San Francisco is starting the new year at a gloomy time: fearful of the latest wave of coronavirus infections, seemingly helpless in the face of an overdose crisis that kills two people a day, and divided over how to respond to crime and homelessness.
This stark picture was reinforced by the blunt words of Mayor London Breed, who in the days before Christmas roiled the city’s politics with a cutting assessment of the streets that she presides over and a vow to aggressively clean them up: “It is time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city — it is time for it to come to an end,” she told reporters at City Hall, vowing to be more aggressive with law enforcement and policy.
For perspective on this difficult time for San Francisco, I sat down with Willie Brown, the mayor from 1996 to 2004 and a longtime Democratic Party power broker. We discussed the state of emergency that Breed announced before Christmas and San Francisco’s outsize role in state and national politics.
That role is one reason the city so often comes under the microscope. Brown pointed out that if something were to happen to President Biden, the two next in line for the presidency are San Franciscans: Vice President Kamala Harris and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
But he had harsh words for the next generation of San Francisco’s leaders and a less-than-uplifting view of the challenges the city is facing. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Where do you come down on the question of whether San Francisco is suffering from a crisis of street conditions and crime and whether, as Mayor Breed says, it has become a lot worse?
San Francisco is plagued with idealism. We really do want to care for everybody that can’t care for themselves. Whether they are addicted, whether they are emotionally challenged by any means or whether they are financially challenged. We’ve always wanted to make San Francisco a place where you could be comfortable. But that’s created a problem. Because suddenly the people enjoying the comfort are the people who have decided they can define how they can enjoy the comfort. And that might be an intrusion on the people who are paying for it — the taxpayers.
How do you rate the street conditions today in San Francisco compared with when you were mayor?
The drugs today are dramatically different from the drugs of my time. You did not have nonprofit organizations giving tents to homeless people. And you didn’t have the same volume of homeless people. So you could use the sidewalks, whether you were in the Tenderloin or in Pacific Heights.
Mayor Breed was blunt in describing the city. She spoke about “mass looting” and of the city’s “nasty streets” strewn with trash, urine and feces. Do you agree with her assessment?
Totally and completely accurate. And descriptive. And believable. She wasn’t trying to be political. I think she was describing what she saw. Very bold. It’s grandmotherish.
Will the state of emergency in the Tenderloin work?
Only if she can get the rest of the city to buy in. The city unfortunately is not run by the mayor. We are now plagued with the politics of districts that have no interest in anything except their little turf.
You have often spoken about how much lies beyond a city’s control.
If you go back to 1997, I scheduled a homeless summit. I canceled it just before I was to do it because I concluded that there was no possible way for any one single city or county to solve the homeless problem. I am still of that opinion. They can address it, they can impact it, but they can’t solve it. It is too rooted in poverty and mental health.
San Francisco has played an outsize role in California politics. The state’s leaders have come from San Francisco in disproportionate numbers. Do you see San Francisco keeping this role?
No, I do not. We have no bench. We have not attempted to build a roster of new, talented people.
Do I hear you saying that San Francisco is no longer at the vanguard of liberal ideas for the country?
No, we still have all kinds of people with ideas. But we have nobody on the bench capable of implementing them.
What do you see in this new year for the city of San Francisco that gives you hope?
The action that the mayor took would be one example of what would cause me to alter my view about whether or not there is hope. I’m a total optimist for California, not just San Francisco. There is a tremendous amount of real talent in California.
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