The Last Seduction

Spurned by term limitations, Willie Brown turns his political affections on San Francisco. But how long will our small-town ways hold his fancy?

Brown ran again in 1964 and this time beat Gaffney by using the Panhandle freeway crusade to embarrass his opponent. "Whether you like it or not, the State is pushing an ugly, sprawling freeway through your neighborhood," Brown wrote in a letter to voters that year. "Your representative is silent on the issue."

Once in the Assembly, joining John Burton in the freshman class of 1964, Brown made two spectacular blunders. First, he voted against Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh for speaker. The victorious Unruh banished Brown to Siberia: a tiny, windowless office and seats on the most obscure of committees. Second, he and John Burton sent a telegram -- actually Burton signed Brown's name without telling him -- to French and British officials asking them to mediate an end to the Vietnam War.

Republicans went berserk. They mounted a recall against the two brazen freshman. They even asked that treason charges be brought. By this time, Phil Burton was a power in the U.S. Congress; he called his old Assembly pals from Washington and cooled things down. Brown and Burton further diffused the crisis with private apologies.

Brown's first taste of power in the Assembly came when he was appointed to the lobbyist oversight committee, the Committee on Registration. The pol who would come to be known as "The King of Juice" started out as a reformer, forcing chagrined lobbyists to register and report their donations.

Unruh, the undisputed king of Democratic politics in the state, came to notice Brown's energy. "It's good you're not white," he's said to have told Brown one day. Why? asked the greenhorn legislator. "Because you'd own the place."

After a speakership battle in 1970, Brown found himself with his hands on the main switch of power in Sacramento. He backed Bob Moretti, who won, and was rewarded with the most powerful committee post: chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Nearly every piece of legislation passes through this committee, and Brown soon developed a reputation for brilliance -- and arrogance. Sponsors would come before him and he'd cut them off in midsentence, explaining to them what was in their bill. Most of the time, he knew more about sponsor's bill than the sponsor did. He embarrassed them in public, which was uncool and would come back to bite him at a critical juncture in his career.

His tenure on Ways and Means established Brown for the first time as his own man, his own center of power. He was part of the select crew of Senate and Assembly leaders who would convene behind closed doors to hash out the state budget. Under the tutelage of old legislative lions like state Sen. Ralph Collier, Brown began to learn the tricks of insider dealmaking and patronage.

After four years on Ways and Means, and after capturing national attention with a compelling speech at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Brown thought he was ready for the speakership. But he had miscalculated badly. The enemies he had made on Ways and Means had gone with Leo McCarthy. What hurt the most was that the four deciding votes were black.

"He was the smartest, and he lorded it over them," says Public Defender Jeff Brown.

Brown was punished by McCarthy for his temerity and stripped of his Ways and Means assignment. He slunk back to San Francisco, where he began to build up his law practice and transform himself into a City Hall lobbyist who represented mostly developers.

He remained in the Legislature but rarely visited it more than twice a week. All the same, he took on conservatives over the 19th-century sex codes that criminalized homosexuality and adultery, and after a six-year fight won repeal of the archaic laws. Soon enough, McCarthy rehabilitated Brown, putting him on another important committee, Revenue and Taxation, and the Mineola wiz returned to the forefront of Assembly politics.

Still hungry for the speakership, Brown's overarching ambition found the right opening in 1980 when McCarthy and Howard Berman, a Los Angeles Democrat, tore into each other over the speakership. As Berman and McCarthy recruited votes, Brown worked the other side of the aisle, courting Republicans. So quiet were Brown's overtures that McCarthy thought Brown was with him, dispatching him as a representative to talk to Berman's allies.

Throughout the summer, Brown wooed the enemy. To this day they claim he promised them campaign money and committee chairmanships. But they were most willing to listen because they feared Berman and thought Brown's arrogance and inexperience would destroy him in short order. Brown's old mentor, Jesse Unruh, also helped. At the power eatery in Sacramento, Frank Fat's, Unruh held court and convinced hesitant Republicans that Brown was their man.

Summer turned to winter, and McCarthy, realizing he didn't have the votes, threw his support behind Brown. After peeling off two Berman votes, Brown was ready. It went down like this: The Democratic caucus tied, 23-23, and then on the floor Brown polled 28 Republicans, flabbergasting the entire house.


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