One of California’s best-known Democrats has surfaced in leading roles as an advocate in three high-profile Richmond projects.
Willie L. Brown Jr., most recently San Francisco mayor and before that the powerful California Assembly speaker, has been calling city councilmembers on behalf of ChevronTexaco, the recently spurned suitor for Point Molate.
That worries Councilmember Tom Butt, the author of Richmond’s municipal lobbying ordinance, which requires anyone lobbying city government to register with the city.
“There’s a thin loophole for people who are lawyers. If they’re legally representing someone they could conceivably make contact with city staff. But not when they’re contacting councilmembers,” Butt said.
ChevronTexaco lost its bid to buy Point Molate last Tuesday, when the council awarded the property to Upstream Point Molate, Inc., a firm headed by Berkeley developer James Levine, who previously headed the company conducting the cleanup operations at Campus Bay.
Brown entered the Campus Bay picture as the representative of Cherokee Investment Partners, a multinational venture capital firm specializing in so-called “brownfields” investments, projects built on restored contaminated land. The firm is bankrolling a plan to build a 1,330-unit housing complex directly above 350,000 cubic yards of buried hazardous waste and contaminated soil.
Cherokee’s partner in the project is Simeon Properties, a Marin County development company with extensive holdings in Western states. Their lobbyist/lawyer for the project is Margaret Rosegay, a partner in Pillsbury, Winthrop of San Francisco. Rosegay also represents ChevronTexaco, according to lobbyist records on file with the California Secretary of State’s office. Brown is not registered as a lobbyist with that office, either.
As the battle over Campus Bay heated up in recent weeks, Brown entered the fray on behalf of Cherokee Investment Partners in their negotiations with Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development, a group which has been fighting the conduct of ongoing restoration efforts at the site.
Brown’s appearance as an anti-casino advocate in opposing Levine’s Point Molate plan is a significant career departure. He tells the story often of his first job in San Francisco as a spotter for an illegal casino, sitting in an alley with a button within reach he would push if he saw police headed his way, tipping the gamblers inside to the impending raid.
Soon after he was named Assembly speaker in 1980, Brown was hired by gambling interests pushing for gambling in Atlantic City. Brown talked to New Jersey city’s African American population, promising new housing and high paying jobs should the casino measure pass.
When the measure carried, much of Atlantic City’s housing was leveled, and most of the African American workers hired by the casinos were bused in from Philadelphia, a story documented in the late Ovid Demaris’s The Boardwalk Jungle. Brown’s role was documented by Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters, both contemporaneously and later for the 1998 Frontline gambling documentary “Easy Money.”
Not that the man who once proclaimed himself “the Ayatollah of the Assembly” and later “Da Mayor” has become an ardent gambling foe.
Earlier this year, Brown has surfaced as a lobbyist for BarWest LLC, which is developing plans for a casino in the Barstow area with the Los Coyotes Band of the Cahuilla and Cupeo peoples.
The casino plan is being floated by Marina Ilitch, who with her spouse owns the Little Caesars Enterprises (Little Caesars Pizza), the Detroit Redwings hockey team and a quarter-interest in the Motor City Casino in Detroit.
Other lobbyists hired by Ilitch to boost the Southern California casino proposal include Michael Rossetti, former senior legal counsel and chief tribal gaming expert to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton (whose agency has the final say on authorizing the tribe to claim the site as a reservation), and former Missouri Congressional Rep. Alan Wheat.
Rossetti left his federal job in February to join a law firm representing, among other clients, the Seneca Nation, whose casino plans he had steered through the Department of the Interior. Two months later he was representing the Los Coyotes Band in their Barstow effort along with Brown.
One explanation for Brown’s role concerns another Richmond casino project he’s been hired to represent. The deal with Levine and Upstream that the Richmond City Council approved includes an exclusivity clause, barring the city from allowing another casino within its jurisdiction.
Brown has also been retained by the Virginia-based Mills Corporation, which is floating plans for a casino at Richmond’s Hilltop Mall, a property in which they hold a half-interest.
According to published accounts, Mills executives donated to Brown’s San Francisco mayoral campaign and, as mayor, Brown helped the firm move toward approval with their plans to develop 23 acres of choice waterfront property in San Francisco, including Piers 27-31. The plan has drawn considerable criticism and has yet to win final approval.
Butt said Brown has a political relationship with Mayor Irma Anderson and was the guest of honor at a fundraiser for Councilmember Nathaniel Bates.
“We know he had contacts with two or three councilmembers, and he says he was just asking about the statues of Point Molate, which wouldn’t count as lobbying,” Butt said of Brown’s calls to councilmembers prior to the vote last week.