Bay City Mayoral Vote: Italian vs. Birthday Suits

Dealmaker Brown may topple incumbent Frank Jordan

AFTER seven months of campaigning, San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan's bid to stay in office has been reduced to one word: trust. The slogan, hung like a Burma Shave sign from every other lamppost in town, is an attempt to paint his opponent, former state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, as crooked.

But Willie, as everyone calls him, has his own one-word campaign - largely sotto voce but just as widely spread - shower. It refers to a defining moment earlier in the campaign when Mr. Jordan, in an ill-conceived attempt to reach out to unconventional media, jumped naked into his shower with two Los Angeles DJs. The photo of this less-than-mayoral event ran for 11 days in a row in the San Francisco papers, fixing the image permanently in voters' minds.

"Willie Brown was the issue until that Black Friday when the mayor jumped into the shower," laments a Jordan campaign official. "That picture was worth about $20 million in negative free media."

What the shower did was evoke memories of Jordan's rocky first year in office, characterized by a series of bumbling episodes that suggested the police-chief-turned-politician wasn't up to the job of running the city. "After a tough start, he looked like mayor," the Jordan aide says, but the shower "reinforced and brings back into life everything he had worked so hard to leave behind."

Tomorrow's San Francisco election is probably the most watched urban vote in America. It pits a relative conservative against one of the most prominent liberals in the country, in a city known for its liberal leanings. The city faces entrenched urban problems such as drugs, crime, and homelessness, while massive cutbacks in state and federal funding loom.

The Jordan campaign has struggled to make up lost ground since the Nov. 7 open primary, in which the two men got about a third of the vote each, with Roberta Achtenberg, a leader of the city's politically powerful gay and lesbian community, trailing just behind. But Ms. Achtenberg's immediate endorsement of Brown left Jordan far behind in the polls.

The mayor's campaign consultants have responded with an intensified assault on Mr. Brown's character, accusing him of being the tool of "special interests," from real-estate developers to the tobacco lobby. "For Willie Brown, it's all about money," Jordan declared at their final televised debate last week.

If the election were to be decided on the basis of issues alone, Jordan would seem to have the edge. As the endorsements of the two leading San Francisco papers pointed out, Jordan has delivered four years of balanced budgets, safer and cleaner streets, and fewer homeless on the streets. The dailies embraced his plan to shrink the budget to meet expected cuts in federal funding. "To our way of thinking, substance always counts more than style," the San Francisco Examiner opined.

But San Francisco is a city that prides itself on style. And Brown offers a record of political achievement to go along with his renowned quick wit, Italian suits, sports cars, and detailed knowledge of the city's legion of fine-dining establishments.

The black lawyer rose from impoverished beginnings in a segregated Texas town to a 31-year career in the state Assembly. Nearly half that time he spent as the longest-serving and perhaps most powerful Speaker in California history. He is recognized as a Rembrandt of the art of legislative compromise in one of the most politically divided states in the country.

Brown has been a determined champion of the underdog, sponsoring education and health-care reforms, and defending the rights of welfare recipients, poor children, and consumers. But he has also been a champion fund-raiser from powerful lobbies, using the money to ensure control of the state legislature for the Democratic Party - and himself.

"I don't think Jordan has been a bad mayor," says long-time legislator Bill Lockyer, president pro tem of the state Senate. "I think he's kind of dull, and San Francisco can use the robust energy and class that Willie will bring to it."

BROWN'S campaign has traded heavily on his personal magnetism, sending the dapper politician up and down every hill in this vista-saturated city. "It's hard to find anyone in this city who hasn't seen me personally," Brown told an excited crowd of youths, community organizers, clergy, and police officers filling a community center last week.

"We need somebody to get things done," says George Blechman, who like most of the people in this Irish and Italian working-class neighborhood voted for Jordan in 1991. "Jordan - he's inept."

Columnist Herb Caen, San Francisco's famous arbiter of style, agrees. "Willie Brown is in a class by himself," he wrote on the eve of the Nov. 7 vote. "The incumbent is a known quality, and after the infamous shower incident, more known than the other candidates.... If you vote for him tomorrow, you'll get what you saw in that photo: a man who looks as though he's wondering what he's doing there."

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