On January 8, San Francisco’s political and business elite gathered under the soaring rotunda of city hall for the inauguration of Edwin M. Lee, who had just been elected to a full term as mayor. Trumpets heralded the recently obscure city administrator as he made his way down the grand marble staircase.

Already front and center on the broad landing that served as the stage for the occasion was Willie L. Brown Jr. Brown’s days as an elected official—he served as speaker of the state assembly, and then two terms as San Francisco’s mayor—are long past. But he remains very much the star of the show, and was arguably the most powerful man in the room.

The ascent of Ed Lee that morning was the public culmination of Brown’s deft maneuvering over the previous two years to ensure that a safe and reliable ally would continue to control San Francisco’s local government. Lee’s predecessor, Gavin Newsom, was himself a Brown protégé, getting his start in city politics when Brown appointed him to the parking commission and then the board of supervisors.

Brown and his longtime ally Rose Pak, a community organizer and a powerful figure from the city’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce, had managed to get Lee, an obscure city hall apparatchik, appointed interim mayor in January 2011 when Newsom left office early to become lieutenant governor. As an incumbent, Lee was then a shoo-in to win a full term. Brown had built up Lee’s public service bona fides for years, appointing the former Asian Law Caucus attorney to a series of posts, including head of the city’s purchasing office and the department of public works. If Lee wins a second term, he will be in place until 2020, giving Brown a hold on San Francisco’s government that will span a quarter century.

So the victory being celebrated on January 8 was Brown’s. The very public stagecraft of the inauguration left no doubt about who remains the city’s Alpha Male.

“Charlotte! We are mad at you!” Brown jovially shouted across the stage as Lee made his way down the stairs. Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, a glamorous socialite and the wife of former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, was long ago appointed by Brown as San Francisco’s chief of protocol. She managed this inauguration, as she had countless official parties for Brown and other politicians and dignitaries over the years. “We”—Brown stood in the opulently decorated Beaux Arts temple with four other former mayors, including U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein—“didn’t get this!”

The horns quieted. Lee stood meekly behind Brown. He tugged at his baggy business suit, clasped and unclasped his hands. The most colorful thing about him is his moustache, which is brown.

“Ed, if you want to sit down, it’s all right. It’s perfectly all right,” Brown said, gesturing back toward a chair.

Lee sat.

Brown and the crowd laughed.

Brown then held forth for most of the next hour, cracking jokes and explaining what Lee’s mayoralty was all about. He told Lee, who sat dutifully in his chair, gray and mute, that he had better learn to recognize the state and national political figures in the audience who could be pressured to support high-speed rail, a favorite public works project of Brown and, presumably, his clients.

“I should identify some of your real friends,” Brown said. “People like Ron Conway, who is here. Where are you, Ron Conway?”

The influential technology investor, a Republican who had not been politically active before falling in with Brown and becoming Lee’s largest donor, stood and beamed. The parties Conway hosted or funded for Lee had been the talk of the town. A widely distributed campaign commercial was filmed at Conway’s home; it featured sports and tech celebrities like Twitter cofounder Biz Stone and Google’s Marissa Mayer dancing merrily to demonstrate their enthusiasm for Lee as MC Hammer performed “U Can’t Touch This.” (Brown has been talking up Hammer, whose real name is Stanley Kirk Burrell, as the next mayor of Oakland.)

Conway’s and the tech industry’s support of Lee had already yielded a spectacular return. Shortly after being named interim mayor, Lee pushed through what became known as the “Twitter tax break.” The deal allows San Francisco tech companies to avoid huge payroll taxes on employee stock options when they go public. San Francisco-based Twitter is among Conway’s portfolio companies. After the inauguration, Lee put on hold an effort by city tax authorities to force another Conway-backed company, Airbnb, to comply with the city’s steep lodging tax.

After making sure that everyone understood how much Lee owed Ron Conway, Brown did cede the podium—reluctantly, promising he would soon return—and allowed Lee to speak. But Brown took a seat so very near the new mayor that even in the closest-cropped photos and videos of Lee’s speech, Brown’s familiar bald visage looms large, seemingly grafted to Lee’s left arm.

Brown remains sparklingly charismatic and jaunty despite his seventy-eight years. He is possibly more powerful and certainly less controversial now than when he held public office. The ethics and criminal investigations that dogged his entire political career (no charges were ever filed) have been largely forgotten. The well-dressed bon vivant lives downtown in his St. Regis apartment and seems to never tire of the party circuit.

Brown is now a private attorney under no obligation to disclose the identity of his clients or his interactions with the legion of public officials and others who owe their careers to him. (The most promising of these may be California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Brown’s onetime girlfriend.) Brown operates in a post-partisan, post-paper trail world in which he reaps the benefits of power while bearing none of the unpleasant culpability or scrutiny that typically comes with that.

There is no scandal here. Brown helped create the system that allows him to flourish now. And he plays that system like a born musician who rarely if ever hits a wrong note. “He is smarter than everyone else. That is what it comes down to. He’s a chess player playing at a level far more advanced than everyone else,” says Corey Cook, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco. “He has always been able to figure out how to find the gray area, and never cross the line.”

There have long been political machines or political bosses calling the shots in cities across the country. Ed Rendell’s post-political career in Philadelphia, after serving as mayor and then governor, springs to mind. Bill Clinton’s post-presidential life in the private sector, the tedious scandals of his public life all but forgotten, does as well.

But the forces that made Willie Brown possible are somewhat unique. The term limits that forced him from office twice, first from the state assembly and then from the mayor’s office, ironically make his informal power and that of all his term-limited brethren all the more potent. Willie Brown’s power springs from his web of relationships and his intricate and strategic understanding, cultivated over six decades, of how politics in San Francisco and California is played. With term limits in place, it is all but impossible that a creature quite like Brown could rise again.

“I don’t think it’s any mystery how he continues to be powerful. In a term-limited era, people behind the scenes who know how to mobilize coalitions, raise money, have the advantage over other players in the system,” says Bruce Cain, a political scientist and executive director of the University of California’s Washington Center. Cain worked on Brown’s staff in the 1980s and recalls firsthand how “intimidatingly smart” Brown is. “Ironically, term limits made Willie more powerful, not less. Lots of [newly elected or short-timer politicians] have no knowledge of how the system works. That knowledge becomes even more valuable in a world where no more Willie Browns are possible.”

Still widely referred to as “Da Mayor,” Brown held that office from 1996 until 2004. Before that, he was the most powerful political figure in California as speaker of the state assembly. In the 1990s, state term limits were adopted, expelling Brown from Sacramento. So after thirty years there, Brown returned to San Francisco, the city he had migrated to in 1951 as a penniless, poorly educated seventeen-year-old from segregated Mineola, Texas.

Brown worked as a janitor and doorman to put himself through San Francisco State University and then the University of California’s Hastings School of Law. He became close to the Burton clan, a major power in California politics. Phillip Burton represented San Francisco in Congress for nearly twenty years, and after he died of an aneurysm in 1983, his wife, Sala, took over his seat and served until she died in 1987. John Burton, Phil Burton’s brother and a longtime state legislator, is now head of the state Democratic Party.

Brown’s early idealism—he was a dedicated follower of the political economist Henry George, who advocated a system of sky-high land-value taxation that would have put real estate speculators and developers out of business—gave way to a more pragmatic mix of a strong commitment to civil rights and support of public-sector unions, balanced with a long track record as a great proponent and friend of real estate developers, particularly those who sought to build on land formerly owned by the government. After winning the 1995 mayoral election, Brown presided over the boomiest of cities in the boomiest of times. He was a smashing and popular success, overseeing a splendid (if expensive) renovation of the city’s palatial city hall, the development of the beautiful waterfront ballpark for the San Francisco Giants, the gentrification of the South of Market area—“SoMa”—into a techie haven, and so on.

But a steady drumbeat of mini scandals—contracts awarded to politically connected friends and the like—led to a short-lived voter revolt. The city’s progressives (versus business-friendly moderates, like Brown) took control of the elected eleven-member board of supervisors around the time of the first dotcom bust. Amid this, Gavin Newsom, Brown’s well-funded chosen successor, won the 2003 mayoral election. His challenger was Matt Gonzalez, a progressive Stanford Law grad (who went on, as a footnote, to be Ralph Nader’s running mate in 2008).

Newsom brashly ignored Brown’s advice to wait his turn and in 2010 ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor, which went to Jerry Brown. Without the support of Willie Brown and the tight group of state Democratic political grandees, Newsom’s campaign sputtered, and he had to settle for lieutenant governor, a humiliatingly ceremonial role.

That meant that Newsom vacated the mayor’s office with a year left in the term. Anyone picked to be interim mayor by the city’s board of supervisors would have a tremendous advantage in the 2011 mayoral election. David Chiu, the Harvard Law-trained president of the board, had already announced he would run.

So Newsom and Brown proposed that the job go to Lee. The previously obscure city administrator vowed repeatedly that he would be a simple caretaker who would never run for a full term. And perhaps Lee believed that to be true, or that such a decision would be his to make. But Brown, and Rose Pak, had other plans. The giggly, unassuming Lee was their creation. A new citizen’s group, funded chiefly by businessmen tied to Pak, clamored for Lee to run. Lee dithered. Chiu, sensing he had been outmaneuvered and betrayed, confronted Lee. “So Ed,” Chiu said to Lee at a mayoral debate in August, “you told me that you had looked at yourself in the mirror … you didn’t want to run, but that you were having trouble saying no to Willie Brown and Rose Pak.” And by that point, everyone knew that Lee had not, in the end, said no to his powerful patrons. Lee’s most valuable characteristic is his ability to say yes.

There cannot be a scandal if there is no lie. And there is no need to lie when there are no rules requiring one to disclose anything at all. Brown managed to create this post-partisan, post-scandal world that allows him to flourish by turning the very concept of disclosure or openness or accountability on its head.

He is very publicly a rascal, a roue, in a city that loathes the boring and conventional. Let ham-handed buffoons like John Edwards hide from the press in hotel stairwells and risk jail time for steering money to a mistress. When Brown, married since 1958, got an aide pregnant while still in office, he invited everyone to congratulate him on the happy news. “There is nothing unseemly about this at all,” Brown told San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross. “She’s a great friend.” The woman, whose fund-raising business enjoyed rent-free city-owned office space, received nearly $2.5 million in payments from city commissions and campaign funds controlled by Brown or his allies, the newspaper reported later. No one batted an eye.

What many powerful players would conceal, Brown announces with glee in the weekly column he has written for the Chronicle since 2008. The Chron once covered Brown’s dealings aggressively, but it is now so weak that Hearst Corp. nearly folded it a few years ago. Brown often uses his column to promote friends and punish enemies, and his column is not subject to the paper’s ethics policy.

Brown does not discuss the identity of his legal clients, and he did not respond to an interview request for this story. Brown’s major clients are thought to be companies tied to land use (like Lennar, developing huge tracts of formerly government-owned land along the Bay) or big public works projects like the $1.6 billion Central Subway, which will terminate in politically powerful Chinatown.

Rose Pak insists that Brown often works for his many friends for free, and that he is far from being a rich man. It is true that, despite the Brioni suits and the St. Regis condo purchased for $1.8 million in 2006, Brown does not openly display trappings of great wealth, like a country place in Napa or even a full-time car and driver. “Most people think he is wallowing in wealth. Let me tell you, he isn’t,” Pak says. “Willie Brown is very generous with his time and his efforts. Some of [his clients] pay him, and some of them don’t. He still advises the governor’s office and half of the legislature. People all pick on him for advice, and two-thirds of the time, he doesn’t get paid. He is just very generous. He is not a money-motivated guy. If you are a friend, you are a friend forever. He is loyal to his friends. How do you charge a friend?”

Indeed, Pak says that Brown was strapped for cash in the eight years he served as mayor, since a city law prohibited him from working as an attorney on the side, which he had done in the decades he spent in the state assembly. “He is the straightest and poorest of all the politicians I know,” Pak says. “Before he left the mayoral thing, I knew he was in trouble financially. So I asked some of our closest friends … your company better not pick on him to do things for free.”

Having the Chronicle column allows Brown to brush off reporters’ questions about his private business life by saying that he is now a newspaper columnist, not a public official who must answer for his actions. And when Brown has faced questions about using his Chronicle column to settle political scores or advance the interests of his corporate clients, he counters that he is not a journalist who can be held accountable on that score, either. So Brown appears to talk freely about everything while not having to disclose anything at all. It works because Brown “doesn’t get caught in lies,” Cook says. “He is very open.” But what about Brown’s work on behalf of his unnamed clients? Cook pauses. “He is selectively transparent, let’s put in that way.”

Brown’s “influence is that of a party boss,” working the nexus of business and politics, Cook says. “It’s not a political machine in a classical sense.” Continuity is key, and many of the legion of loyalists Brown appointed to government posts are still in place. For example, Steve Kawa, Brown’s chief of staff, has held fast to his role as the city’s shadow mayor, continuing in that appointed post for Gavin Newsom and now Ed Lee.

Brown “has figured out a way—many ways—of wielding political power,” Cook continues. “His strength is figuring out how all these pieces go together. He is a legal advocate, a political player, an adviser to the mayor, a columnist in the local paper [where he is] advocating for his clients. He does so in accordance with the law, having figured out how to mobilize all these access points in the system.”

Who in any position of influence would ever want to take this on? There would be nothing to gain. Brown has too many friends and longtime political and business allies. And with the scandals of his years in public office largely forgotten, raising a hue and cry would seem gauche or unsophisticated, even a meanspirited assault on the city’s beloved old uncle.

“We expect him to be flamboyant,” says Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who was Mayor Newsom’s communication director in the days when Newsom was heralded as a Kennedy-esque political prince in such publications as Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times Magazine. “A flamboyant rascal. It’s part of what gives San Francisco its charm.

“There’s no law against being a power broker,” continues Ballard, an admirer of Brown. “He is too much a part of the DNA of the city” for anyone in a position of influence—or ambition—to raise a stink. Willie Brown “is an iconic figure, part of what defines us, and he has been for fifty years. It would be like criticizing North Beach for having strip clubs. It would be like criticizing a cable car for traveling too slow.”

Now that he’s no longer an elected official, Brown is freer than ever to leverage his power and relationships. And because he is an attorney, and not registered as a lobbyist, nothing needs to be disclosed. “Arranging for a deal to get done is not a reportable act. It’s just good, old-fashioned deal making,” Ballard explains. Brown “is hiding in plain sight. He was never caught at anything, and the last thing he would be caught at is having these clients. He is too wired.”

Perhaps hiding in plain sight is Brown’s greatest tactical accomplishment. By appearing everywhere, doing and saying openly in public what many would seek to conceal, Brown has made himself unassailable.

It’s not a scandal to have a baby with a woman who is not your wife if you celebrate it yourself in the local newspaper.

It’s not a scandal that Willie Brown is doing all he can to get the Central Subway built, even if he advises Aecom, the contractor set to manage the $1.6 billion project that will transport people just 3,000 yards. (Aecom did not respond to a request for comment.)

That’s not to say that a few hardy souls aren’t scandalized by the Central Subway, or fearful of how much it might end up costing San Francisco taxpayers in the end. “This is a dog,” said Quentin Kopp, a retired state senator, city supervisor, and judge who earnestly if crankily rails against Brown and his crowd, who smugly refer to themselves publicly as “the City Family.” The Central Subway was originally supposed to cost $600 million, Kopp notes, about a third of its more recent estimate. A now-forgotten alternate proposal to revamp a key bus route would have cost just $9.1 million, Kopp says.

Proponents argue that state and federal money will cover all but $124 million of the Central Subway cost. But if all or part of the state or federal funding doesn’t come through, or if the project’s costs exceed its current budget, the city of San Francisco is on the hook to pay the difference.

And don’t get Kopp started on Recology, the company that has for eighty years enjoyed a no-bid, no-franchise-fee monopoly on the city’s trash collection business. “It’s a virtual criminal enterprise!” the retired judge rails. Brown served as an attorney for the waste company when it operated under its old name, Norcal (abandoned after a public bribery scandal tarred its name elsewhere in the state). An old Sacramento aide of Brown’s sits on the Recology board, and suggestions every few years from the board of supervisors’ independent and respected budget analyst that San Francisco put the monopoly up for bid never go anywhere.

Meanwhile, Recology is making piles of money from its San Francisco monopoly; it made about $220 million in the fiscal year ending June 2010. A May 2011 report by the city budget analyst found that commercial garbage rates in San Francisco, which are unregulated, are far higher than those in other Bay Area communities. Recology’s contract guarantees it about a 9.5 percent profit over its costs of doing business, so the more costly its operations, the more profit it makes. And though Recology is a private company (technically an employee-owned stock corporation, a structure that enables it to avoid most corporate income taxes) and reports little financial information, a consultants’ analysis prepared in early 2010 reported that Recology’s pretax profit margin was well over twice the industry average.

Given Recology’s reliance on political protection afforded by its long relationship with Brown, it spends quite a bit of energy on political matters. Two months before the November election, a scandal arose over allegations that Recology employees violated campaign finance laws to help Ed Lee’s campaign. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón declined to investigate, and the matter was soon forgotten. “Nothing ever happened,” says Kopp. “You aren’t going to get anything out of this DA. He’s part of this operation. How do you think he became DA?”

Gascón became DA when Gavin Newsom appointed him, in January 2011 (he was then serving as the city’s chief of police); the post had been vacated by Kamala Harris when she became the state’s attorney general. Running as an incumbent, Gascón was elected to a full term in the November 2011 election. The feds are also unlikely to take an interest in the allegations, given that Harris’s brother-in-law, Tony West, is third in command at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Kopp placed a measure on the June 2012 ballot to put the city’s garbage contract up for competitive bid, but even before the election he recognized that the effort was likely doomed. “Gail Kaufman [Brown’s former aide and current Recology board member] will spend $2 million to defeat it. We have zero. I’ve done my duty as a citizen” and put it on the ballot, Kopp says. Now, the “citizens of San Francisco have to assume some responsibility, too.” Kopp’s measure drew just 23 percent of the votes cast, and Recology’s monopoly remained secure.

Here, Kopp has hit on the real scandal afoot in San Francisco: all of this goes on, and most of the 800,000 people who call San Francisco home have little idea how their city actually runs. The city is in dire financial straits, and no one cares. But they love Da Mayor.

Put plainly, these tax breaks for politically connected tech companies or sweet deals for politically connected garbage haulers are not abstract curiosities. San Francisco desperately needs cash. As a financial entity, the city and county of San Francisco is in sorry shape. Tax revenues have been improving, but the city controller reported in March that the city, which has annual revenue of about $3 billion, faces a string of unbroken projected deficits until at least 2015, totaling $1.5 billion.

The root of the problem is the city’s huge payroll and benefit costs. The city and county of San Francisco has about 23,000 employees, while nearby San Jose, a larger city by population, has just 4,000. San Francisco’s mayor is paid $272,000 a year, considerably more than the mayor of far-larger Los Angeles. Until recently, anyone who had worked for the city for just five years was entitled to lifelong retiree health benefits.

Those ballooning employee costs were ominous enough that Lee acknowledged in the spring of 2011 that the city would be bankrupt in five to ten years if a way was not found to slash these costs by about $400 million a year. (Lee was given a new PR person shortly thereafter and spent the rest of the year denying the bankruptcy talk, even though he had been taped as he addressed a room full of reporters.) Lee and a group of public employee union officials and local business leaders did strike a deal to cut about a third of what Lee had said was required. Later, a much-needed change in the overly optimistic returns projected for the city’s pension fund essentially wiped out all of the annual savings of the pension-reform plan. (Lowering the anticipated return means that the city needs to contribute more each year to cover the fund’s anticipated obligations.) Lee trumpets his pension reform plan as the great achievement of his first year in office.

With employee costs out of control, and layoffs a verboten notion, the city has been forced to cut costs elsewhere. Summer school was axed in 2010. The city’s community college system—a behemoth with twelve campuses, 90,000 students, and a $200 million operating budget—has cut so many classes and is in such poor financial shape that its academic accreditation is at risk, the Chronicle reported in June. The streets are in deplorable condition, and Lee pushed through a $248 million bond measure last year to pay for maintenance that better-run cities fund out of annual routine operating budgets. Lee also saved a few million dollars by decreeing last year that the burden and legal responsibility of caring for thousands of street trees the city planted in the Newsom era would now fall on the property owner living nearest the tree. If a property owner—perhaps disabled or too elderly to prune the city’s former tree—is an inadequate arborist, the city will levy a fine.

So San Francisco serves its average citizens less well each passing year, and no one seems to mind—about that, or about the fact that the city is run to an unknown degree by a former mayor who openly holds sway in the public sphere yet answers to no one. “There is no way to hold Willie Brown accountable. He doesn’t serve in any capacity. That’s why machines are worrisome,” says Jessica Trounstine, a political science professor specializing in city government at University of California, Merced.

Trounstine, who says she studies historical political machines because no one will talk about a machine currently in power, says that the lack of popular interest or concern is to be expected. The local newspapers in San Francisco are a particularly listless bunch, and the dominant Chronicle can hardly be expected to look too critically at the day job of its star columnist. “It takes a lot for people to become outraged in local politics,” says Trounstine, noting that it commonly takes fifteen or twenty years for a city’s voters to grow disenchanted enough
with a political machine or boss to vote it or him out of power.

At the root of the geologic pace of change is the scarcity of credible news coverage of local government, which is a problem almost everywhere, and certainly in San Francisco. “Machines exist by telling people what is going on,” Trounstine continues. “Local politics is a very low-information environment. The lower the information environment, the less information the voters have, and the more likely it is that incumbents will stay in power. ‘Incumbents,’ broadly speaking, are the [not necessarily elected] power brokers” like Willie Brown.

Recently, however, there have been faint signs that Lee is not being as compliant as Brown had hoped. When appointing a new supervisor shortly after being inaugurated, Lee passed over Brown’s pick and chose a more liberal woman, who as head of the planning commission had opposed development deals Brown had favored. Then Lee failed to reappoint a popular local defense lawyer to the police commission. And then Lee appeared ready to allow the professional staff of the city’s pension board to select its new chief, rather than appoint a reliable political ally to the post.

So Brown used his Chronicle column to teach his wayward creation a lesson.

“Ed Lee’s Lack of Political Experience Is Showing,” ran the headline on April 15. “The mayor is answerable for everything that happens in city government,” Brown wrote, “so he needs to have agencies being run by people he can live with.” With Da Mayor still very much in charge, the implication was clear: Brown made Lee, and he can just as easily make a replacement. He—and his clients, whoever they are—need to have San Francisco being run by people he can live with.

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Elizabeth Lesly Stevens

Elizabeth Lesly Stevens wrote a weekly column on money and power for the Bay Area section of the New York Times before moving to Washington last fall.