, two radio shock jocks from Los Angeles managed to talk their way into his house and persuaded him to climb into the shower with them for an all-naked interview.

Mr Jordan evidently thought the interview would increase his appeal with young voters, but when pictures of the occasion made the local papers he became the laughing-stock of San Francisco.

Mr Brown's other challenger, Clint Reilly, is a political consultant with strong links to the property and insurance worlds - links that have made it impossible for him to attack Mr Brown for his own considerable deference to "special interests".

"Willie will win because he's smarter than everyone else," remarked Jo Schuman Silver, a theatrical impresario well connected to the Brown camp. And so, San Francisco can look forward to another four years of Willie. It won't be scintillating politics, perhaps, but it is sure to be great theatre.