Deconstructing Joe
Joe O'Donoghue was once the bane of San Francisco's left. Now he's making friends with a surprising number of progressives. What's the powerful developer up to – and shouldn't we be worried?

By Rachel Brahinsky

IT'S AROUND NOON in the cool of San Francisco's midsummer, and Joe O'Donoghue sits with his back to the door of a small Irish pub on the edge of the Mission District. He's come to meet a reporter, but first he has to attend to a little business. It seems the proprietor of the place, a slim woman named Annie, wants to serve food at sidewalk tables, and she's having a little trouble with the city permits. "I don't understand it, Joe," she says in a lilting Irish accent. "They say this is a residential area."

In fact, the pub, a colorful place called Wilde Oscar's, which is painted with poems by its namesake, is surrounded by dense Victorian homes. But O'Donoghue is jovial and doesn't question the notion of putting outdoor seating on the block. He takes some paperwork from her, and speaking with a sense of entitlement – with the aura of a man who knows there's no question he'll get what he wants – he lets her know she's in good hands: "We'll just see, Annie, what we can do to help you out. It's a pleasure."

It's a pretty typical moment in the life of O'Donoghue. The 18-year head of the politically influential Residential Builders Association is constantly approached for advice and asked to help smooth over city bureaucracies. He's always pushing something, fighting someone, doing a favor here (or calling one in there), and putting his fingers into the local political pie. And you can't always tell what side he's going to be on.

On this particular day, after doling out advice at the pub, he's planning to meet with a lawyer about a lawsuit filed against the city for moving (he calls it "stealing") surplus funds from his pet agency, the Department of Building Inspection, to help fill a budget gap. The next day he has meetings scheduled to plot out campaign strategy for the anti-demolition ordinance championed by onetime foe Sup. Chris Daly.

In between business, he ruffles his fingers through his slightly unruly hair, sips from a cup of Earl Grey tea, and delicately eats lunch, which on this day is a hamburger, which he carefully cuts into quarters and slowly dips into his ketchup, bite by bite.

I've come here to try to understand O'Donoghue, the near legendary head of the Irish-dominated RBA – a man who writes vitriolic (but lyrical) rhyming poems about his enemies and faxes them around town like press releases, a man who once challenged a union leader to a bareknuckle fight to the finish because he opposed a measure to fix up Laguna Honda Hospital, and a man who, during the Willie Brown administration, was known as one of the most powerful people in San Francisco.

O'Donoghue has always been a character who inspired gossip and conjecture among political insiders, but in the past year or so he's made some mysterious political choices that even he doesn't seem to fully understand. He's gone from allying with a pro-development mayor who gave him just about anything he wanted, to hitching his political fortunes to new progressive leaders like Daly and Sup. Matt Gonzalez. It has political insiders buzzing: Is this a permanent shift for O'Donoghue? Is he trying to dupe the city's left into supporting his personal agenda? Or is he a man floundering politically, watching his onetime power base dissolve and searching for a new alliance?

The questions are more than idle gossip: with his ability to move legislation and draw huge crowds to back his causes – and with his impressive political war chest – wherever he lands will impact the future of the city.

In spite of myself, I'm charmed by O'Donoghue. At 67, the Irish native has a springy, whistling way of speaking. He's an engaging storyteller, his tales – of political battles in which he is typically the main protagonist – are redolent with rich Irish sayings and homespun phrases, and he's genuinely funny. O'Donoghue's blue eyes glint with purpose and energy, and though he talks tough, he's also practiced at treating those he wants to win over with deference and respect.

In his version of the events of the past 15 years – a Dickensian time in which his builders made heaps of cash while record numbers of families were squeezed out of the city by suffocating economic pressure – he and the RBA are history's heroes. "We are progressive people," he told me over and over.

And yet, from a progressive viewpoint, it's impossible to deny the real, visible, and serious damage O'Donoghue and his gang have done to San Francisco. And it's impossible to overlook the fact that, when the charm is turned off, he can be truly frightening.

So if he's starting to play around with the community activists and leaders of the progressive movement, there's reason to be very nervous.

Out of the Richmond

Michael Joseph O'Donoghue roared onto the local political scene in the mid-1980s, when one of the city's hottest neighborhood battles was taking place in the generally serene Richmond District. A handful of building contractors, most of them RBA members, were demolishing vintage single-family Victorians as fast as they could get the permits, and replacing them with dense, boxy (and shamefully ugly) multi-unit blockhouses known as "Richmond Specials." The builders made out like bandits; preservationists were up in arms.

At the time, the RBA was a relatively moribund group with little power and virtually no influence, but O'Donoghue used the issue to fire up a new political base. He turned the mostly Irish builders, and the mostly Chinese families who moved into the new units, into an alliance that gave the old-school neighborhood activists the fight of their lives.

O'Donoghue organized rallies, delivered fiery speeches denouncing the housing preservationists as racists, spewed vitriolic personal attacks on his opponents – and emerged as the new leader of what would soon be a political powerhouse.

Ten years later, by the time Brown became mayor, the RBA was a force at City Hall – and with the help of the mayor, O'Donoghue used his clout to push his agenda of the moment: increasing profits for his builders by helping them freely build live-work lofts. The builders swept through the city's light industrial zones in the South of Market, Potrero Hill, and the Mission, and within just a few years left an indelible mark on the urban landscape as industrial sites were displaced by luxury homes for the high-tech nouveau riche. To date, a stunning 5,030 live-work units have been built or permitted, according to a tally kept by land-use lawyer Sue Hestor.

Hestor's relationship with O'Donoghue reflects his odd alliances. They clashed over the 1986 slow-growth initiative Hestor wrote but worked together a few years later to block hotels on the waterfront.

The loft-men cometh

By the 1990s, any sign of a working relationship between Hestor and O'Donoghue was dead. During the dot-com boom, O'Donoghue's builders made their mark across SoMa and the Mission, using the city's live-work loft laws without restraint to transform tough residential neighborhoods and industrial streets with rows of glass-fronted lofts. They did so as evictions swept the Mission and as young dot-commers changed the culture of the two once-poorer neighborhoods.

To affordable-housing and anti-gentrification activists, O'Donoghue became a living symbol of everything that was wrong with Brown's administration, politics, and the development-happy Planning Commission. O'Donoghue seemed to thrive on the attention.

Then, as Brown prepared to leave office last year, something happened to O'Donoghue. Although Brown's anointed successor was onetime O'Donoghue ally Sup. Gavin Newsom, and although O'Donoghue's pal and longtime ally Jack Davis was working on Newsom's campaign, the RBA czar wasn't buying it. He began to bitterly criticize Newsom in the press. He first supported Angela Alioto, whom he says helped him when she was on the Board of Supervisors – and then swung his support to Gonzalez in the runoff. The move baffled a lot of people, including Gonzalez, whose allies have fought to stop RBA projects for years.

In the post-Brown era of local politics, O'Donoghue isn't alone in trying to stake out new territory. Still, nobody could tell if O'Donoghue thought he could get favors from the iconic Green or if, in a city where so much of politics is personal, his hatred for Newsom was so strong that, against his better interests as a developer, he had to oppose Newsom's candidacy.

Or perhaps, relying on a political meter sharpened from eight years of working with one of California's slickest political operators, O'Donoghue was sensing a shift in the political winds.

'Willie listened'

"For us, Willie Brown was manna from heaven. He was ideal for the times."

O'Donoghue is talking as he maneuvers his white Lincoln around live-work loft projects on the north side of Potrero Hill. "A Willie Brown comes along once in a hundred years. Willie brought capital investment in here. He had the relationships, like he has with us, where if Willie Brown wanted something tomorrow, he'd have it – even though he's out of office."

O'Donoghue met Brown in 1994, when Brown emerged to challenge Mayor Frank Jordan for election. Jack Davis arranged the meeting, which took place in the office of a Gray Davis staffer. "I talked for 50 minutes, and Willie listened," O'Donoghue recalls.

Whatever O'Donoghue said that day impressed Brown, who must have keenly sensed that the irascible Irish developer could be a strong and loyal ally. He soon became an outspoken supporter of the cause nearest to O'Donoghue's heart: the struggle for Irish independence.

Since moving to the United States at age 19, O'Donoghue has been closely involved in support work for Sinn Fein, the pro-independence political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and those who support the cause seem to earn his loyalty.

"Willie did more for our culture than any other. He brought the north of Ireland to the attention of the British forces. He made them think we were bigger than we were.... Willie dumped Bushmills [whiskey] down the drain" to back up a threat of an economic boycott on certain Irish goods.

There was another bond O'Donoghue and Brown shared, one that was perhaps equally important to O'Donoghue as Irish independence: growing up poor.

Born amid scarcity in Limerick, Ireland, in 1937, O'Donoghue says he was seared early on with a commitment to the underdog, and an intense spirit of nationalism burned into his psyche. "We learned to stand up for what you believe in and help people who are getting fucked over," he says.

And he and Brown shared an important ethic: "Right or wrong," O'Donoghue says, "you're loyal." Brown's loyalty to O'Donoghue was worth millions and millions of dollars to RBA members.

The industrial zones were – and still are – the Wild West of local planning. With no long-term strategy outlined by the city, each project was approved or rejected as if in a vacuum. The RBA skillfully took advantage of that lack of structure primarily by pushing through the live-works, originally designated in the Planning Code for working artists (and thus not subject to the same affordable-housing, transit, and other fees as regular residential development) – but which in fact were built and sold at high market rates to anyone who could pay.

O'Donoghue and his defenders like to point out that the live-work phenomenon wasn't directly linked to the mass of evictions. But, as the San Francisco Tenants Union's Ted Gullicksen notes, the live-work trend "created gentrification pressure. It came at the same time as the OMI [owner move-in eviction] peak, which we felt was more serious – but the live-works would come as the icing on the cake."

The Brown-O'Donoghue arrangement was sealed with campaign cash; the RBA gave prodigiously to favored candidates and measures. Since 1999 alone, the RBA shelled out more than $1.4 million, and O'Donoghue admits that often cash would flow at Brown's request.

For a while they were a powerful duo, but eventually O'Donoghue's development push brought on a political backlash for both Brown and the RBA; it was a key catalyst of the anti-Brown fervor that in 2000 swept into office a new class of city supervisors who won over voters with antiloft rhetoric and who vowed to clean up corruption in the city planning process. Top on the new supes' agenda: killing the live-work trend. They also devoted themselves to nicking away at Brown's power, and with it, some of O'Donoghue's.

Poetic justice

If you tangle with O'Donoghue, it's likely your name will end up wrapped into a poem on his Web site (www.rfbasf.com). When the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of stories about corruption at the Department of Building Inspection that implicated him, he followed with a four-page, footnoted verse that began, "Trollop reporters who fictionalize truth / Are ersatz assassins like Wilkes Booth. / They the Judases of today, / Sell out readership for tainted pay."

The poem was just the latest in O'Donoghue's series of rhyming verses – which he terms "combat through verbiage" – most of which focus on politics. Nearly all of them contain references to mythological characters or extensive footnotes citing testimony at public hearings, documents, and court cases; a good deal of the verse is highly literate, yet often even his most complex poems rely on name-calling attacks to make their final point.

Sometimes, those attacked in verse have attacked back. In September 2002, O'Donoghue wrote "Calvin – Alia Jacta Est," (which means "Calvin, the die is cast" and is apparently a reference to Julius Caesar's tome The Gallic Wars), an ode (of sorts) to affordable-housing developer and activist Calvin Welch. "I hope to put to eternal repose / Your recent tosh, a defilement of prose.... A housing shortage you created to swell / So you could build up a new money well.... Da Dee Dum and Dum Da Dee / Go drown yourself in a cup of your pee."

To which Welch replied, "Poor Joe, at a loss, such a fool / No more commissioners as tools, / Now must produce on merit alone.... Dear Joe, look in the mirror, see the sneer / And eyes so dead and wonder no more for answers clear / Lies leave lines and wounded lives / And each leave their mark for all to see, even if hidden behind poetry."

O'Donoghue revels in his self-proclaimed image as an Irish brawler (who, interestingly, doesn't drink, upholding a pledge he took at age 14 to stay away from alcohol). He likes to talk, for example, about how he was ballsy enough to challenge former district attorney (and former college boxing star) Terence Hallinan to a fistfight, and how, when Stan Smith of the Building and Construction Trades Council opposed a bond measure O'Donoghue was backing, he left a screaming message on Smith's answering machine: "[I said] I hoped he'd have a heart attack.... I said we can pick an arena [to fight in], and we can donate the proceeds to charity."

Sometimes he goes toe-to-toe publicly. As David Lupo, an organizer with Carpenters Union Local 22 (which has fought bitterly with O'Donoghue over conditions and wages at RBA sites), puts it, with perhaps only slight exaggeration, "I've heard him publicly threaten nearly every public agency in the city."

Because his public persona is so tough, it's hard to ignore stories about alleged intimidation behind closed doors. Krissy Keefer, former artistic director of the Brady Street Dance Center, recalled what she says happened in 1997 when RBA-built lofts sprung up next to her studio. In a replay of what was taking place throughout the industrial zones where new housing was sprouting up with lax oversight, the new neighbors began to complain about the noise from the center, which had been in its location for more than a decade. After the RBA agreed to enhance the soundproofing between the buildings, Keefer says, she received a visit at her office. "He came into our office with two of his big guys and started screaming," she said. "He said, 'If you girls don't cooperate, I'm going to turn this whole building into a parking lot.' I was terrified."

O'Donoghue acknowledges he visited Keefer with two other men, but vehemently denies threatening her. "I will take a lie detector test. I can swear on a Bible," he told me.

But the O'Donoghue myth is so large that when other threatening or strange things happen, he and his guys come under suspicion. During one of the most heated hearings on an early proposal to halt the live-works, artist and activist Debra Walker, one of the most vocal RBA opponents at the time, says she discovered that a roughhewn prison-style shiv, or handmade dagger, stamped with the name Tina had been tucked in her briefcase, possibly while she was at the podium testifying in favor of the moratorium. She says that she has no idea who slipped the weapon between her files (and O'Donoghue denies it was him) but that the incident shook her.

Weird politics

Amid the tall tales and the threats, it has always been tough to truly pin down O'Donoghue's politics. Though he was allied with Brown, he seemed to quickly detest Newsom, who came from the same political clan. And though he insists his conflicts with Newsom are purely on a policy level, when O'Donoghue talks about the mayor, his criticism comes off in highly personal terms, pointing out Newsom's "plastic" smile and "childlike and petulant" behavior. A big thing for O'Donoghue is that, unlike Brown, Newsom has been associated with the Bay Area's social and economic aristocracy since birth, which, for an Irishman born under British rule, is the ultimate sin.

"The problem with [them]," O'Donoghue said more than once about various opponents, "is they have no sense of humor. They look down at you with that goddamn look of disdain, and we respond to that culturally."

But there's one place where the clash between O'Donoghue and Newsom (who refused to comment for this story) isn't likely to be personal. It' a site of one of the odder O'Donoghue alliances – and the seat of most of his remaining power at City Hall. Back in the early 1990s, O'Donoghue was furious at the way the Department of Building Inspection was run. He wanted the inspectors to quit harassing his guys and cracking down on small-time residential-permit violations. At the same time, tenant activist Randy Shaw was fighting to get the building inspectors to clean up conditions in single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs (traditionally low-rent residential hotels).

Their interests met over a 1994 ballot measure that restructured the department and gave them both a measure of control over what was inspected and how quickly permits were issued. Since then they have remained friends and allies.

Several sources at the powerful department say that after the measure passed, O'Donoghue's control there extended from top to bottom. He and Shaw deny this and have denounced a series of reports in the press and by city agencies that have criticized the department on a number of fronts. Still, even Davis, the consultant who is close to both Newsom and O'Donoghue, says his friend controls the place. "Joe and Randy control it," Davis said. "It was designed to be that way."

Newsom took on the building inspection issue and hired former chief administrative officer Rudy Nothenberg to assess the agency. His report essentially bolsters past charges. O'Donoghue, not surprisingly, takes it as a personal attack.

What's he up to?

In early August the supervisorial races were just beginning to kick off. Sup. Jake McGoldrick, who is fighting for his political life out in District One, opened his campaign with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at his freshly painted headquarters on Clement Street. Supporters gathered as a massive red dragon puppet danced a ritual dance for good luck.

Gonzalez and Public Defender Jeff Adachi attended, along with a decent selection of centrist progressives. There was one man who didn't show up, but his presence was clearly felt.

Last winter, in a fit of pique, O'Donoghue threatened to run for supervisor against McGoldrick, whom he had always sparred with over housing policies, whom he claimed was slipping too close to Newsom, and whom he rightly saw as vulnerable. He later changed his mind and volunteered to act as treasurer for Rose Tsai, who's challenging McGoldrick from the right. By then he was claiming to be working for Tsai to help McGoldrick – the rationale being that she would take votes from Lillian Sing, McGoldrick's other, better-funded, challenger. O'Donoghue – for reasons that aren't entirely clear ("She's abandoned her people," he's said) – has set his sights on Sing.

The McGoldrick fight is just one of the campaigns upon which O'Donoghue hopes to leave his mark this fall. It seems he envisions himself a kingmaker of sorts, one whose very wish can topple a candidacy or turn an election – and of course, he does have the financial resources to back up his word.

And his selections are all over the map. In his home district, Five, he seems to be supporting several candidates who have been allied with the anti-Newsom bloc, including Bill Barnes and Ross Mirkarimi, who says O'Donoghue's just "hedging his bets."

But in District 11, O'Donoghue has sworn all-out war against Sup. Gerardo Sandoval, who has generally voted with the progressive bloc. There, he says any other candidate will do. In District Seven he likes centrist Rennie O'Brien and, as Shaw pointed out, "he's really excited about [right-wing Mission police captain Greg] Corrales because he's bashing Newsom."

Meanwhile, he's fought Newsom over the workforce-housing initiative (joining progressives in defeating it in March) and has worked closely with Daly on a high-rise project in District Six and on the anti-demolition campaign. He's helping fund Shaw's BeyondChron.com Web site, which routinely takes on the Chronicle.

And even if his influence has waned in the post-Brown era, the perception remains. As the Board of Supervisors sparred with Newsom over the content of Proposition A, the housing bond on the fall ballot, O'Donoghue's name kept coming up; some of the supes suggested there had to be a balance struck so he wouldn't oppose it. It was never clear whether he had actually made such a threat, but O'Donoghue's influence is such that people think he's involved even if he isn't.

As Sup. Aaron Peskin, who is being challenged by RBA member Brian O'Flynn for his District Three seat, said, "I don't know [if O'Donoghue's backing O'Flynn], but that's enough to make you paranoid."

The ways of power are strange, and often a person is powerful simply because people believe him or her to be so. And in the post-Brown era, there's a scrambling taking place to claim the leadership of the left, right, and center. While some mayoral critics seem a bit tongue-tied by Newsom's current popularity, O'Donoghue isn't. For better or worse, for those aching for a counter to Newsom, the criticism has been welcome.

Even Daly, who got his start as a housing activist, is working with O'Donoghue. Together they helped engineer the controversial Fourth and Freelon condo project. In the end, the city will get more affordable housing, but the deal defied the notion of sensible long-term planning – which the city still lacks.

So is O'Donoghue, the bane of progressive activists, really moving to court the left? It's not clear. "Politics is often the convergence of different tribes," Gonzalez tells me. "It's a mistake to assume that because he supported me he's in the progressive fold." Still Gonzalez, Daly, and many of the activists who support them aren't rejecting O'Donoghue's support.

Affordable-housing developer Welch has a more cynical take, saying that progressives "have a sense that Joe is far more powerful than he really is, and more than his onetime allies do.... He is in no way a progressive person and does nothing but hold out very pragmatic deals around specific candidates."

O'Donoghue's shtick, Welch says, is playing the image game. "He's always had the ability of projecting this image of being a populist grassrootsy fellow," he says. "[But] he specialized in applying a political approach that Jack Davis pioneered: act right, talk left. Attack the left from the left, for the benefit of the right."

Eric Quezada, who fought O'Donoghue daily during the live-work boom, is wary of O'Donoghue's newfound ties to progressives. "It's a very dangerous proposition to take money from him," the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition activist says. "It doesn't show solidarity with a lot of people who took him on when [the RBA was] doing some really horrendous stuff to our neighborhoods."

But candidates like Barnes note that money is hard to come by; he says he isn't against taking RBA cash if it's offered. "In 1999, people had issues with Clint [Reilly], but if it weren't for him, Jake [McGoldrick] and Gerardo [Sandoval] wouldn't have won."

And indeed, a new fight with the RBA looms on the horizon. O'Donoghue's builders have pushed through approvals on projects that Hestor warns are harbingers of the next planning scam. They're small studios that will be rented at market rate. But on paper they're called SROs, which means they aren't subject to the same regulations as market-rate housing and they can be built in neighborhoods that aren't zoned for market-rate projects. "This is the next live-work issue," Hestor warns. "They're coming in under the radar. It's a windfall."

Critics like Hestor charge that if the developer is going to get a profit hike through loosened requirements, the city should reap the public benefit of added low-cost housing. O'Donoghue defends the projects. "Of course it's market rate. We will build wherever there's a need," he says. "We didn't create the SRO legislation. It's there on the books for us to use."

Research assistance by Laura Allen and Martin Ricard.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky