In addition to serving two terms as the first Black mayor of San Francisco, Willie L. Brown is also well known as the longest serving Speaker of the California Assembly. He served 15 years as Speaker and three decades as an assemblyman. Even when the Democrats lost control of the Assembly—and Brown was a Democrat—he was able to retain the speaker-ship by winning over enough Republicans to his side. (As a matter of fact, when Brown first became speaker, he won with 28 Republicans and 23 Democrats). It was reported that term limits was instituted to be able to remove Brown from the speaker’s position.
Brown is an attorney who has carved out a niche in American politics in his own way that few have matched. He has a colorful personality and exudes charm whenever he speaks; he is also a skillful politician—a superb legislator and masterful chief executive. Though his political constituency was centered on San Francisco, he was known well beyond the boundaries of the city.
Brown came to San Francisco from Mineola, Texas, where he was born in March 1934. He was familiar with segregation from an early age having attended segregated elementary and high school in his hometown. (In Mineola, there reportedly was a chain link fence in the cemetery that separated Blacks and Whites). Early in life, Brown realized that in order to achieve anything meaningful, he would have to leave Mineola.
Moving to San Francisco was an easy decision since he had an uncle there whom he had admired. After he arrived in the city by the bay, Brown enrolled in San Francisco State University where he graduated with a degree in political science. It was there that “Brown vs the Board of Education” got his first taste of politics and became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
It was just after the landmark “Brown” decision and it helped Brown choose his next career objective. He enrolled in the University of California (UC), Hastings College of Law remembering the indignities he had experienced growing up in Mineola. In 1958, he received his law degree and went into private practice. The same year, Brown also got married to Blanch Vitero; they eventually had three children: Susan Elizabeth, Robin Elaine and Michael Elliot.
As an attorney, Brown would usually take cases other attorneys dismissed as hopeless and this earned him a reputation of defending the “defenseless.” In 1962, he ran for the state assembly but was defeated. Two years later, he tried again and was successful. When Brown arrived in Sacramento, there were three other Black assemblymen: W. Byron Rumford of Berkeley, and Mervyn M. Dymally and F. Douglas Ferrell of Los Angeles. There were no Black women in the state legislature.
As an assemblyman, Brown authored several bills that impacted minorities not only in his district but also throughout the state, and sometimes as a model for other states’ legislatures. He focused on the preservation of cultural landmarks; led efforts to have companies divest from doing business with South Africa’s apartheid government; secured protective equipment for law enforcement officials; strengthened worker’s compensation laws to detect fraud and engineered hundreds of legislative measures designed to improve the quality of life for all Californians.
During his tenure in the assembly, in addition to being the Speaker, Brown was also a UC regent, a California State University trustee, the majority leader and the youngest member to chair the powerful Ways and Means committee. He was the target of several federal investigations that often snared numerous state officials, but he always remained above the fray and was very popular among his constituents. He knew how to manage people and always knew what was going on in the state legislatures at all times.
As a result of term limits, in 1995, Brown decided to run for the job of mayor of San Francisco. In the midst of his mayoral campaign, he was honored by the Brotherhood Crusade and was introduced at the dinner extravaganza by fellow attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Brown told the audience, “I’m running for a job, they should have asked me to take. I’m involved in retail politics.” That was typically Brown, an individual who was able to make light of most circumstances and create amusement in the most elegant way. He became the next mayor of San Francisco—the first African American—and eventually served the maximum two terms.
At his inauguration, he telephoned then President Bill Clinton, who was in Washington, D. C.,—where it was apparently snowing—and said, “The weather here is fine; there’s no snow and no Republicans.”
He handled the mayor’s job with the same political skillfulness that had earned him respect on both sides of the political aisle in Sacramento. During his first term, the city experienced a significant increase in real estate development, public works, city beautification and array of large-scale city projects. While Brown was mayor, the city also enjoyed a rapidly expanding economy and the most diversified administration in its history including Asian-Americans, women, Latinos and African-Americans. Critics accused Brown of patronage and nepotism, but according to his friends, Brown was loyal to a fault; he would stand by his supporters to the end and “bend over backwards” to reward loyalty.
Brown won re-election and went about the city’s business despite being tagged by mainstream media as one of the nation’s big city liberal mayors. Brown wanted the people of San Francisco to be an integral part of its city government. He would open city hall on Saturdays to questions in an effort to restore pride and accountability in the government. In a random survey, more than 66 percent of the people approved of Brown’s performance and leadership.
In his second term, he focused on social problems including spending millions of dollars creating homeless shelters, supportive housing, drug treatment and job training centers. Transportation, land planning and development also received an inordinate amount of Brown’s attention. Due to his skill as the city’s chief executive, he was able to appoint eight of the eleven members of the Board of Supervisors to help him carry out his agenda.
As in Sacramento, the FBI also investigated Brown during his tenure as mayor about his appointees to the Airport Commission. And like in Sacramento, the San Francisco investigation did not result in any charges against Brown. He was a skilful attorney who played by the rules. The end of his second term culminated almost forty years as an elected official.
After leaving the mayor’s office, Brown continued his lucrative law practice. In addition to practice in the State of California, he was admitted to practice in all federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. He hosted a radio show with Will Durst that blended humor and politics zeroing on San Franciscans’ points of view. Some of the city’s treasured institutions have been replaced with Brown’s name and some new ones have begun
There is a Willie J. Brown Jr. Elementary School that offers an alternative approach to educating students. The curriculum consists of student empowerment activities, which plays an active role in the learning process. It goes from pre-kindergarten to 8th grade meeting academic standards and providing character development.
Then there is the Willie Brown Institute on Politics and Public Service, an independent, non-profit organization that provides a forum for non-partisan education, debates and discusses public policy issues in order to expand the technical expertise available from the political, academic, business and scientific communities.
In 2007, Brown released his auto-biography, “Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times.”
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.