The 2011 Mayor’s Election seems to be spluttering to a close as a passionless citizenry prepares to do its duty, much like last-minute shoppers deciding they better find a drum for Johnny or a doll for Betty.
Or is it really like that?
Public financing and rank choice voting were supposed to generate greater voter enthusiasm and participation. A large field of candidates, each with a political base, would be expected to bring in more voters.
The stage was set for a lively citywide discussion of choices for candidates and choices facing the city for the next four years. Where was the audience?
Since the last sharply contested mayor’s race in 2003, one major change looms over everything else.
San Francisco’s legacy print media, including both dailies and alternate media weeklies, no longer gather together a city audience and no longer offer readers the coverage that existed in past elections.
The results were predictable.
* Lacking the depth of an experienced investigative reporting team created a vacuum, and papers fell back on tips and tricks from campaign opponents who did all the “investigating” for them – and then blamed candidates for “negative attacks.”
* Cutbacks resulted in smaller newspapers with smaller stories – and too often none at all. Even the perennial newspaper poll that marks campaign season was jettisoned, leaving the public only gossipy tidbits leaked by campaign pollsters seeking to manipulate insider columnists.
* One of the most important functions of the press – gathering together an audience that reached across a community – faltered and failed as the city’s flagship newspaper saw circulation drop by 50 percent, from 450,000 to just 225,000.
Add to that the downsizing of staff meant first losing the most experienced – and highest paid – reporters and editors. Candidates cynically reinventing themselves weren’t challenged by reporters with institutional memories of past records.
The facts are compelling.
Public Press, the online outlet that has sought to fill some of the most important gaps, partnered in an in-depth survey of the Bay Area media’s devolution over the past ten years. While their survey spanned ten years, most of the changes took place since the 2003 election.
* “Eight years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle’s investigative team included five to seven reporters. Today, the Chronicle has no investigative team, though it does participate in ad hoc investigations in collaboration with other news organizations — a situation shared by many once-spendthrift metropolitan newspapers,” according to the Public Press study.
* Overall, the Chronicle’s editorial staff at its main office has shrunk to 140 from a peak of about 560 a decade ago, according to this study. Its coverage outside the city once included nine bureaus with 32 reporters; today it has just two bureau reporters covering all nine former bureaus.
* In 2000 the paper boasted a circulation of around half a million copies daily. When this year’s election season started up in full in May, the study found that weekday circulation was down by half, to 235,350.
* Coverage of our city’s politics that used to be available from other media has suffered. The San Jose Mercury once raced against our local papers for scoops and in-depth investigative pieces. It closed its San Francisco bureau and, along with the Chronicle, accounted for an overall reduction in staffing from more than 1,000 workers to fewer than 300.
* The alternate weeklies aren’t faring much better, as the San Francisco Guardian had to lay off experienced reporters in the midst of the election, and the San Francisco Weekly lost its top reporter along with other editorial staff at the same time.
The 2011 mayor’s race is the first time that the impact can be felt from this shift in the “legacy media.”
The absence of coverage is startling.
* Interim Mayor Ed Lee was plucked from serving as the city’s Chief Administrative Officer and a 20-year history as a city manager. Yet not one story has delved into what the Chief Administrative Officer’s duties are (the title is bigger than the job – and that in itself is relevant to Lee’s qualifications. Bill Lee, the last Chief Administrative Officer, wasn’t flexible enough for incoming mayor Willie Brown so Brown re-arranged city departments away from that office and into others. When Bill Lee left, Brown tapped Ed Lee (no relation) as someone who could meet Brown’s standards.
* No coverage gave us insight into Dennis Herrera’s transition from his job as City Attorney defending the decision of city officials to being a candidate staking out his own opinions and values, which in some notable cases sharply differed from the official city line. That transition involved the Central Subway debate, but also the touchy issue of the city’s response to Sunshine and Open Government laws that have irked many in the past.
* The prospect of an elected mayor whose background includes historic discrimination and exclusion because of a minority status was a rich mine to explore in terms of how it would affect City Hall decisions and outreach. The city’s Sanctuary Law, the tensions at the police and fire departments that still linger over desegregation orders, the role of community-based nonprofits at a time when consolidation of programs is growing are all issues that one expects would be approached from a distinct viewpoint.
Jeff Adachi, the public defender, grew up with the history of grandparents interned during World War II because of their Japanese ethnicity, a fact one only learned in depth in his campaign mailer.
State Senator Leland Yee moved into Chinatown before even entering first grade, living in conditions forced on Chinese residents at the time by housing exclusion policies that were still legal until 1968.
Ed Lee began as a civil rights attorney representing low-income tenants, and at a college that had virtually no Asian American students joked away the reaction to him by claiming at times to be a descendent of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Bevan Dufty, running as an out gay man, didn’t begin his career in politics by letting it be known that he is gay, and there must be a story there about how it shaped him to be closeted and what it meant to abandon pretense.
John Avalos, third generation Mexican American and son of a longshoreman who represents one of the city’s significant working class neighborhoods, taught high school equivalency and mentored young people in transition.
The list goes on in this election – women, the disabled, Hispanics — which has drawn more viable candidates from such backgrounds than any mayor’s race in city history. But those issues never surfaced in a meaningful way.
Of course there are other sources, with smaller audiences, that did raise issues and delved deeper.
Public Press has an important set of articles on the future of Muni. The Bay Citizen has written more extensively on the underground railroad speeding Ed Lee toward the goal of election. The SF Appeal looks regularly at crime, and California Watch now is the home for Lance Williams, the star investigative reporter from the Chronicle.
The Chronicle still includes hardworking and honest reporters but who work under deadlines for several stories every day where once they could do two or three a week with greater depth and include more voices. In a tide of boosterism for the America’s Cup, John King reports on the long-term impact of some decisions on our waterfront. Rachel Gordon has the experience of more than two decades covering the city from neighborhoods to City Hall.
The Pivot Point
As important as the media can be in showing us the candidates and their campaigns, elections are the pivot to look forward at what our city needs, what directions are set and which ones need to be re-examined or reversed.
The consequences of failing to make those decisions leaves our city’s future at the mercy of forces that take for themselves what they want and rarely look past self-interest to the city’s larger needs.
The choices are familiar ones in every election – revenues needed, costs contained, land use, civic amenities from parks to libraries – except that this year the city’s premier print media is not acting as an honest broker to raise and examine them.
Instead, in 2008, the Chronicle jumped off the cliff and took us with them. It made Willie Brown its premier columnist (with the help of a ghost writer) and let him continue making backroom deals and orchestrating City Hall politics.
For a period of eight years from 1996 to 2004, the Chronicle has investigated and reported on scandal after scandal under then-Mayor Willie Brown. There was a palpable stench coming from Room 200.
Convicted crooks won city funds and in turn hosted “birthday parties” for Brown. The FBI investigated but never brought charges. Pals won contracts at Treasure Island, recalcitrant city managers were removed to make way for ones more accommodating to Brown, and favors were exchanged.
Voters were not amused. They began clipping Brown’s wings, first with district elections that removed the advantage that Brown and his allies had in citywide elections. Then voters passed measures taking authority away from the mayor and giving more to the Board of Supervisors – appointments were split for key city commissions from Police to Planning. Brown’s vetoes of the Honest Election Act were overturned by popular vote.
In short, Brown presided over the most profound weakening of the mayor’s office since the scandals of the notorious Mayor Eugene Schmitz in the early 1900s. When the Hearst Corporation made an offer to buy the Chronicle and announced it would close the Examiner, Brown testified to the Justice Department that instead the Hearst Corporation should make a gift of the Examiner to the Fang family, staunch Brown supporters. In the end, that’s what the Hearst Corporation had to do.
Out of office in 2004, Brown kept his hand in the game at City Hall, due in large part to his close relationship with new mayor Gavin Newsom who Brown first appointed to the Board of Supervisors. This time Brown, for the first time in his career, did not face the oversight that comes with holding public office But Brown knew that he needed a public stage to show off his power and connections if he was to continue landing the six figure consulting fees that fuels and supports a lifestyle no longer available to him through public office, and so began appearing on a television news interview segment with Chronicle reporter Phil Matier.
That was only a start. Next he made a deal to co-host the public affairs segment with Matier, moving to the other side of the desk all the while growing his “rainmaker” law practice. That was too much for then-Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein who told Matier the deal was off and that it was inappropriate to host a news program with Brown.
But the Chronicle was well on its way to losing $1 million a week, and the paper wanted a draw.
Willie Brown was given a column, often playing on the front page, and it was Katie bar the door. Now the Chronicle was no longer investigating Brown and his dubious actions but marketing him.
The Chronicle called it a column. Everyone else knew it for what it is – a Willie Brown Infomercial.
The arrangement landed with a thud at the Chronicle building below the executive suite. Matt Smith, in a prescient column in the San Francisco Weekly, outlined just what kind of bargain the paper had made and what it could expect.
Reporters like Lance Williams and Chuck Finnie who broke so many investigative stories were lured out of the Chronicle building with buy-outs and early retirements. The I-Team editor, Steve Cook, also found the exit open for him. So did Jim Finefrock, editor of the Editorial Page. Bronstein was “promoted” to an executive position at the Hearst Corporation with no say over the paper.
Willie Brown was reinvented, offering mini-reviews of restaurants where (like his late friend Herb Caen) he is known to rarely if ever pay his tab. He drops items into his column about his lunch with this Governor or that Senator or sharing laughs with presidential candidates. He was at Hollywood parties, dinners in Paris, going to the movies (or trying to be in them), but most of all, out of sight, he was in City Hall working for clients, winning appointments for people who could help him and his clients, massaging the system.
He was big, bigger than the Chronicle, and certainly bigger than their ethics policy that proscribes writers endorsing candidates, attending fundraisers as a participant, or earning money from clients that the paper covers.
It’s not as though the Chronicle, of all papers, didn’t know what they were getting. If the paper hadn’t read its own reporters, Brown has been only too happy to boast in his column about the ways he conned the system to get what he wanted for his well connected friends like Steve Jobs, from waivers to historic preservation requirements to ignoring a voter mandate for competitive bidding at Treasure Island where his backers sought contracts.
All that Brown really wanted from the Chronicle was for them to act deaf and dumb at his behind-the-scene moves, give him the credibility of the newspaper and keep the paper’s reporters writing blindfolded.
It winked when Willie Brown went behind closed doors to help orchestrate the appointment of Ed Lee in January. It winked when Willie Brown hosted fundraisers for Lee with contributors seeking financial benefits from City Hall – and connections to someone who knows how to get things through City Hall.
This past week, the Chronicle lamented how difficult it is to track campaign contributions this year with a proliferation of independent expenditures. Editorial Page editor John Diaz laid out the problems for candidates when their friends engage in political tactics that blow back on the candidate.
Brown is Exhibit One in the same scenarios that the paper decries, but when asked to provide information about fundraisers he hosts or other events, he simply claims that his status as a reporter means he doesn’t have to answer questions from other reporters. He doesn’t return calls from Chronicle reporters.
Brown not only handles clients on the side – recently he bragged about the calls he was getting asking for his recommendation for a State Capitol lobbyist on internet tax charges – he also established a nonprofit Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute. It does not disclose its donors.
It’s housed in the same office – even the same room number – as Platinum Advisors, the city’s biggest lobbying firm. One Platinum Advisors lobbyist was identified as part of the pay scheme for helping Chinatown voters fill out their ballots, now under investigation by the District Attorney. Brown’s Institute’s Board secretary is one of the largest donors to the same committee involved in the Chinatown voting scheme.
Brown’s Institute’s Executive Director is Eleanor Johns, Brown’s longtime aide in Sacramento and for a while his chief of staff as mayor. She now sits on the city’s Airport Commission. Commission minutes reveal she was the commissioner who raised issues that led to the decision to change the staging area for airport shuttle services that benefitted Lorrie’s service. That’s the company under investigation for laundering contributions to Ed Lee three weeks after the Airport Commission voted on its request.
John’s husband Richard Johns was appointed by Lee to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission that now is taking up a proposal from Supervisor Wiener to change the requirements for designating areas of historic importance, a decision with significant financial impact.
These maneuvers – schemes in fact – are a hallmark of how Brown learned to use power in the days when he was the self proclaimed Ayatollah of the California State Assembly. The pieces are put into place and when the time comes when they are needed, they are put into play.
Readers of the Chronicle won’t learn about this from their morning paper because it lets it be used for power politics to enrich Brown and his client while keeping the public in the dark.
The result is that the Chronicle ignores rather than reports information. More than ignoring, it allows its pages to huckster on behalf of a paid fixer whose main income is derived from persuading public officials to use their offices to help his clients. .
Details like elections or deciding on a mayor is just another piece in the game, at best an entertainment but not something that involves decisions of consequence. Those are all decided for the public without the public being told, all with the — unwitting at best and purposeful at worst — connivance of what should have been the great paper promised to the city when the Hearst bought the Chronicle.
Brown, trying to transition from infamous to merely famous, responded to the comments that he represents a liability for Ed Lee because of his backroom deals.
“The most vocal opposition to Ed Lee is that he is a friend of Willie Brown and Rose Pak,” Brown wrote in a fundraiser appeal for Lee. “My record with you and with San Francisco, as well as the state of California, for over 40 years should not be a burden to anybody running for public office.”
That comment from Brown actually appeared in a Chronicle story published on September 6, 2011 headlined “Willie Brown Inc” hasn’t tarnished Ed Lee…Yet.”
As could be expected, the article only quotes from Ed Lee’s press secretary, Tony Winnicker, and the mouthpiece for Lee’s pension measure, former Newsom press secretary Nathan Ballard, along with a newly arrived USF professor. No Brown critics or Lee opponents were quoted.
More to the point, neither this article nor any other raises the issue of whether Brown is a liability to the Chronicle’s reputation as an honest broker that serves its readers. If this year’s election choices seem murky and voters appear to be doing last minute shopping for a candidate, don’t look for the explanation only to rank choice voting or a multitude of candidates relying on public financing.
If you are among the fifty percent of San Franciscans who still get the Chronicle, look no further than your own front door.
(Larry Bush was named by then-Mayor Willie Brown to the Ethics Commission in 1996. The appointment was declined on the grounds that it would be unethical)