The reeducation of Willie Brown

San Francisco mayor finds going from imperial role in legislature to

Most politicians enjoy pressing the flesh, but San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown has made it high art. On Saturday mornings like this one, he throws his doors open to anyone who wants to come by and speak their piece.

There's the strapping lad who wants to be a fireman, and by the way, would the mayor please perform his coming marriage ceremony? There's the fellow who is sure someone is projecting subliminal images onto him. And there are those right off the street who drag shattered lives into the mayor's elegant conference room in search of a sign that someone important cares.

Nearing full stride in his bid for reelection in November, the flamboyant Mayor Brown is a case study in the challenges of political downsizing.

Forced by term limits from his powerful perch as Speaker of the California Assembly four years ago, he joins a small army of politicians nationally squeezed into second-choice positions by state and local term limits, only to discover that in politics, smaller jobs are often tougher.

For Brown, it's meant an unexpectedly deep immersion in retail politics. For instance, he recently spent time with several top staffers untangling an $800 fine against a public-housing occupant who contests the amount. Though she denied that her apartment needed full repainting when she vacated, Brown noted that "sometimes spot painting doesn't work."

SUCH minutia was probably inconceivable to Brown when he reached the apex of his career during a 15-year speakership from 1980 to 1995, most of which was spent under Republican governors. As the ranking Democrat of the nation's largest state, Brown was often regarded as one of the most powerful black political figures in America.

With his Brioni suits, expensive cars, and fun-loving demeanor, Brown did not shrink from living large on the political stage. No wonder he once turned up his nose at the notion that he'd return to San Francisco and run for mayor. "Street lights, dog doo, and parking meters are not my cup of tea," he sniffed.

Well, term limits changed all that. And over a breakfast of wheat toast, bacon, and green tea, Brown said recently that while he loves being mayor, downsizing was far more difficult than he expected.

"In Sacramento, I knew what it meant to lead. But I never really knew what it meant to govern. And it's far more challenging to govern, it's far more of a person-to-person business," he said.

Beyond term limits, Brown is emblematic of another trend in American politics. Big-city mayors are growing more powerful, and more accountable. Generally, a retrenchment of federal and state spending on major urban programs has pushed mayors to find their own way. But it's also made them almost solely responsible for heightened concern over crime, education, and transportation.

Facing no formidable foe yet, Brown is highly favored to win in November. But polls don't yet show - and it is early - a lot of public enthusiasm for the man many hold responsible for chronically poor transit service, bedraggled parks, and too many homeless on the streets.

None of these are new problems, but Brown made some big promises and, in the eyes of many, he hasn't delivered.

At the same time, the city's overall picture is one of beaming health. The mayor's budget, red when he took office, is now in surplus. There has been a virtual renaissance in the south-of-Market district that was once a neighborhood of warehouses and flop houses. A new city library recently opened across from a gloriously refurbished City Hall. And almost everywhere you look in San Francisco these days, new buildings are rising.

Still, the small and specific have the ability to drown out the large and general in a San Francisco mayoral election. As San Francisco State University political scientist Richard DeLeon puts it, "Willie Brown thinks big. And in San Francisco, big is a bad word."

Brown admits he's been running for reelection from the first day he took office. He also concedes that while his political base has been San Francisco, he never knew the city as well as he thought he did. The largest political truth, one that has sunk many before him, is the almost tribal nature of local politics here.

Sure, the city is predominantly Democrat. But that is next to meaningless compared with neighborhood versus downtown interests, gays versus more conservative social groups, the largely unaligned nature of the increasingly active Asian American community, and housing advocates versus a longstanding animosity to growth. "Everyone in town holds membership in subgroups," says Brown. Trying to build a majority out of those disparate groups is the political equivalent of gripping a handful of sand.

Issues aside, few mayors since Joseph Alioto in the 1970s have come to embody the city's style the way Brown has. "Willie Brown is like Ed Koch," says Tom Cochran, executive director of the US Conference of Mayors. "When you see Willie Brown, you're seeing San Francisco, just like when you saw Ed Koch, you saw New York."

The mayor deplores what he calls "poll politicians," and has a habit of shooting from the hip, a practice that reveals moments of refreshing candor but also perpetually gets Brown in trouble.

Sensing that vulnerability, Brown is mostly business these days, acting more the administrator than the flamboyant man about town. He recently appointed a new transit chief, unveiled an ambitious program to revitalize the city's parks and playgrounds, and grew more aggressive in keeping the homeless off the streets.

As he said recently, in what seemed almost a repudiation of the style that helped get him here, "I want people to pay attention to what I do, not who I am."

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