The Republicans have never stopped biting their foreheads over their decision to back Brown. For 15 years, Brown marshalled the power of the speaker in a way no previous speaker had, building a political juggernaut along the way. But a nagging question hovers over the Brown legacy: What good did all this power bring?
His critics say Brown's speakership was an exercise in power for power's sake. When Unruh was speaker, they say, he had broad, thoughtful policy goals he pursued. But Brown had no such goals.
“The problem with Willie,” says Bee columnist Dan Walters, “is he has never been willing to use his power and his incredible intellect for much in the way of policy. It was always just for his own aggrandizement. He always felt the need, coming from where he did, to prove that he was the smartest, the most powerful, the hippest.”
Walters, who has tracked Brown's entire Assembly career, continues: “He loves to make deals. He just loves it. It doesn't matter what the deal is, he just loves to make it. He pays very little attention to the content.
“Throughout his speakership I watched him become more and more the pragmatist,” Walters adds. “He was just interested in moving bills, making deals, getting out of town. He became a technician, there wasn't much policy behind it.”
James Richardson, the Bee reporter who's writing a biography of Brown, has a less strident analysis of Brown's tenure. He says Brown has two bedrock ideological planks: civil rights and education.
“In 1962, when he ran for Assembly, he published his platform in the Sun Reporter,” Richardson says. “You read it, and it's exactly what he has always stood for. He has never wavered. The platform sets forth a defense of civil rights for all people and education as a way up for people.
“The rest of it,” Richardson says, “he will deal away.”
The archetypal story about Willie Brown's political style, according to Richardson and others, is the famous “napkin deal.” Understand the moves, tactics, and aftermath of the napkin deal, and you understand Brown's strength, as well as his fatal flaw. Indeed, the deal is a cautionary tale for San Francisco voters.
The scene once again is Frank Fat's, a muggy September night in 1987, and the representatives of the state's four major economic powers have gathered over Kung Pao chicken to work out a truce. The mediators: Brown and Democratic state Sen. Bill Lockeyer of Hayward. The task before them nothing short of awesome: to rewrite California tort law.
On one side sit the representatives of the manufacturers, doctors, and insurance companies, all incensed by the huge damage awards handed down in malpractice and liability cases. On the other, the trial lawyers, there to protect the status quo.
The juice in the room is intoxicating; at each table is one of the state's biggest campaign contributors. Brown is in his element.
You'd think such august dealmaking would demand a more dignified finale. But when all sides agree to a compromise, worked out by a table-hopping Brown, Lockeyer has nothing to write on. So he grabs a napkin, scrawls DMZ, for “demilitarized zone,” and writes out the terms of the truce.
The legislation is rushed into print 48 hours later and after kangaroo committee hearings it comes up for a vote on the floor of both houses on the last day of the legislative sessions. Consumer advocates and legislators cry foul — Brown turns a deaf ear.
“I have the votes on the floor tonight,” Brown tells Assemblywoman Jackie Speer, when she asks why the issue can't be put off until the next session.
Assemblyman Byron Sher, a Stanford law professor, jumps to his feet and demands a caucus meeting. “There will be no more caucuses tonight Mr. Sher,” Brown shoots back.
The episode illustrates Brown at his best and worst: He freed a logjam, but damaged democracy by using dynamite to do it.
“Willie defines the public interest based on who's sitting at the table at any given moment,” biographer Richardson says. “The problem is that is never the case. With the napkin deal he forgot to include the consumer advocates and what did we get? Prop. 103,” he concludes, referring to the insurance reform measure that voters passed in 1989.
Willie Brown shows up for breakfast at the Terrace Cafe in the Cathedral Hill Hotel — but something is eating him. The KGO-TV debate the night before was a pro-Jordan setup, he says, greeting me. “The hecklers,” he says. “They were Jordan plants. They were white guys, clean-cut white guys from the Sunset.”
But the hecklers were yelling at Jordan, I say.
“You're not being cynical enough,” he says, pointing his finger at me.
Does he mean they yelled at Jordan to make him look beleaguered in the face of liberal yahoos, thus solidifying his conservative base? I ask.
“Now you got it,” he says like a proud teacher.
Over Special K and grapefruit juice, he continues, alleging that KGO anchor Richard Brown was in on the pro-Jordan agenda.
“During my close they were playing chamber music,” he says. “Goddamn funeral music.”
And the camera angles were all wrong. “The cameras were set up to look straight at Jordan, and the rest of us were at an angle to the camera,” he says.
Has the campaign trail fevered Willie's brain? He's been at it since June, pulling 16-hour days taking in event after event, debate after debate, and it seems, this morning at least, to have smudged his polished demeanor.
Or maybe he's just disgusted with small-town politics. Phony hecklers, indeed! He's accustomed to negotiating sweeping changes in law with million-dollar lobbyists.
“Nothing compares to this, not even my 1964 campaign,” Brown concedes over dinner. “The whole process has changed. This is a contact sport, man. Oh, man, '64 was decent. People were fascinated, courteous, civil, respectful. That's all over. Everybody's opinionated now, they're informed, very well informed. You can't imagine the letters, all the letters. After people meet you just once on the street. It's about issues. All about issues.” [page]
Of course, Brown is goofing with me a little. Part of this beleaguered big-time pol routine is an act. A good one, too, but it doesn't mask the fact that Willie Brown is becoming reacquainted with — if not reacclimated to — the city.
As a campaigner, he knows that every neighborhood, every political group, must be embraced. “You can't boutique this city,” as he puts it. His basic message — that he will bring together all the divergent interests in San Francisco and force them into a common purpose — is wildly ambitious. Trying to satisfy everyone is part of what ails the city.
In navigating the wildly divergent demands, Brown is overreaching, says political scientist Rich DeLeon, author of Left Coast City, a respected study of modern San Francisco politics.
Brown's campaign reminds DeLeon of the Mel Brooks movie The Producers.
“Remember they were selling all these 80 percent shares in the play they were producing,” DeLeon says. “They sold so many 80 percent shares and so many 100 percent shares they ended up selling 900 percent interest in the play. Willie is selling a 900 percent solution.”
Promising so much on the hustings is easy to understand, DeLeon says.
“It's built into our system here,” he says. “You have to respond to all the concerns of all the groups. But when you add all that up, it outstrips any budget he will have to work with or any governing coalition he has put together.”
DeLeon developed his opinion from reading the newspapers, but he'd have come to the same conclusion if he had watched Brown intently for a month as I have. In speech after speech, Brown rings the bells of left, right, and center — depending on who he is talking to. He must know that these positions are self-canceling.
His economic development speech is a good example of his lasso-the-moon campaign. Speaking before an audience of downtown business leaders, lawyers, and public relations folk Sept. 28, he says he'll do all the things that need to be done: expand convention capacity, bring maritime business back to the port, expand UCSF, attract Pacific Rim businesses, build affordable housing, fund mental health and substance abuse programs so the homeless don't clog retail areas, incubate biotech and multimedia businesses, and nourish cultural life of the city. Whew!
After the speech, former Assemblyman and current UC Regent William Bagley approaches the microphone. “One thing is for sure,” he says. “Willie Brown will give this town goose pimples.”
Brown will have to do more than that. He's promised the perfect city but doesn't say where the money is coming from — except to refer to his great contacts in Sacramento and Washington.
Moreover, he attacks any plan to increase taxation on business. Walking into a Sunset District community fair, he savages Supervisor Tom Ammiano's package of tax increases on corporations.
“It's just crazy stuff,” he says. “It's just not doable.”
True, but at least it's a thought-out plan, rivaling all of Brown's vagaries. Listen to his prescription for making Muni more efficient:
“First off, those drivers are going back to school,” he says. “They are going to start over: apparel, presentation, everything. You have to go back to the old reward system. There used to be a Muni man or woman of the month. It used to be a big deal. A press conference was held every month to announce who the driver of the month was. There was an award, a picture of that person and his or her family in a window downtown. It was a big deal.”
Delivering on his grandiose and vaporous rhetoric isn't his biggest potential problem. Actually, it's only natural for a challenger to promise the sky. (See Clinton.) Brown's greatest trial will be adapting his Sacramento tactics to the pothole politics of San Francisco.
Which returns us to the paradox of Willie Brown: The very thing that makes him a great speaker could make him a terrible mayor.
The problem is one of culture shock. For the last 31 years, the only constituents Brown has had to serve have been the members of the California Assembly. And the biggest tool he used to control his members — campaign money — is no longer at his disposal. Denied the potency of patronage, how will Willie govern? Those who know him well — allies and critics alike — say he is best at capitalizing on the heedless ambition of others. Take Pat Nolan, for example. A conservative Republican with more aspiration than brains, he was the perfect pawn for Brown. Brown built up Nolan, allowing him to carry a big S&L deregulation bill and giving him a committee chairmanship. The power made Nolan a star in the Republican caucus. And it eventually served Brown well. When five Democratic legislators made a move on Brown's speakership in 1988, Nolan cast the deciding vote for Brown.
Later, like all alliances of convenience, this one soured in an act of betrayal. Nolan went to the FBI and tried to spur an investigation into Brown. Ironically, the FBI probe he set into motion ended up sending Nolan to prison for 10 years.
“We were really good friends,” Brown says of Nolan. “I went to his wedding. I was there when one of his kids was born. I never knew he was such a rotten son of a bitch.”
“[Brown] was extremely comfortable dealing with real hard-right Republicans,” Walters says. “He could turn them against each other. By bolstering the far right he would disempower the moderate Republicans and prevent them from making a deal with moderate Democrats that would undercut him.” [page]
William Bagley takes a more positive spin on Brown's ability to coalesce power. “He would know everyone's proclivities,” he says. “He'd know when to cooperate with someone, when to put someone on a committee, when to give them a vote, he knew the characters of all his members inside out, what they needed. That's how he created his ongoing speakership.”
Bagley says Brown sometimes controlled people by sheer force of will. Bagley remembers a regents meeting — Brown is an ex officio regent — when hundreds of angry students were protesting UC President David Gardner's lucrative pension, which had been granted at the same time the regents raised student fees.
“There were two, three hundred of them screaming,” Bagley recalls. “Willie didn't even have to get up. He just leaned into the microphone and in that voice he said, 'I fought a long, hard time to have the voice I have, and you are going to listen to it.' ” Bagley says the room went dead in a matter of seconds.
“Now if he can do that with a group of protesting students, imagine what he can do in San Francisco,” Bagley adds.
Like Bagley, UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain doesn't doubt Brown's ability to fathom and control the crazy factions of San Francisco politics.
Cain, who worked as a reapportionment adviser to Brown, thinks the style Brown developed in Sacramento will fit here quite nicely.
“The key to San Francisco is your ability to do good politics,” Cain says. “You have to build a coalition and keep tending it after you get elected. That's all Willie did in Sacramento. He did politics day in, day out. It doesn't matter if you are dealing with the nurses union of the Richmond District Democratic Club. It's all about dealing with demands.”
Cain does have one concern about a Brown mayoralty, however. “I think maybe halfway through his term he'll say, 'Why did I do this?' ” he says. “He wants the job because he loves the city and he's looking for the next stage in his life. His personality abhors a vacuum. But based on what I know about him it's quite possible that he isn't going to enjoy this job as much as being speaker. I think he's already had the best job of his life.