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On the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, Willie Brown Jr. was running late. Speaker of the Assembly Jesse Unruh had dispatched Brown and his colleague, Republican Assemblyman William T. Bagley, to Abernathy Cathedral in Atlanta, Ga., to pay respects on behalf of the state. But the plane flight, the car rental hassle, it all added up and they missed the beginning of services.
Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were patrolling outside wearing ushers' white armbands. Bagley, a white man and Republican, was not going to convince the SNCC members to let them in, not on that day. But one of the activists took a liking to Brown. The SNCC man led Bagley and Brown up a fire escape in the back of the church and into the vestibule. Walking out a door, they found themselves on the altar mere feet from MLK's coffin.
As Richard Nixon, the Kennedy clan, Hubert Humphrey, and the political elite of the United States contended for room amid the pews, Willie Brown Jr., a nobody legislator from California, had found the best seat in the house.
Nearly three decades hence, Brown again finds himself looking for the back entrance to the altar. Barred by term limits from running for the Assembly again, he faced the unthinkable: the end of his political career. Most options were closed to him. He considered defying term limits and running for the Assembly in 1996 anyway, challenging the limitation in court. But that was too risky. He was blocked from running for a U.S. House or Senate seat by personal reasons: His political friends and allies occupied all of the available slots. He could have played musical chairs by running for the state Senate seat Milton Marks was vacating (also because of term limits), but who can imagine the self-proclaimed "ayatollah of the Assembly" warming a back bench in the Senate?
Could he close up political shop and concentrate on his law practice? No, the most powerful politician in California couldn't face such ego deflation. Brown craved an appropriate arena for his political genius. A presidential appointment could be his for the asking, but Brown works for no man.
So the choice was clear. There was no other way. He had to run for mayor.
Throughout his life, Willie Brown has hurdled adversity. Defeated, humiliated, shut out, the preternaturally self-possessed fixer has turned life's handicaps into opportunity.
But like all turning points, this one is fraught with risk and the potential for defeat. San Francisco is not Sacramento, and Brown is untested in corralling the stubborn horses of city politics. Maximum leader in the Assembly, Brown could become just another mayor the city has broken. We've done it to the last two.
Be sure, Brown is by no means a perfect fit for the city. Accustomed to the sweeping power of the Assembly, he has in the past openly disdained the small-town politics of San Francisco. In the mid-'80s he backed away from a mayoral bid, saying he didn't want to deal with "dog manure and streetlights and tenants who raise holy hell because some owner won't share his profits with them on a full-time basis."
But today San Francisco's streetlights shine like a beacon of opportunity, and the tenants invigorate him with their activism. Even the dog poo smells of victory. The master of politics is ready to tame the microconstituencies of this 700,000-plus city just as he did the battling and fractious denizens of Sacramento.
What the city thinks of Brown is muddier; it remains hopelessly confused about what kind of politics it wants. After four years of Jordanian cynicism and ineptitude, San Franciscans are hungry for a strong hand. But this is a notoriously fickle city. Eight years ago, we enthusiastically elected a strong mayor and ditched him last election for the weak-minded patsy we're trying to jettison this year.
Willie Brown's candidacy, more than anything, will help resolve the identity crisis. No one doubts that as mayor he would make decisions quickly, even brutally. That he'd have no patience for the demanding, perpetually processing activists who define progressive politics in this city.
If anything, the election is a political inventory of San Francisco's liberal plurality.
Will it adopt the high-horse populism of Roberta Achtenberg, who would hand power to neighborhoods and single-interest groups, continuing the city's comfortable stasis?
Or will it embrace the power politics of Willie Brown?
Brown holds a commanding lead over Achtenberg. So maybe San Francisco has woken to the fact that politics is by its nature a dirty business. Maybe the city is finally ready to strike a Faustian bargain and accept progress in its life.
"Fuck you!" the voice screeches over the phone.
"Beep! Beep! Beep!" comes over the phone until the voice re-emerges. "Who the fuck is this guy. What's he doing?" Beep! Screeetch! "Fuck!"
The voice belongs to Assemblyman John Burton, who is driving around San Francisco trying to talk to me on his cellular phone. The "fuck you"s aren't meant for me -- not yet. He's having trouble with the traffic, and giving trouble back to the traffic.