Is Willie the New Abe Ruef?

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A little more than a century ago, a man named Abe Ruef ruled San Francisco -- even though he held no elected office. A lawyer with a degree from Hastings College of the Law in the city, he used his network of connections -- and the power of labor, business, railroads, and the press -- to get what he pleased. He picked and chose the mayors he wanted.

A much talked-about magazine article says that Willie Brown is today's Ruef.

Yes, Brown was an elected official -- Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor. But he is even more powerful now, the Washington Monthly piece argues, because he is no longer an elected official. He's just a lawyer with a degree from Hastings College of the Law who can use his network of connections to get what he pleases -- including picking the mayor he wants.

What's fascinating about the article is the argument that it's easier to rule when one does not hold official power, at least in today's California. The scrutiny and laws and transparency requirements that attach to elected officials make it harder for them to exercise power. Brown is better off today because he isn't subject to all that scrutiny. He can keep his clients secret.

One added wrinkle is Brown's column in the San Francisco Chronicle, which allows him to broadcast messages that reward friends and punish enemies.

Both Ruef and Brown gained power because of their brains -- they were just smarter than everyone else. (Ruef reportedly spoke eight languages).

But there is a difference. Ruef was eventually taken down -- by graft prosecutors and a rising progressive movement. So far, Brown has survived all challenges to his power.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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