Column: Even at 90 and with deteriorating eyesight, Willie Brown's political vision remains unmatched

Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Columnist, George Skelton was celebrated for 50 years of writing for the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday evening, Jan. 17, 2024 at the Revival restaurant in the Kimpton Hotel in Sacramento, California. Photographs by Jose Luis Villegas
Former San Francisco Mayor and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown speaks at a January event honoring Times columnist George Skelton. Brown turned 90 this week. (Jose Luis Villegas / For The Times)

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

“And beads,” he reminded me the other day with a chuckle.

That was long ago — 59 years — when Brown first showed up in the state Assembly chamber to be sworn in as a freshman legislator.

He was a 30-year-old Black lawyer from San Francisco in a strange sea of white males who were attired in traditional dark business suits with collared shirts and ties.

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

Brown told me recently he planned to wear a similar jacket — he now calls it a mandarin-collar outfit — to one of the eight 90th birthday bashes being thrown in his honor this week and beyond in San Francisco. His actual birthday was Wednesday.

Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown and Cecil Williams hold hands during a march.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, center, with Dianne Feinstein, left, and the Rev. Cecil Williams at a Martin Luther King Jr. march Jan. 20, 1986, in San Francisco. (Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

One thing Brown has always prided himself on: his stylish, quality clothes — mostly conventional, but not always.

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

Regardless of color, Brown’s achievements would have landed him a prominent place in the history books. He served twice as long as Assembly speaker — more than 14 years — as anyone else because his colleagues kept reelecting him.

But on that first day, many lawmakers rolled their eyes or winced at the different-looking fellow standing in the Assembly’s back row.

“Who’s that?” someone asked me.

“That’s the guy who beat Eddie Gaffney,” I answered.

Edward Gaffney, then 78, a sweet gentleman first elected to the Assembly in 1940, was best known for two things: Each March, he’d don a green derby and lead the Assembly in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. And he was a loyal vote for whatever Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh wanted.

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

Once at the Capitol, Brown immediately announced his presence by refusing to support Unruh’s reelection as speaker.

“I was the first [Democratic] vote ever cast against Unruh as speaker because he had funded the guy who was my opponent,” Brown told me recently.

Brown paid the price. He landed in the Unruh doghouse — with the smallest office and the worst committee assignments.

Willie Brown talks to George McGovern.
Assemblyman Willie Brown speaks with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern on Oct. 27, 1972, in Sacramento. (Associated Press)

But Unruh and Brown were survivors. Unruh was also a teacher and Brown a student. One lesson “Big Daddy” taught: “If I’d killed all my enemies yesterday, I’d have no friends today.”

They eventually became pals. Unruh recognized that Brown was not only brash, he was brilliant — an adjective practically everyone who knows Brown uses to describe him.

In gauging Brown, one should factor in his roots in segregated rural Texas.

His mom cleaned white people’s homes. Willie worked in a barbershop cleaning up. White men tipped him with quarters and nickels, dropped into a spittoon. He needed the money and fished it out.

Brown caught the first bus for San Francisco the day after graduating 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 attorney could find at the time: defending pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers.

“He was born into a family of bootleggers and gamblers and they outsmarted and out-hustled 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 them.”

“He has a political mind that I think is unparalleled,” says Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman, a former Brown advisor and longtime friend. “He’s able to see all sides of an issue and to think two or three steps ahead."

A child reaches out to touch Willie Brown.
San Francisco Mayor-elect Willie Brown is greeted by schoolchildren on his way to inaugural ceremonies Jan. 8, 1996. (Andy Kuno /Associated Press)

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

Back then, there were only four Black legislators. Today there are 12. In 1964, Californians voted to retain housing discrimination based on race — unthinkable today.

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

Brown failed in his first attempt to become speaker in 1974. But he succeeded in 1980 because of Republican help.

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

“Republicans had been so mistreated over the years,” Brown says. “Most Republicans had been serving almost like indentured servants.”

But because of his flamboyance, obsession for fancy sports cars, flashy dress and — let’s face it — a smidgen of racism in some voters, Brown was disliked by many who didn’t know him, especially Republicans. He was not humble and subdued. Those who worked with Brown, however, respected and liked the man, including Republicans. And he was exciting to be around.

George Skelton and Willie Brown sit and talk.
Columnist George Skelton talks with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in January. (Jose Luis Villegas / For The Times)

“He always kept his word,” recalls Steven Merksamer, who was Republican Gov. George Deukmejian’s chief of staff. “Trust is the coin of the realm. If you don’t have trust, you can’t get a damn thing done.”

Yes, but this “Ayatollah of the Assembly” — as Brown dubbed himself — also became what he acknowledged was “the poster boy” for legislative term limits. In 1990, voters supported term limits to oust Brown as speaker.

It didn’t help that the FBI had just conducted a massive sting of the Capitol that generated corruption convictions for a dozen legislators, lobbyists and staffers.

Ironically, the sting was instigated by the Assembly minority leader, Pat Nolan of Glendale, who convinced the Reagan administration that Brown was a ripe target. The feds never found anything on Brown, but they stung Nolan, who went to prison.

Politics still is Brown’s life and passion. He stays up on it despite deteriorating eyesight from retinitis pigmentosa by listening to lots of television news — and conversing with a lifetime of political friends.

He thinks President Biden can beat Donald Trump “if people just let Biden be Biden. Like he has been in the last two weeks.”

How has politics changed? “Politics are no longer dominated by A students. Now there are lots of C students,” he says, explaining that they’re more interested in reelection than long-term policy achievement. He thinks educators should start pushing for more political quality.

He believes it was a mistake for governments to shut down businesses, schools and offices during the COVID pandemic without deeper discussion. “We ruined the economy of our country.”

Brown’s secret to longevity and success, it seems to me, is that he’s constantly upbeat, he enjoys people and he loves his work. He’s a happy man and makes others happy.

Never throw away the Nehru jacket, Willie. And happy birthday.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.