Willie L. Brown, the former San Francisco mayor, in 2016.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
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.
If you read one story, make it this
It’s hard to think of a journalist today who writes with more authority about the Central Valley than Mark Arax. His latest article on water use has both historical sweep and personal history. You can feel the sandy loam passing through your fingers.
The rest of the news
Romance: Making these resolutions can improve a relationship.
Police stops: A state report showed that the police stopped significantly fewer motorists and pedestrians in 2020 than in previous years, though Black and transgender people were still more likely to be stopped, The Associated Press reports.
S.T.I. tests: A new state law requires health insurance plans to cover the cost of at-home tests for sexually transmitted infections, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Sewage spill: Seven million gallons of sewage spilled in Los Angeles County after a sewer main collapsed, causing multiple beaches to close. At Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, the annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge was canceled because of the spill, The Los Angeles Times reports.
New cultural center: Though the Audrey Irmas Pavilion will serve Koreatown, it is first a community space for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Covid case count: Los Angeles County reported more than 45,000 new coronavirus cases over the weekend, which is significantly more than last winter’s peak, The Los Angeles Times reports.
School mask mandate: All employees at Los Angeles County schools will be required to wear medical-grade masks while rules for students tighten, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Child vaccination: Children in the Central Valley have been vaccinated against Covid-19 at much lower rates than in the rest of the state, The Fresno Bee reports.
Bank robbery: A Guerneville bank was robbed on New Year’s Eve. The authorities are still looking for the suspect, The Associated Press reports.
Tahoe skier: Rory Angelotta, a skier from Truckee who went missing on Christmas Day, has been presumed dead, The Associated Press reports.
What we’re drinking
California cabernet beyond the stereotypes.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Robyn Houts, who recommends Chitactac-Adams Heritage County Park in Gilroy:
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
How did you mark the start of the 2022? Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?
Share with us at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
And before you go, some good news
Maybe it was a harbinger of better times coming our way this year. Twelve months ago the Rose Parade was canceled. But on Saturday the marching bands and flower-covered floats were back under blue skies in Pasadena. The rolling display put on by Kaiser Permanente was titled “A Healthier Future.” Amen.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Something for a golfer, poker player or sandwich maker (4 letters).
Soumya Karlamangla, Jonah Candelario and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.