45TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Looking through the past 45 years of Guardian coverage of City Hall corruption brings to mind the upcoming election
But what he did — and what ruined many San Francisco neighborhoods, and ruined the lives of many San Franciscans — was to let the economic cleansing of the city happen, without raising a finger to slow it down or prevent the evictions or protect the most vulnerable people in the city. Over and over, he encouraged it — by appointing commissioners and supervisors and department heads who allowed evictions and development and displacement in the name of growth and prosperity.
In fact, when reporters from the zine Maximum Rock 'n' Roll asked Brown about the problems facing poor people, he told them that the city had become so expensive that poor people would be better off living somewhere else.
Because he didn't care about poor people, or tenants, or artists, or anyone who lacked money and flash and dazzle and clout. He was the worst kind of imperial mayor.
Here's how we put in it in our 33rd anniversary issue in 1998:
"Let's say the next major earthquake that hits San Francisco is of roughly the same magnitude of the Loma Prieta quake of 1989, or maybe just a bit stronger. Let's say it wipes out right 1,000 houses and leave some 5,000 people homeless ... and lets say a few unscrupulous profiteers take advantage of the shortages of critical supplies and charge desperate residents triple the normal rate for food, blankets and drinking water....
"The profiteers, speculators and charlatans would be exposed in the press and roundly, loudly denounced by every political and community leader in the city. The ones who didn't wind up in jail would be forced to leave town in disgrace."
Or else they wouldn't. Because when an economic earthquake ravaged San Francisco during his term, Brown — the most powerful mayor in modern history, a guy who could have had an immense impact on what was happening — went to meet the speculators and profiteers with outstretched arms, welcomed them to the city and partied with them at night.
And when he ran for re-election, they thanked him by funding an astonishing $5 million campaign.
Then there was the corruption. Not only did Brown raise pay-to-play to a new art form, he filled the city payroll and key commissions with campaign workers, former political allies, and cronies, subverting the civil service system and undermining both the function of city agencies and public respect for local government. At least seven Brown appointees were indicted or investigated for criminal misconduct. While sentencing a Housing Authority official to five years in prison, U.S. District Judge Charles Legge decried what he called Third World-style corruption at San Francisco City Hall.
When Mayor Ed Lee, who is now seeking a full four-year term, was asked to give Brown a grade for his eight years in Room 200, Lee said: A-Plus.
Which makes us a little nervous. To say the least.
I've been going back through the Guardian archives over the past couple of weeks, picking out some great covers to reproduce (see page 18) and looking at four and a half decades of alternative news coverage of San Francisco. And if there's one theme that emerges from the stacks and stacks and stacks of papers, it's that local government matters.
In the 1960s, when the underground press was talking about sex, drugs and dropping out, the Guardian was talking about the ways big corporations were stealing the taxpayers' money at City Hall. (Okay, the Guardian wrote about sex and drugs too. But sex and drugs and political scandals.)
The difference between the independent alternative press and the underground papers of the era was more than just thematic. The underground publishers were having a great time and celebrating culture, but none of those publications was built to last. From the day they published their first issue in October, 1966, Guardian founders Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble intended their paper to become a permanent part of San Francisco.
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