By: M.L. Stein
Ex-California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, now a
candidate for mayor, is not pleased with the scrutiny he
has been getting in the Hearst-owned San Francisco daily sp.
FORMER CALIFORNIA Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who is running for mayor of San Francisco, may or may not like to see one of the city’s two dailies disappear, depending on what day he was quoted.
At the San Francisco Examiner, the newspaper in question, there is no doubt that, at the least, Brown views it as a real pain in the ballot box.
Brown, once the most powerful figure in Sacramento, is running against the incumbent mayor, Frank Jordan, the ex-chief of police. At this writing, Brown was leading by 27% in the polls.
On Nov. 5, the flamboyant politician was quoted in a story by Examiner political reporter Kandace Bender as having harsh words for the media generally and the Examiner in particular, telling his supporters: “Ignore the worst stuff they are printing about me in the Examiner. There will be more of it in the next 72 hours. I look forward to the day when there is no longer an Examiner.”
Yet on Nov. 19, in another story by Bender, Brown shrugged off the remark, saying in response to her question: “Oh yeah. It was not meant seriously. Of course not . . . . I want four newspapers publishing in this town. I knew this town when we had four daily newspapers . . . . It was wonderful to see. You got perspective, you got total coverage.”
But Brown is plainly not pleased by the Examiner’s coverage of his candidacy, particularly a series of probing stories by investigative reporter Lance Williams. The would-be mayor won’t take Williams’ calls and refuses to be interviewed by him, demanding that the paper send Bender or another staffer. He will, however, reply to faxed queries from Williams.
At a luncheon meeting with an SF Weekly staffer, Brown reportedly said of Williams: “He’s so screwed up. Those guys are so desperate, so tragically desperate. They have a thorough dislike of me . . . . Williams is just stupid, he really is, he doesn’t understand anything, he’s like a blockheaded FBI guy that I dealt with.”
Brown said he refused to talk to Williams. Brown also reportedly suggested the Examiner’s treatment of him might involve racism.
“It’s my lifestyle,” he was quoted by the weekly. “I’m black and I’m flashy. You can’t do that in this system. It’s unacceptable.”
Brown apparently finds Williams’ coverage of him equally unacceptable.
In one story, Williams described Brown as being among the “the city’s busiest ‘juice’ lawyers,” asserting that he has “earned millions moonlighting as attorney for corporations, many with business at City Hall, according to financial disclosure reports.”
Another one of Williams’ pieces spotlighting Brown’s alleged conflict of interest stated that the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. steered a lucrative contract to one of Brown’s law clients, famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran, while he was Speaker. At the time, the article said, the giant utility was seeking the legislature’s help in a matter worth billions to it.
According to the article, Brown persuaded PG&E to buy $3 million worth of natural gas from an energy brokerage firm co-owned by Cochran, O.J. Simpson’s lead attorney.
Still, another story disclosed that two labor union pension funds with alleged ties to Brown faced a multimillion-dollar loss on a loan made to one of Brown’s legal clients.
Both Williams and Examiner managing editor Sharon Rosenhause deny any vendetta against Brown.
Rosenhause said of Brown’s remark about a dead Examiner: “We write about candidates without fear or favor. We expect to be around a long time and expect to be writing about Mr. Brown and San Francisco politics.”
The Examiner’s editorial backing of Jordan has no effect on newsroom coverage, Rosenhause stressed, adding, “We have a kind of church-state relationship.”
Williams, who has won the Gerald Loeb journalism award for his Brown series, opined that Brown enjoyed so many years of uncontested elections to state office that “he doesn’t understand that candidates for mayor will be scrutinized. That’s what we’re supposed to do ? it’s the First Amendment in action. I have no personal feelings at all about Brown, even though he has refused to talk to me.”
Still, Williams believes that Brown, indeed, wants to see the Examiner go off stage.
“But if he is elected mayor, he will have to deal with us,” he said.
Both Rosenhause and Bender said they had no qualms about acceding to Brown’s insistence that Bender, and not Williams, interview him in person.
“Our readers want the information and they don’t care what reporter gets it,” Rosenhause explained “This is not about our ego. The problem is that Brown is not accustomed to tough reporting.”
Bender said she has always found Brown available to her.
“He returns my calls most of the time and sometimes calls me,” she said. “Our stories about him have been perfectly legitimate. He just has to learn to take the lumps.”
Brown wasn’t available for comment. His press secretary, Pat Riley, told E&P that Brown was not serious when he wished for the Examiner’s departure.