Former SF mayor Willie Brown will no longer be lending his gossip and opinions to the Chronicle as of next month. The controversial — and many would say highly problematic — "Willie's World" column is coming to an end after 12 years, and it sounds like it was not Willie's choice.
Politico reports that "Willie's World" is dunzo, with the January 24th column being the last and final. Brown tells reporter Carla Marinucci (formerly of the Chronicle) that the Chronicle simply informed him that the paper is "going in a different direction," and, he added, curiously, "They’re going digital," which sounds a lot like something they might tell an 86-year-old to let him down easy.
For over a decade, the Chronicle has cemented its status as the establishment-voice paper of San Francisco in no small part because it has employed a former mayor and a very much still active power-player in local politics as a columnist. Brown's chatty and often gossipy column, based on regular conversations he has with a broad swath of the Bay Area's — and Sacramento's — political elite, were often an interesting window into some behind-the-scenes drama. But the column caused no shortage of criticism for its obvious conflicts of interest — with the Chronicle on the one hand purporting to be the city's paper of record, and on the other giving a pseudo-journalistic platform to a prominent lobbyist and political player to do with as he pleased.
Also, it seemed like Willie was sometimes not-so-subtly doing the bidding of friends and legal clients, though the goals were not always clear. And whether or not he was ever compensated with an endorsement deal, there was a period in 2011/2012 where he couldn't stop name-dropping Subway, the sandwich chain, in his columns, much to SFist's delight and confusion.
In September of 2020, Marinucci reported that the Chronicle had already tried to cut off Willie's column using the new state gig-worker law AB5 as an excuse — before Newsom amended it, the law put a limit of 35 contributions to one outlet on all freelance writers. And over the years, the paper can't have been thrilled with columns that, for example, defended Bill Cosby against rape allegations, or defended Donald Trump in 2016 over allegations of sexual assault.
But what was the final straw? Could it have been that December interview in which Willie expressed (arguably faux) surprise at all the drama surrounding a federal investigation into corruption at City Hall involving several people mentioned as proteges of his?
Speaking to KQED, Brown almost explicitly dismissed the entire probe by suggesting that this is just how government works. "I don't understand what the object [of the outrage] happens to be, frankly, because the kind of thing they're talking about, and the kind of thing they're doing, doesn't seem to have a whole lot of implications for the operation of city government," Brown wrote.
He also waved off the idea that Harlan and Naomi Kelly (the just-resigned City Administrator) and scandal pivot-point Mohammed Nuru were his proteges. "The news organization writes down that everyone is a protege of mine, period," Brown said. "They never say they're a protege of everyone else that might exist. I must have the most awesome influence of anyone alive. The story doesn't work unless they're a 'protege of Willie Brown.'"
The interview was published shortly after federal charges were filed against Harlan Kelly, the former head of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and one of Brown's proteges, who is accused of accepting an all-expense-paid vacation in China from indicted permit expeditor Walter Wong.
Many City Hall watchers have contended that the culture of quid pro quo "low-level corruption" in San Francisco government, while not uncommon in city governments across the land, can be traced back to Brown's tenure as mayor. The Chronicle itself did a five-part investigative series in 2001 on "Willie Brown Inc.," discussing what it characterized as graft and shady contract awards, in which "bidders who are associates of the mayor — or who have retained Brown's associates as lobbyists or consultants — have won out over others with less political clout, sometimes after intervention by the mayor or his aides."
The piece also talked about how Brown had assembled a "patronage army" at City Hall, having "created some 350 mayoral 'special assistant' jobs with an annual payroll topping $45 million." And how Brown and his associates allegedly courted "$4.8 million in unregulated soft money donations into political action committees backing the mayor or his favored candidates" from corporations seeking permits or "favorable regulatory decisions" from the city.
So, why, then, would the same paper decide it was good idea to give Brown a column for 12 years, apart from the fact that he's a well known local character who also liked to do things like give Oscar predictions? Way back in 2013, the ethical problems with having Willie as a columnist were brought up in the national media, but the Chronicle is only now deciding to end the column?
Brown also had the column throughout the entire tenure of Mayor Ed Lee, whom many saw as a virtual proxy for Brown and certainly beholden to Brown and pal Rose Pak for landing in the job.
To Brown's credit, there were often good predictions and tidbits over the years, but what was up with all the weird stuff directed at onetime romantic partner Kamala Harris? Like when he dished about her real age, or suggested Jerry Brown ought to jump in line ahead of her for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat, or when last August he argued that she should refuse the offer of the Vice Presidency.
Anyway, so long "Willie's World"! Though will he be without a platform for long? Marinucci already hints that with the sale of SF Weekly and the Examiner to local politico Clint Riley, Riley might be wise to poach Brown just for the notoriety.
Photo: Brown at the 2017 opening of 'Fun Home' at the Curran. Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images