The blue and white lights flashed, the music blared and more than 100 lesbians filled the dance floor. Near the bar, scores of young women were drinking and talking when, suddenly, one of California's most powerful men strolled in.
It was Friday night at Club Q, the city's popular lesbian hot spot, and here was Assembly Democratic leader Willie Brown, dressed in a gray Brioni double-breasted suit, smiling, shaking hands, exchanging high-fives and receiving hugs.
The 61-year-old political legend, who ruled the Assembly as Speaker for more than 14 years, is running in his first citywide campaign, visiting every corner of San Francisco and asking voters of all stripes to elect him mayor.
"Willie Brown is a career politician with a lot of clout," shouted one enthusiastic Club Q dancer over the music. "If anybody can help San Francisco, he can. No matter what anyone says, Willie is down with the people. I don't care how much his suits cost."
Forced by term limits to give up his Assembly seat next year, Brown has launched an all-out, multimillion-dollar campaign to unseat Mayor Frank Jordan, the pleasant "citizen mayor" who is riding out a shaky first term at City Hall.
Brown, widely regarded as the front-runner in a crowded field of candidates, has come under sharp attack from his rivals for some of his activities while Speaker, including accepting tobacco company contributions and serving as the personal lawyer for cocaine dealers and San Francisco developers.
Indeed, the race has become as much a referendum on Brown's speakership as on Jordan's mayoralty. For the other candidates, it is as if they are running against two incumbents.
Polls taken by local newspapers and the campaigns show Brown a few points ahead of Jordan, but with each man drawing less than 30% of the electorate and a quarter of the voters still undecided.
Jordan, 60, a lifelong police officer and onetime chief, appears to be enjoying his underdog status and maintains he is running a strong race--given that his main foe is a nationally known politician who held power in the state Assembly longer than anyone else.
"The polls are neck and neck," the unassuming, soft-spoken mayor said in an interview. "That shows me he is very vulnerable and that he hasn't done his job. For the first time, people are looking at his record and asking in-depth questions that should have been asked a long time ago."
But Brown, countering criticism that he represents the morally bankrupt politics of Sacramento, casts himself as a leader who knows how to get things done--unlike Jordan.
"San Francisco is clearly in need of leadership," Brown says. "I will bring 31 years of leadership skills to the table. My knowledge of pulling people together will benefit this city in a very handsome way."
Brown might have had a chance of winning it all in the Nov. 7 primary if not for the candidacy of former Clinton Administration official Roberta Achtenberg, an articulate civil rights lawyer who could siphon some of the city's large progressive vote from him.
But most political observers predict that Brown and Jordan will finish 1-2 in the primary and then go head-to-head in a five-week runoff campaign that concludes with another day of balloting Dec. 12.
"Basically, the election is Willie Brown's to lose," observed former Mayor Art Agnos, a Brown ally who lost to Jordan four years ago.
Even in a city known for its progressive politics, the contest to lead San Francisco is unusual in the great diversity it represents and the distinct choices it offers voters:
* Brown, who embodies San Francisco's liberal power structure, would be San Francisco's first black mayor.
* Jordan, who would continue the rightward shift in city politics, is the darling of the city's old-line Irish American community.
* Achtenberg, a former county supervisor, would be the city's first lesbian mayor.
* And while few give businessman Ben Hom any chance to win, the contest's only Republican would be the city's first Chinese American mayor.
Colorful Supervisor Angela Alioto, daughter of former Mayor Joseph Alioto and a favorite among Italian Americans, dropped out of the race last week after a poor showing in the polls.
In San Francisco, a mayor's race is an intensely local event. From Chinatown to Hunters Point to the Sunset District, the city is divided into dozens of distinct neighborhoods, each with its own identity and specific concerns.
This is not a campaign waged on TV; this is a contest slugged out street by street and block by block over issues such as litter, potholes, building height limits and the homeless.
The major candidates have filled their calendars with tea parties, precinct walks, ethnic parades and fund-raisers. And they have been invited to about 60 candidate forums by groups ranging from the New Mission Terrace Improvement Assn. to the Senior Action Network to the Lesbians and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action.
Even such groups as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the Arts Democratic Club and the Manic-Depressive Assn. have weighed in, holding forums and sponsoring candidate questionnaires.
"Every community has had its forum," said Mike Farrah, a Jordan campaign worker. "If you don't go, the people feel personally slighted."
Making the rounds of candidate forums, Jordan often strikes a defensive pose as he rattles off what he sees as his accomplishments, such as fighting crime, cleaning up the streets and catering to San Francisco businesses.
Brown is somber and engaging, but can sometimes misfire, as he did when he proposed putting a casino on the decommissioned Treasure Island naval base in San Francisco Bay, opening himself to charges that he is the gambler's candidate.
Both men are likely to spend more than $2 million--a good chunk of it on direct mail pieces that will begin appearing in the final weeks of the campaign.
After committing several faux pas early in the race that suggested a lack of familiarity with the city--like getting on a bus without the required change--Brown has campaigned hard. From early morning to late at night, he is stumping the neighborhoods and shaking hands with thousands of residents.
On a recent stroll down Clement Street in the largely white and Asian American Richmond District, the man who once called himself the "ayatollah of the Assembly" visited a pet-grooming store, hair salons, a doughnut shop and a Chinese market--with ducks hanging by their necks in the window--where he smoothly introduced himself to surprised owners and customers.
"I'm Willie Brown. It's a pleasure," he repeated again and again as if reciting a mantra. He listened patiently as potential voters poured out complaints about City Hall, and he urged others to support him, explaining, "I really need the job."
One longtime resident recalled casting his ballot for Brown when the young attorney first won his Assembly seat 31 years ago. "I voted for you then, I'll vote for you now," he told Brown, who smiled warmly at the promise.
Brown has hammered away at what he calls Jordan's poor handling of the city, the deteriorating bus system, the city's growing homeless problem and what should be one of Jordan's greatest strengths: the Police Department.
Brown notes that in less than four years, Jordan has gone through four police chiefs. One, Richard Hongisto, was fired for removing newsstands' copies of a gay community newspaper that mocked him. The current chief, Tony Ribera, is the subject of a high-profile sexual harassment complaint brought by a female officer.
In recent months, two black men have died in separate incidents while in the hands of police, prompting public outcry. And a grand jury is investigating charges that some police officers have routinely entered homes, harassed residents and stolen their belongings.
"Mr. Mayor, you have lost the fight on crime," Brown told Jordan during one debate. "There is a perception that you are a very nice person, but you are not capable of removing drug dealers from the streets of San Francisco."
Jordan, who won election in 1991 by promising to improve basic city services, acknowledges that he stumbled at first but argues that he now has taken command. City government, he says, is functioning well. Streets are cleaner and police have cracked down on aggressive panhandling by the homeless. Crime is down 20% and he has added 200 police officers to the force without increasing taxes, he says.
"I may not be the flashiest candidate or the most eloquent person in this race," said Jordan, explaining himself during one debate. "And I know my early days in office may not have gone as smoothly as I would have liked. But not a day has gone by that I have not put my heart and soul into this job. And I am proud to be making steady progress in a quiet, effective way."
Despite the mayor's reputation for niceness, Jordan has come out swinging at Brown for accepting special interest contributions while Speaker--particularly for taking $255,000 from tobacco companies since 1980, more than any lawmaker in the nation.
The mayor has criticized Brown for making millions of dollars as Speaker while moonlighting as a private lawyer for businesses with interests before the city, including the local garbage company, hospitals, developers, clothier Wilkes Bashford and the San Francisco 49ers.
And Jordan has questioned Brown's judgment in representing two accused cocaine dealers in the 1980s: a member of the Colombian Cali cartel who later skipped bail and an Oakland Ferrari salesman who arranged to buy 220 kilos from an undercover agent and was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
In response, Brown contends he did nothing wrong in representing clients while serving as Speaker and argues that the two accused drug dealers were entitled to a good lawyer.
Brown also argues that as Democratic leader of the Assembly, he was obliged to raise campaign money for his party's candidates, collecting $60 million to $70 million over the years from myriad special interests. He spent the money, he says, to keep Democrats and progressives in power--including more minorities and women than had ever been elected before.
"Contributions have not ever influenced my judgment on public policy," Brown insists.
In addition to the withering attacks they have leveled against each other, the two front-runners have come under steady attack from other candidates in the race.
Achtenberg, who spent two years as an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development before resigning to run for mayor, is campaigning as an independent-minded outsider against two entrenched politicians.
"As someone who will come to the mayor's office without conflicts of interest, I promise you honest reform, not the approaches of the past, the failed polices of this mayor [or] the failed politics that have emanated from Sacramento," she tells voters.
Hom, who served as a Jordan fund-raiser and redevelopment commissioner until the mayor fired him for alleged campaign finance violations, appears to be running largely out of pique. He has little chance of winning, but could take votes away from Jordan, particularly in the city's large Chinese American community.
"Mayor Jordan, I once supported you, but your administration is an embarrassment," Hom charges. "We got the citizen, but we never got the mayor. Speaker Brown, you have been a politician for more than 30 years. You are part of the problem."
Brown clearly enjoys chatting with voters more than the often tedious campaign forums, and is at his best one-on-one or speaking to small groups of supporters.
Indeed, after years of spending his time in back-room Capitol meetings, he seems to thrive on the feedback from strangers. "I love the people who stop and say, 'I'm for you,' " he says.
On the evening of his visit to the lesbian dance club, Brown first spoke to supporters at a mansion in swank Presidio Heights, raced to a candidates forum at a synagogue in Pacific Heights, then hobnobbed with black educators at a packed house party in the Richmond District. When he finally left Club Q downtown, it was after 11 p.m. and he had yet to eat dinner.
Nearly everywhere Brown goes in San Francisco, his reputation for brilliance--and for behind-the-scenes political maneuvering--precedes him. Many voters say they are torn between his proven ability to get things done and his ties to special interests.
"He stands above all these pygmies," said one synagogue member, dismissing the other candidates with a wave of his hand. "But you have to worry about Willie."