Crossing (Almost) All the Lines
San Francisco's Willie Brown recalls the joy of politics.

Reviewed by Ron Fimrite
Sunday, March 9, 2008


My Life and Our Times

By Willie Brown

Simon & Schuster. 350 pp. $26

Modesty is not one of the many attributes former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown ascribes to himself in this engaging autobiography, written with veteran journalist P.J. Corkery. Describing his humble beginnings in rural east Texas, Brown writes, "From that limited and limiting environment, or perhaps because of it, I grew up to be one of America's most adept politicians." "I'm unique," he adds, "given the fact that I've had to run and campaign in districts with very small black electorates." Oh, and by the way, "I give wonderful fundraisers: no windy speeches, just lots of entertainment."

But as another unassuming sort, the late Dizzy Dean, once said, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it." And Willie Brown, who turns 74 on March 20, has done it. A liberal Democrat, he represented San Francisco in the California State Assembly for 31 years and served as speaker for a record 14 years, the last six months under a Republican majority. "When the Republicans finally gained control . . . in 1994, they didn't elect a Republican to be speaker, they elected me," thanks, he might have added, to a typical bit of Willie-ness that involved successfully wooing a moderate assemblyman who was out of favor with the Gingrich-style revolutionaries.

Brown's long run as the first African American speaker of the California Assembly was predictably controversial. He reorganized his party's fundraising procedures, channeling the money into his own office, from which he distributed it to needy campaigners. It was a method that attracted the unflagging interest of FBI agents apparently determined to incarcerate the speaker as an influence-peddler. Brown gleefully describes an FBI sting that involved setting up a sham shrimp-processing company eager to pay for favorable legislation. The only assemblyman caught in that crude trap was a Republican mole who cooperated, much to his grief, with the feds.

At the same time, Brown takes pride in a bipartisan record that includes chummy relationships with Republican governors from Reagan to Schwarzenegger. The most unlikely of these pairings was with George Deukmejian, who was in every sense Brown's polar opposite. "He was suburban; I was urban. His idea of a good time on a weekend, someone once said, was cleaning out the garage of his modest home down in Long Beach. My idea of a good time was a weekend of clubbing around the nightspots of San Francisco. His clothes were ready-to-wear; mine, of course, were bespoke." But in the 1980s Brown needed Deukmejian's signature on a bill prohibiting the state from doing business with apartheid South Africa. By appealing to Deukmejian's ethnic heritage and pointedly mentioning the historic persecution of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, he got it -- though only after agonizing weeks of Gourmet Willie dining with the parsimonious governor on white-bread tuna sandwiches in the capitol cafeteria.

Brown remains an extraordinarily popular figure in the city he has called home since he arrived as an impoverished but ambitious student in 1951. Dapper, convivial, witty, he's one of San Francisco's most accessible homegrown celebrities. But he freely admits that when he resigned from the assembly in 1995 to run for mayor, he "knew next to nothing about local government." His campaign received an unexpected and unprecedented boost when his opponent, incumbent Mayor Frank Jordan, decided to shake up a humdrum image by agreeing to be interviewed stark naked in the shower by two male disc jockeys. The event was amply publicized and photographed, effectively ending Jordan's time in office. Asked if he would ever do such a thing, Brown responded that he disliked appearing in "one-button suits."

As mayor, Brown bravely took on a series of historically unsolvable problems -- the homeless, low cost housing, public transportation, the 49ers' demand for a new football stadium -- with mixed and mostly inconclusive results. He appointed the city's first black fire chief and its first Asian police chief, and he managed to restore, mostly through his connections in Sacramento and Washington, San Francisco's damaged City Hall to its original magnificence.

In many ways, his book reads like a political primer, offering advice on everything from fashion to fund-raising. Some of that counsel can scarcely be considered conventional. It is, for example, his considered opinion that in politics, extra-marital affairs are not only inevitable but possibly advantageous. "I think the public relishes the idea of having someone who's actually alive holding down public office. If you're going to have a reputation, have one for your dashing ways."

Well, that's all very easy for Brown to say. Last year, he celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with a woman he hasn't lived with for 25 years. In the interim, he has accumulated an impressive succession of attractive mistresses and fathered a child with one of them. His ability to hold on to political power while breaking (almost) all the accepted rules of conduct may be his chief legacy.

True, his roguish ways are reminiscent of such other flashy mayors as Marion Barry of Washington and Jimmy Walker of New York. Like them, he makes no pretense of piety. But unlike them, he's never run afoul of the law. He has so nimbly crossed racial barriers that he stands as something of a pioneer, and yet he has demonstrated no particular desire to be remembered as an African American leader. Indeed, many of his closest friends are white.

So let's just say this man is one of a kind, and be done with it. *

Ron Fimrite, a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist, is at work on a history of football at the University of California, Berkeley.

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