The bad old days - Page 3

45TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Looking through the past 45 years of Guardian coverage of City Hall corruption brings to mind the upcoming election

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This 1971 Guardian cartoon by Dan O'Neill still captures the spirit of a machine-controlled City Hall

The Guardian quickly demonstrated that it had a different approach than a lot of the "New Left" — particularly when it came to electoral politics. At a time when some were saying that it made no difference whether Ronald Reagan or Pat Brown won the 1966 governor's race, the Guardian made the key point about Reagan.

"California cannot afford the luxury of this kind of conservatism," a Nov. 7, 1966 editorial stated. "Because of the millions of people coming to California, because San Francisco and Los Angeles soon will have the greatest concentration of urban power in history, because farm land and open space is vanishing at a suicidal rate, because technology is putting vast populations out of work, because of the social neglect of our cities and the uglification of our countryside, because we now have the knowledge to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor."

And while the paper devoted considerable space to reporting on and opposing the war in Vietnam, it was also developing a reputation for local investigative reporting. One June 7, 1971 story showed how the city had all of its short-term deposits in local banks that paid no interest at all. The story parked an investigation by the city's budget analyst, the resignation of the city treasurer — and a new investment policy that brought the city at least $1 million more revenue a year. (Adjusted for inflation, that's about $5 million a year, times 40 years is a lot of money that the Guardian brought into the city coffers).

And from the start, the Guardian was a nonpartisan, independent foe of corruption, secrecy and undue influence at City Hall. So while the paper eagerly endorsed Phil Burton (and later his brother, John) for Congress and lauded their antiwar and environmental policies, the Guardian also blasted the Burtons for exercising undue influence back home. The paper strongly endorsed George Moscone for mayor — then denounced him when he fired Harvey Milk from a commission post after Milk had the gall to challenge the Moscone/Burton candidate for state Assembly.

The 1999 Sunshine Ordinance, which dramatically opened up City Hall records, was sponsored and promoted by the Guardian. Willie Brown and his cronies hated it.

It's probably a misnomer to say that the Burtons, who were a dominant force in local politics in the 1970s and 1980s, ran an old-fashioned machine. They didn't have the iron control over local politics and the patronage jobs system that the word "machine" implies.

But when Brown became mayor of San Francisco, he had all of that. Brown controlled eight solid votes on the Board of Supervisors (and through various political machinations, had managed to appoint most of them). "He ruled the building," Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, who was a supervisor during those years, recalled. "If you defied him, you were radioactive."

And one of the people who rose through the ranks as a loyal Brown appointee was Ed Lee. Who to this day thinks things in that administration were just dandy.

 

The Lee campaign complains about "guilt by association," and that's a legitimate point. Ed Lee isn't Willie Brown. He's a lot more open, a lot (a lot) more humble, and as numerous progressives have pointed out to us, his door is open. He doesn't have the history of sleaze that pretty much defined Brown's political career.

There will be no "Ed Lee Machine." In fact, with district elections of supervisors pretty much guaranteeing more diffuse political power in the city, there will never be another mayor able to rule the way Brown did.

And these days, Brown's clout could easily be overstated. Until he engineered the selection of Ed Lee as mayor, his power seemed to be waning. And even Mayor Lee hasn't done everything that Brown wanted.