Even at age 90 and with deteriorating eyesight, Willie Brown’s political vision remains unparalleled

(Jose Luis Villegas/For The Times)

Even at age 90 and with deteriorating eyesight, Willie Brown’s political vision remains unparalleled

California politics, homepage news

George Skelton

March 21, 2024

The first time I saw Willie Brown, he was grinning widely, with curious eyes, and wearing a fashionable Nehru jacket.

And beads, he reminded me the other day, chuckling.

That was a long time ago, 59 years ago, when Brown first appeared in the state Assembly chamber to be sworn in as a freshman lawmaker.

He was a 30-year-old black lawyer from San Francisco in a strange sea of ​​white men dressed in traditional dark business suits with collared shirts and ties.

The Nehru jacket was generally a symbol of rebellion against culture and, for Brown, a sign of self-confidence and independence.

Brown recently told me he was planning to wear a similar jacket, he now calls it a


andarin collar outfit for one of eight 90th birthday parties being held in his honor this week and beyond in San Francisco. His actual birthday was Wednesday.

One thing Brown has always been proud of: his stylish, quality clothes, usually conventional, but not always.

Brown didn’t enter those big mahogany mounting doors in 1965 just to fit in. Ultimately, he did, but he led more than that: He became one of the most important political leaders in California history, the first speaker of the Black Assembly and, in 1995, the first black mayor of San Francisco.

Regardless of his color, Brown’s achievements would have earned him a prominent place in the history books. He served as Speaker of the Assembly twice as long, more than fourteen years, as anyone else, because his colleagues kept re-electing him.

But on that first day, many lawmakers rolled their eyes or winced at the different-looking guy standing in the back row of the meetings.

Who is that? someone asked me.

That’s the man who beat Eddie Gaffney, I replied.

Edward Gaffney, then 78, a lovely gentleman who was first elected to the Assembly in 1940, was best known for two things: every March he put on a green derby and led the Assembly in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. And he was a loyal voice for whatever Speaker Jesse Big Daddy Unruh wanted.

In the 1964 election, Unruh endorsed Gaffney over upstart challenger Brown, who was backed by the political machine of then-San Francisco Assemblyman Phillip Burton.

Once inside the Capitol, Brown immediately announced his presence by refusing to support Unruh’s re-election as speaker.

I was the first [Democratic] vote once cast against Unruh as speaker because he had financed the man who was my opponent, Brown told me recently.

Brown paid the price. He landed in Unruh’s doghouse


the smallest office and the worst committee assignments.

But Unruh and Brown were survivors. Unruh was also a teacher and Brown a student. One lesson Big Daddy learned: If I had killed all my enemies yesterday, I wouldn’t have any friends today.

They eventually became friends. Unruh recognized that Brown


not only


brash, he was brilliant, an adjective that virtually everyone who knows Brown uses to describe him.

When assessing Brown, his roots in segregated rural Texas must be taken into account.

His mother cleaned white people’s houses. Willie worked in a barbershop cleaning up. White men gave him quarters and nickels and dropped him into a spittoon. He needed the money and fished it out.

Brown took the first bus to San Francisco the day after he graduated from Mineola Colored High School in 1951. He worked in his uncle’s illegal gambling house, went to law school and got the best job a young black lawyer could find at the time: defending pimps. , prostitutes and drug dealers.

He was born into a family of bootleggers and gamblers and they outwitted and outwitted everyone, Brown biographer James Richardson once wrote. He learned the skills of politics at the feet of masters: a pair of uncles who knew how to work the system before it worked for them.

He has a political mind that I think is second to none, said Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman, a former Brown adviser and longtime friend. He can see all sides of an issue and think two or three steps ahead


Brown got into politics at San Francisco State when he tried to elect the first black student body president. There he met John Burton, Phil’s brother. Willie and John were both elected to the Assembly in the same year. John eventually became leader of the Senate.

At the time, there were only four black lawmakers. Today there are twelve. In 1964, Californians voted to maintain housing discrimination based on race, which is unthinkable today.

There has been a dramatic change in racial discrimination, Brown says. Probably more in California than anywhere else, he adds.

Brown failed in his first attempt to become chairman in 1974. But he succeeded in 1980 thanks to Republican help.

Republican Assembly members gave Brown more votes (28) than Democrats (23). In return, Brown allowed Republicans to appoint committee vice chairs and add staff.

Republicans have been so mistreated over the years, Brown says. Most Republicans had served almost as indentured servants.

But because of his flamboyance, obsession with fancy sports cars, flashy clothes and, let’s be honest, a touch of racism.

n some voters

Brown was disliked by many who did not know him, especially Republicans. He was not humiliated and subjugated. However, those who worked with Brown respected and liked the man, including Republicans. And he was exciting to be around.

He always kept his word, recalls Steven Merksamer, a Republican governor. George Deukmejian’s chief of staff. Trust is the currency of the kingdom. If you don’t have confidence, you can’t get anything done.

Yes, but this Assembly ayatollah, as Brown called himself, also became what he recognized as the poster boy for legislative term limits. In 1990, voters supported term limits to remove Brown as speaker.

It didn’t help that the FBI had just carried out a massive attack on the Capitol, leading to corruption convictions for a dozen lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers.

Ironically, the sting was created by Assembly Minority Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, who convinced the Reagan administration that Brown was a ripe target. The FBI never found anything on Brown, but they stabbed Nolan, who went to prison.

Politics is still Brown’s life and passion. He stays at it, despite deteriorating vision from retinitis pigmentosa, by listening to a lot of television news and talking to a lifetime of political friends.

He thinks President Biden can beat Donald Trump if people just let Biden be Biden. As he has been for the past two weeks.

How have politics changed? Politics is no longer dominated by A students. Now there are a lot of C students, he says, explaining that they are more interested in re-election than long-term policy results. He believes that teachers should push for more political quality.

He believes it was a mistake for governments to close businesses, schools and offices during the COVID pandemic without deeper discussion. We have ruined our country’s economy.

I think Brown’s secret to longevity and success is that he is constantly cheerful, loves people and loves his job. He is a happy man and makes others happy.

Never throw away the Nehru jacket, Willie. And congratulations on your birthday.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Hot Topics

Related Articles