SAN FRANCISCO'S "PRE-ELECTION symposium" on Oct. 9 -- not a debate, please, that's too tacky -- was everything you might have expected: politically correct, unapologetically liberal, and occasionally bizarre. The incumbent sheriff told the crowd that one reason he should be re-elected was the great organic gardening program he had put together for inmates. All three candidates for district attorney argued about who had most vociferously opposed California's three-strikes-you're-out measure. The incumbent D.A. was faulted for adhering to the three-strikes law, to which he pled guilty, but reminded voters he had opposed it when it was on the ballot.

But if you think that San Francisco's highly competitive mayoral race is just one long exercise in unabashed and kooky liberalism, think again. No controversies here about who would do more to end genital mutilation in the Third World; these days, candidates only whisper about tax hikes and are shy about bringing up even those proposals that might entail teensy little park fees or hotel excises. California's notorious former assembly honcho, Willie Brown, recently delivered a tough crime speech in which he explained how he would bear down on drug dealers in the city's neighborhoods. This race is about law and order and getting more government for the buck -- just like any normal city. Astonishing.

Still, this is not Contract with America-ville. There is a Republican candidate, but his grasp of English is so tenuous that he told a neighborhood group if he were mayor, "Rolls will head." San Francisco remains Democratic, but the Democrats here seem to be maturing a little. Roberta Achtenberg, whose appointment to Clinton's HUD made her America's most famous lesbian politician, mentioned sexual preference only once during the symposium. Instead she focused on neighborhood task forces, restructuring government, and "strands of community policing."

The candidacy of County Supervisor Angela Alioto, daughter of the erstwhile mayor Joe Alioto, hasn't been helped by the April conviction of her former boyfriend Peter Rowland, who pleaded guilty to defrauding two women in a real- estate con. Alioto has contended Rowland's conviction shouldn't hurt her prospects "because," she explained to the San Francisco Chronicle, "I think every woman in the world can relate to having met a jerk." It has been reported that Alioto is dropping out of the race. If so, the nearly nightly candidates' forums will be much duller.

Incumbent mayor Frank Jordan, a moderate Democrat whom city pundits have curiously dubbed a conservative, is struggling. Polls indicate that on November 7, Jordan and Brown will be the top two vote getters. Since neither is expected to get 50 percent of the vote, that means the two would face each other in a December run-off.

People who only know Willie Brown from press clips about his strong-arm tactics in the California assembly assume he is far to America's left. In truth, Brown more closely resembles a quintessential businessman's candidate. He boasts about his Brioni suits. He has enjoyed tax write-offs for his many cars because he claims to be a "collector." Before he announced, Brown informed the public he wasn't sure if he would run because he didn't think he could live on the mayor's salary of $ 138,669 -- and the city's charter prevents him from taking some of those lucrative side jobs that kept him in cars during the assembly years.

Downtown businessmen, some of whom already maxed out in contributions to Jordan, are flocking to Brown's camp with donations in hand. Charles Schwab, Safeway chairman of the board Peter Magowan, the Gap's Donald Fisher, and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck are on his donor list. No surprise there -- Brown has represented a number of city bigwigs in his other job of lawyer and corporate lobbyist to the city. And downtown knows that Brown understands that a deal is a deal.

Still, his candidacy has experienced some unexpected snags. Having received more than $ 800,000 from gambling-related interests since 1987, Brown suggested allowing a casino to be built on Treasure Island so that the city could benefit from the tax revenues.

Not to worry; the upscale Brown assured voters he would not allow the city's tony image to be sullied by rooms full of polyestered retirees glued to the slots. No, his would be a "Monte Carlo-style upscale casino." In fact, he suggested the casino should have a dress code -- although in the wake of charges that he was being tres elitist, he conceded that formal dress would not be required. "I don't think we can do tuxedoes," he later explained. "But we can do jackets."

A former police chief from the community-relations school, Frank Jordan can't possibly compete with Brown on style, connections, or resume. Since he stunned the cognoscenti by winning the election four years ago, Jordan's biggest problem has been the constant sniping and stonewalling he has had to endure from City Hall's liberal establishment. For example, when Jordan proposed that the city's welfare agency automatically deduct discounted housing vouchers from the checks of homeless recipients -- thereby ensuring that they would stay in single-room occupancy hotels instead of sleeping in shelters or on street corners -- the county supervisors opposed him. Jordan was forced to put the measure on the ballot for approval. And he won.

The Jordan camp has two things going for it: Brown's record and the homeless issue. When Brown boasted that he would increase drug arrests in the neighborhoods, for example, the Jordan campaign pounced: Local reporters were reminded that in 1981 while he was speaker, Brown represented a Colombian drug-cartel figure. Alter Brown convinced a federal judge to reduce his client's bail from $ 10 million to $ 1 million, the client disappeared, presumably having fled the country.

Jordan's predecessor, Art Agnos, had a philosophy about dealing with the homeless that Jordan's challengers share. Agnos believed that law enforcement should not be used to deal with the homeless until a vast array of social services were fully operational. As a result, an army of bums set up camp in the city's Civic Center, which was scornfully dubbed "Camp Agnos."

For his part, Jordan has ordered law enforcement to arrest street people who urinate or defecate in public, sell or use drugs on the street, are publicly intoxicated or sleeping on streets and in public parks. The program is called "Matrix." While city leftists have howled that Matrix criminalizes poverty, on many Matrix forays police are accompanied by social workers who attempt to refer the displaced to shelters or other services. And city workers can walk through the Civic Center again.

Brown, Alioto, and Achtenberg have been highly critical of Matrix. Alioto insists that if people want to camp out, the police should not move them. Brown recently told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board that if he were mayor, shelters would not be able to turn away clients due to drunkenness. He proposes building more shelters.

The opposition's discredited, sentimental view of the homeless may be what re-elects Frank Jordan, who is well aware of the anger residents feel about the city's past coddling. Jordan has wisely figured out that in a city that prides itself for being cosmopolitan, he can't compete with Brown on style, urbanity; or wit. He is a button-down guy who stands out because his philosophy on the homeless doesn't tie the hands of city police. Jordan's campaign slogan? The echoes of a famous TV cop show are all to the point: " For the Streets of San Francisco."

Debra J. Saunders writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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