Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Trials and Tribulations of a `Citizen Mayor'

San Francisco's Frank Jordan tries to prove that a nice guy can run City Hall - but he hasn't had an easy time lately

IN the late evening shadow of the Bay Bridge, self-proclaimed citizen Mayor Frank Jordan is caught repeating several of the "offenses" that have earned him a reputation as this city's most unpopular official in decades.

"Well, this crowd has been gathering for me for several minutes so I probably should wind this up," he tells a reporter by cellular phone from his idling limousine.

About these ads

Offense No. 1: too accommodating, too polite. Offense No. 2: meeting with community activists at the media-blind hour of 7:20 p.m. (no photo ops, no credit). Offense No. 3: working too hard with neighborhood citizens who can't generate the same kind of political capital as lobbyists back at City Hall. A non-career politician

Former Police Chief Jordan, a Democrat, swept then-Mayor Art Agnos out of office in a throw-the-bums-out fury in January 1992. Jordan promised the city a new reign of decency and competence. By popular accounts - reflected in the press and opinion polls - he has delivered fully on the former and little of the latter.

In part, Jordan is a victim of trends that have felled other urban leaders around the country - namely a decline in federal funds even as housing, health, welfare, crime, and education problems have soared. But now the question is increasingly being asked around here: In an era of growing disgust with careerist politicians, and burgeoning calls for term limits from city hall to Congress, can political novices, or nice guys, hold the reins of power?

"You have a man here without malice, who doesn't eat, live, and drink politics and revenge," says Quentin Kopp, an independent state senator from San Francisco. "Instead of being given his due, that's made [Jordan] an easy mark. He's been beaten up by the gossip columns like nobody's business."

"It's a relief to find a San Francisco politician that is not instinctually predatory," adds San Francisco Supervisor Carole Migden (D). "But despite Frank's achievements, it has made for a sense of power vaccuum."

To become the city's 40th mayor, Jordan campaigned on a moderate, centrist platform, promising to improve basic city services and get San Francisco back on track after years of increasing crime, homelessness, and blight. Jordan had never held elected office before, but had been the city's police chief from 1986 to 1990.

Jordan's tenure started with embarrassing staff shake-ups, exposes of incompetence, and cries of nepotism over bungled appointments. Then the mayor was handed the city's worst fiscal crisis in history - a $300 million budget shortfall - and the threatened loss of the San Francisco Giants, the professional baseball franchise. He stumbled quickly into the worst ratings of any modern mayor.

About these ads

"When you elect a citizen mayor, you understand the ramping up to speed will take a little longer," says Richard Rapaport, a political commentator. "Frank has never been able to get ahead of the insider journalists who keep setting the tone and put him on the defensive."

Yet his successes are many and easy to find. Some notable victories

In his first year, Jordan balanced the city budget without loss of services. That meant surviving a 10 percent cut of the city's overall $2.4 billion budget, but not being able to make good on several campaign promises - from tidying up the homeless problem to tightening law enforcement.

He brought together a coalition of businessmen to save the baseball team, when most in the city had written off a move to St. Petersburg, Fla. He has revamped the city Planning Department to streamline a permitting process that had stalled both real estate and business start-ups for years.

To keep a lid on the city's burgeoning AIDS epidemic, he circumvented California laws preventing clean needle exchanges for drug addicts. He has revamped a city emergency department and has presided over a return influx of investment banking, bio-tech, medical, and other corporate headquarters, not to mention several major construction projects, including a $2.4 billion airport remake.

"Despite all these things, Jordan's image in the press is that of a goalie with pucks being shot at him from all sides," notes Larry Kamer, a political commentator.

A fiasco last week over Jordan's attempted firing of Ben Hom, the head of the Redevelopment Agency Commission, is the latest case in point. A front-page story in a local newspaper quotes Mr. Hom's attorney, Fred Furth, blasting the mayor for accusing Hom of abuses in office. Hom, an appointee of a previous administration, had been accused of illegally soliciting a contribution to a Jordan fund-raiser and improperly trying to influence staff members' decisions.

"In other cities, the mayor would have cut a back-room deal to give Hom a promotion to shut him up," says Jim Wunderman, Jordan's new chief of staff. "Here, Frank has allowed a situation to become public that has been buried by previous administrations for the sake of politics. And he's having to take the heat for it."

Last week brought more bad news for Jordan. The current city budget will have to be trimmed by $200 million by June 1, forcing over 1,000 layoffs, cutbacks in services - and higher taxes, which would break a campaign promise.

"I have had to take back a half billion in 16 months. That's not fun at all," says Jordan, complaining of state moves to usurp over $125 million in both county and city funds. "What kind of a mayor can take broadsides like this without looking bad?"

But cracks of light are beginning to beam on the Jordan saga, as well.

New staff members are expected to infuse the administration with political savvy that has been sorely lacking. One, perhaps two vacancies on the 11-member Board of Supervisors will be filled by Jordan appointments, strengthening his hand on that body. Recent forays into the neighborhoods have bolstered the confidence of civic associations who feel their voice has been heard in budgeting decisions.

"I give the mayor very high marks for what he has said and done to turn around the business climate here," says Dick Robinson, a broker for Cushman and Wakefield, a commercial real estate company. "Unfortunately you wouldn't know it from reading the papers. They tend to fixate on the revolving door of personnel problems."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.