Winning ugly: How Willie Brown used city employees to win the 49ers stadium-mall

Michael Howerton
June 11, 1997 from the San Francisco Bay Guardian

LAST WEEK’S dramatic, come-from-behind victory of the 49ers stadium shocked many veteran election prognosticators, but the surprisingly close working relationship between city officials and stadium campaign gurus makes it easier to understand.

A Bay Guardian investigation has uncovered numerous irregularities in the way the June 3 vote was handled. While they did not necessarily violate the letter of city election laws, they smacked of the bad old days of Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall in New York or Richard Daley’s political machines in Chicago.

Among the Bay Guardian’s findings:

* City employees in several departments were pressured to take Election Day off as a vacation day to help get out the pro-Prop. D and F votes; some have said they received veiled threats from superiors to participate. (Mayor Willie Brown’s press deputy, Kandace Bender, confirmed to the Bay Guardian that city employees were “encouraged” to take a vacation day to work for the campaign, but she denied that there was any coercion.)

On Election Day several city officials rallied volunteers and city workers with impassioned speeches about how the election was dead even, and how their efforts would decide the election. The question is if such exhortations by city officials on behalf of a private corporation (the 49ers), encouraging employees and volunteers to vote and get others to vote for a proposition that will financially reward the corporation and could have a negative impact on the city’s budget, were illegal or improper.

* City employees and pro-D and F volunteers were given special placards that they were told would allow them to park anywhere other than bus zones, fire hydrants, and curb cuts while they canvassed for votes. Though the placards were not issued by the Department of Parking and Traffic, sources say DPT management directed employees to write no tickets for cars bearing the pro-D and F parking permits.

DPT officials denied any collaboration with the stadium campaign but conceded that some employees were concerned.

“[The placards were] brought to my attention by a parking operator, and I told him [they] meant absolutely nothing,” DPT bureau chief James Howard told the Bay Guardian. “[Campaign officials] thought they could get some relaxed enforcement, and they tried to make [the permits] look as official as they could. The intent was to confuse the parking officers so that they might not give tickets.”

One of Howard’s employees, who asked not to be identified, said to the Bay Guardian that she was told to honor the permit. “They told us this morning that we were not supposed to touch you with [the permit] on your car as long as you are not parked in a hazardous place,” she said.

* Stadium critics who monitored the vote count say they question the accuracy of the 1,000-vote victory, especially after Department of Elections head Germaine Wong announced that hundreds of votes had “gotten all wet” from the rain and were being dried in a microwave oven so they could be processed. Critics also question the unprecedented early opening of voting booths at the city’s four largest public housing projects the weekend before polling booths opened in the rest of the city. Wong said she had not budgeted for the early opening. “The Housing Authority called and asked that the four sites be opened,” she said, “and I told them I didn’t have that in my budget and needed to be able to pay my staff.” On May 30 the Housing Authority cut a $2,000 check to the Department of Elections.

‘Democracy at work’

Several irate city employees phoned the Bay Guardian in the days leading up to the election and complained that their supervisors had told them they must work on the campaign. Each of the employees asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

“Nobody was pressured,” Bender said. “A lot of people from City Hall believed fervently in the stadium and mall proposal, and they volunteered on Election Day to get out the vote. If they wanted to take the day off, they were allowed to do it and they were encouraged to do it.”

Bender said that rather than being criticized for partisanship, city employees should be thanked for acting as role models of democratic political activism. “I think everyone should get out the vote like people from City Hall did,” she said. “It shows you democracy at work.”

Critics say that it’s an unusual expression of democracy for taxpayers, some of whom might not support the stadium, to pay for public employees to take a day off to work on behalf of the 49ers and the team’s billionaire owner, Eddie DeBartolo.

“We’ve heard from all quarters that this was a high priority for the mayor,” Doug Comstock of the Committee to Stop the Giveaway told the Bay Guardian. “People who serve at the whim of the mayor were called and had to do their ‘public service.’ “

Jim Gravanis of the San Francisco Fire Department told the Bay Guardian that employees at the Department of Building Inspection were asked to take Election Day off to get out the vote for the stadium.

“Several [Building Inspection] employees were asked to work the phone banks,” he said. “Not on public time, but they took a vacation day they wouldn’t have taken unless they were asked. I don’t think there were direct threats, but you can see the fairly strong element of coercion.”

Jim Knox, executive director of the Sacramento-based good-government watchdog group Common Cause, said it would be wrong for the Mayor’s Office to suggest that employees should work for any campaign.

“If elected officials pressured city employees, that would certainly be improper,” Knox said “Clearly, elected officials cannot coerce city employees to work on political campaigns. That would clearly be illegal.”

Perfectly legal?

City officials told the Bay Guardian that there was no legal violation because there’s no law governing an election-day mobilization of public employees.

“There is nothing locally or nationally that addresses that,” said Naomi Nishioka, campaign services manager for the San Francisco Department of Elections. “I called the city attorney, and we can’t think of anything that addressed what [employees] do on vacation time. I’m not even sure who would deal with [allegations of people] being pressured to take time off to work on a campaign.”

Comstock said he found suspicious the huge bump in pro-stadium votes announced at about midnight, when Props. D and F both suddenly gained about eight percentage points to take their first lead. “I have never seen anything like it,” Comstock said. “My suspicion is that a lot of dead people voted.”

Wong says that the election was held correctly and votes were properly counted.

“Everybody has a bad taste in their mouth about this election,” Comstock said. “Even supporters of the stadium proposals, from the other side, have called me up and said there is something fishy here. It shows the process is skewed from the top down. This election was clearly robbed from the voters.”

Ron Curran also contributed to this report.