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.
“Hey, hey, heyyyy. Wait! Fuck you!”
I've called Burton to ask about Willie Brown's ethics problem. For years, Brown has been accused of using his legislative office to enrich his law clients and of selling out to campaign donors. Since the allegations are a central issue in the mayor's race, I'd hoped for a reasoned analysis from Willie Brown's best friend.
Instead, Burton bristles at the queries.
“Are these real questions?” he asks, having righted his craft enough to talk. “C'mon, you're smarter than that.”
Finally, Burton and the traffic cool off, and he lays out the party line on Willie Brown, Power, and Money.
“He pushes right up to the boundary,” Burton says. “What's the speed limit? Sixty-five? You go up to 65 and you're obeying the law. You go 66 and you're breaking the law. Does Willie Brown do anything illegal? No. But what he does legal stops just short of being illegal.” [page]
Brown has been crowding the speed limit since he became speaker of the Assembly 15 years ago. As far back as 1986, he was dubbed “The King of Juice” by reporter Mark Dowie in California magazine. Dowie's investigation charted how lobbyists and campaign money had corrupted the Legislature, and provides one of the most damaging anecdotes about Brown's power-brokering on behalf of his political benefactors.
In June 1985, a bill opening the state's $500 million-a-year optometry business to corporate franchises had wound its way through the Assembly committees and was having a hard time on the floor. Brown was working the bill on the floor but had come up eight votes short.
He returned to the speaker's rostrum and began summoning members one by one. Some refused out of principle. One, Richard Floyd (D-Los Angeles) even flew into invective, stunning the House. “Go ahead, take away my committee chair,” he said to Brown. “Take away my office, I don't care. I made a commitment to a constituent, and I'm not voting for this bill.”
A half an hour later, Brown was still one vote short of passing the bill, the importance of which, he told one legislator, constituted a “personal matter.”
“Mr. Papan,” he called out to Lou Papan, a San Mateo Democrat. “Would you come up here, please.” After a brief conversation, the content of which has never been revealed, Papan switched his vote, astonishing his colleagues because he had so vociferously argued against the bill just minutes earlier. “It was the most extraordinary exercise of raw power I'd ever seen,” a legislative staffer told Dowie.
The “personal matter” Brown spoke of had nothing to do with the retinitis pigmentosa he suffers from, which has rendered him nearsighted. Brown's personal stake was the close to $1 million that four national eye-care chains had sluiced into his campaign coffers over the previous three years.
Dowie termed the practice of pushing juice bills for political donations “a new form of moral corruption plaguing the California State Legislature.”
The same outrage has exploded locally over Brown's courtship of the tobacco lobby. In a recent article, Examiner reporter Lance Williams outlined the industry's campaign to purchase influence from the speaker: Over the years, the tobacco industry has given nearly $1 million to Brown in speaking fees and legal fees, as well as campaign donations.
Brown voted against anti-smoking legislation or bottled it up in committees where it died quietly, Williams reported, and also limited product liability awards in suits against cigarette companies. The most damning Examiner allegation, however, centered on a New York trip Brown took in 1991 where he allegedly — Brown denies it — advised an industry group on how to defeat San Francisco-style anti-smoking measures. Brown's alleged advice, contained in an industry memo leaked to the press at the time, was to adopt weaker statewide restrictions that would pre-empt local ordinances. Though Brown voted for the bill here in California, it was killed in the Senate.
The Achtenberg campaign has made the most of the tobacco lobby allegations, taking a pedantic stance about the immorality of smoking — even though the last time we checked, smoking was still legal.
One of Achtenberg's top aides went on to me about a relative who was dying of cancer. Hard-core progressives, which fairly describes the bulk of Achtenberg's support, have always had a problem with pragmatic pols like Brown. But the disdain cuts both ways.
A liberal legislative aide who's worked closely with Brown over the last 12 years jumped to his defense and savaged priggish San Franciscans who have a problem with power and money.
“So he milked the tobacco companies,” the aide says. “You tell me: Is it easy or more difficult to smoke in California? It's more difficult. The policy is moving away from the industry agenda. He milked the industry for money to elect Democrat after Democrat and what did he give them?”
But Brown advised the companies on how to defeat local anti-smoking ordinances, didn't he?
“Did that bill ever pass?” the aide asks. “Do you think if Willie Brown had wanted it to pass it would? That's the genius of Willie Brown. He took their money and then he screwed them, and they never knew it.”
The aide finishes her lesson impatiently. “God, I just wish all these damn knee-jerk liberals in San Francisco would just realize that.”
Brown's response to his critics is essentially the same.
“I raised money from everyone and I used it to elect Democrats and keep a Democratic majority in the Assembly for 15 years,” he says.
But he lacks a similarly effective defense when it comes to the more discomfiting issue of his law clients. There is no grander political purpose to deflect criticism that he's used his legislative position to assist his clients and help build his law practice.
And un-like the more philosophi-cal issue of Brown's fund-raising, his relationship with his clients poses more immediate problems for San Franciscans. Everywhere one looks in the city there are Brown clients: the garbage company, the tourist industry, major developers, grocery chains, and high-rise owners. If he's elected, Brown will have to shut down his practice, but these professional relationships could still have an effect on his decisions. For example, one Brown client, Catellus, the developer of Mission Bay, will be coming to the next mayor requesting massive amendments to its development agreement. If that mayor's name is Brown, can he be impartial? And if he has to recuse himself from the decision, will he truly remove himself?
Driving by Pier 39 with Brown, he looks out the window and says, “That piece of shit should have never been built.” Pier 39 is yet another Brown client. [page]
But the comment, most likely made to impress the reporter in the back seat, is hardly a gauge of his attitude toward his clients. To guess about how he'll treat his clients as mayor, one needs to look at how he allegedly tended to them as speaker of the Assembly.
Allegations concerning his law practice have often centered on his longtime friend and client developer Ron Cowan, owner of Harbor Bay Isle Associates and Doric Development. In April, two months before Brown's entry into the mayor's race, the Examiner reported that he had steered a $22 million loan from the pension funds of two local unions to Cowan, who has been trying for more than a decade to build an industrial park and biotech center at Harbor Bay Isle. At the time Brown allegedly arranged the loan — he and pension fund officials deny Brown was involved — the two unions, the Operating Engineers Local 3 and the Northern California Carpenters, were lobbying on as many as 100 bills in the Legislature. Cowan defaulted on the loan, drawing a lawsuit from a pension fund trustee.
Similarly, the Oakland Tribune reported in 1990 that Brown pushed a bill in Sacramento that benefited a lottery company in which Cowan owned tens of thousands of shares of stock. At the same time, Brown pushed a bill that would have generated millions of dollars in state money for Cowan to build a biotech center on his Alameda land. The bill never passed.
Brown's handling of the lottery bill and its connections to Cowan brings to mind Burton's speed-limit analogy: Racing along at 66 miles an hour, Willie downshifted to the legally mandated speed limit. After the bill passed, Cowan gave Brown a $10,000 Cartier watch, and the speaker, cognizant of the appearance of a payoff, deducted the cost of the watch from his legal fees to Cowan, thus removing the requirement that he report it in financial disclosure forms.
Not that Brown always eludes radar. In 1985, the FBI investigated accusations that he had pressured the state treasurer into steering lucrative state contracts to his law firm client and personal investment banker, Grigsby Bradford & Associates, a San Francisco firm that underwrites government bonds.
Former acting State Treasurer Elizabeth Whitney told federal agents and the Los Angeles Times that Brown urged her twice to help Grigsby get state business, once in 1985 when she as a top deputy to then-Treasurer Jesse Unruh, and two years later when she was acting treasurer. Unruh complied with Brown's request, Whitney told the FBI. In 1988, when she was acting treasurer, Whitney had a heated argument with Calvin Grigsby in a San Francisco restaurant when she refused to give the underwriter the largest share of an upcoming state bond issue. Up until then, Brown had said he would support her for state treasurer against an attempt by then-Gov. George Deukmejian to replace her. After the confrontation with Grigsby, Whitney has said, Brown stopped returning her phone calls and she lost the treasurer's seat.
Brown denied the allegations and the FBI never brought charges, so perhaps the best analogy for the Whitney episode is the time in 1965 when a blowout in his white Riviera sent Brown careening toward a guardrail at 90 miles an hour. Coolly, Brown calculated that he must wait until the last second and steer hard away from the railing. He glanced off and went hurtling into a nearby creek, rising from his car uninjured.
The owners of the Double Play at 16th and Bryant have decorated their patio with a miniature of the San Francisco Seals' baseball diamond that once stood kitty-corner to their bar and grill. Over the center field “fence” is a building sporting a Jack Davis and Associates billboard. Painted in the building's window is a portrait of the pugnacious political consultant, a Double Play regular.
The real Jack Davis has paused from eating his meatloaf and mashed potatoes to eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table.
Larry Matthews, a local commercial property owner, is sounding off about Brown.
“With Willie, it's, 'If you want this permit that'll cost you 10,000,' ” Matthews says. “He can get by on his mayor's salary.”
Matthews goes on about other San Francisco mayors, relating stories about payoffs and corruption. The Marin resident gets George Moscone's name right but keeps calling Agnos “Annes.”
The bad-mouthing steams Davis. “I'm trying to figure out if I'm going to paste him, the white, racist son of a bitch,” he says.
The businessman walks by us on his way out, and Davis can't help himself.
“Hey, you should run for office,” Davis says.
“Oh no, I wouldn't want to do that,” Matthews replies.
Davis introduces himself as Brown's campaign manager and Matthews blanches.
“Oh, I didn't mean anything derogatory by what I said. He's a crook. But he's a smart crook. I'd vote for him if I didn't live in Marin.” Stammering and fidgeting with his hands in his pockets, Matthews retreats.
I ask Davis how he's going to handle the perception that Willie is a crook.
“Fuck 'em,” he says. “Fuck 'em.” He considers people with that attitude beyond the campaign's reach. “Absolutely,” he stresses.
Davis' dismissal of the ethics issue is mere bravado. The recycling of old stories will no doubt wound Brown, but the ethics allegations won't turn the election against him, according to independent pollster David Binder.
“People are immune to it,” Binder says. Binder, who's been taking San Francisco's pulse for more than 10 years, says most voters are well-acquainted with Brown's reputation for rule-bending and they're most likely to overlook it in favor of his leadership skills.
It boils down to this: Brown has survived the scrutiny of the FBI and the state's best investigative reporters. To expect Jordan or Achtenberg to tag him with an ethics punch is dreaming. [page]
Still, the close scrutiny appears to have soured Brown's honeyed manner. Over Mexican food at El Toreador in the West Portal, Brown departs from his gregarious patter to launch a scathing, almost Nixonian attack on the Ex's Lance Williams.
“He's so screwed up,” Brown says, delicately holding a napkin on his lap. “Those guys are so desperate, so tragically desperate. They have a thorough dislike of me.”
Why? I ask.
“Because I won't talk to them. Because I think he's stupid and dishonest. It wouldn't be worth it to talk to him. He's abusive to my staff. He just thinks the world twirls around him.
“I have respect for bright guys,” he continues. “Williams is just stupid, he really is, he doesn't understand anything, he's like a blockheaded FBI guy that I dealt with.”
I call Williams and read Brown's quotes to him. He pauses before giving a one-word response: “Bummer.”
Actually, Williams is more loquacious than that. He says that the intent of his reporting isn't to damage Brown's reputation but to “ventilate” legitimate issues to educate voters.
To Brown, the ethics harping is racist.
“It's my lifestyle,” he says when asked why he's at the center of so many controversies. “I'm black and flashy. You can't do that in this system. It's unacceptable.”
As mayor, he would continue to wield power and court special interests the way he always has. If you think that's corrupt, don't expect an apology. If anything, expect ridicule like that heaped on Williams. Remember, this is the man who thumbed his nose at critics in 1990 by playing a corrupt politician in the opening scene of The Godfather, Part III.
Brown alights from his car and walks toward the Shoreline Apartments, a housing project in Bayview-Hunters Point. The air is cooling as dusk creeps in. Rap music booms from four massive speaker cabinets someone has hauled out onto the sidewalk. Children run by or ride past on their BMX bikes.
Brown isn't recognized at first, but his visual anonymity is fleeting. Making his way to a small park where volunteers have organized a block party, Brown's people come down the hill from the park, from across the street, from inside the apartments. Pretty soon, he's surrounded.
Everyone wants an autograph. He's running late and his driver, private investigator Marcel Myres, is growing impatient. But Brown won't leave until all the brochures, scraps of paper, and baseball caps are signed. Then there're the photo-ops. Brown strolls across the street and sits in a high-back wicker chair. Scores of people gather round. When the woman snapping photos informs the crowd that she can't see Brown, the crowd parts, revealing the candidate panting from a deep, hearty laugh. Myres shrugs. The schedule is dust.
Getting down to business, Brown speaks into a microphone.
“I came out here to deliver a message,” he says. “If you do the right thing and register to vote, the next time I come out here it will be to celebrate a Willie Brown mayoralty.”
The applause gets you in the gut. Nine little girls standing nearby can barely contain their joy as they jump, clap, and dance. He cradles the head of one of them and says, “I must be doing something right, the kids are coming out.”
Myres takes me aside. “Look, this ain't no bullshit,” he begins. “Let me tell you about black folk. This [campaign] goes way beyond the mayor's race. We're finally going to win one legally. We don't need to deal drugs or none of that stuff.”
Brown finishes his speech and returns to the autographs. Gene McFarlane, a City College student, approaches. “Can I get a word with you?” Brown nods, and the two huddle, face to face.
“What can you do about black-on-black crime?” McFarlane asks. “I have friends from Harbor Road and other friends from over on Oakdale who are shooting each other.”
“What?! What about?” Brown asks.
“It's all about nothing,” McFarlane answers. “I got friends selling crack just 'cause there ain't nothing else to do.”
“I will address the issue,” Brown answers. “I don't know how, but we'll do it.”
Back in his black Ford Explorer, Brown is uncharacteristically silent as Myres peels out for the Fiesta Italia on Pier 45. Sure, he's had a long day — 14 events. But his silence is about something else, something weighing on his mind.
“Those people are really in need,” he says to no one in particular. “That guy, he, he, tore my heart apart.
“Will I be able to put together the resources that will answer the need?” he says, thinking aloud. “You think about that hostile environment, the need factor, the need. I've got to do something to give them evidence that the system works. They're rolling the dice on me. They're betting the farm on me.”
Brown's importance to the black community goes beyond symbolism. Bayview-Hunters Point, the Western Addition, the Fillmore, all the black neighborhoods are the orphans of San Francisco politics. Since the '60s, when the black population in the city began to dwindle to its current electorally insignificant 10 percent, mayor after white mayor could safely pay lip service to the community. There was no price to pay for their disregard.
The community is sure those cold political calculations will not play into Brown's thinking. They know his history, his trajectory. White progressives with their homes and their safe jobs can fret all they want about special interest money and client lists. But none of that matters here. Here, they know about Mineola.
Willie Brown grew up on the black side of Mineola in segregated Texas. He lived with his grandmother, Anna Lee Collins, at 511 Baker, while his mother worked in Dallas as a maid.
His uncles on his mother's side — Rodrick “Son” Collins and Rembert “Itsie” Collins — made bootleg booze called “chalk,” made out of “peach holes,” in the cellar of Anna Lee's house and ran a nearby gambling joint called “The Shack.” [page]
“I had one good suit,” Brown recalls. “I had one good pair of shoes for Sunday at church.” Already a fastidious dresser, he kept his two pair of khakis well pressed. In the summer, Brown says, he would pick cotton, berries, and watermelon.
“I saved up that money and bought a bike,” he says. “My grandmother would keep the money we made and dole it out to us.”
On the weekends, Brown says, he and his friends would go down to the black movie house, the LeRoy. (The Select was for whites.) Brown would sit in the “buzzards roost,” as he and his friends called the balcony, and watch western serials.
“It would always end with the hero in trouble and you'd come back the next week to see how it turned out,” he says.
Students in Brown's school — Mineola Colored High School — studied from the used and frayed textbooks the white schools had discarded. (He once referred to his segregated education as “the shits.”) But Brown was an exceptionally bright student with a hunger for reading and a quickness with figures.
But Brown worried his family with his penchant for going uptown to the commercial strip in Mineola, a place of whites and not the place for a witty black teen-ager. Brown's sister, Lovia C., told Bee reporter James D. Richardson, “He would always be uptown, and we would always be afraid for him. [His grandmother] didn't want anything to happen to him. But Willie just said whatever came to his mind.”
Lovia C. told Richardson of the time a white man asked Brown, “Say junior, what time is it?” using the pejorative term for black males. Willie didn't respond. The white man asked again and Willie snapped back, “You guessed my name, now you can guess the time.”
Brown made his money at a shoeshine stand outside Parker's Barber Shop, and he remembers that about half the white customers would attempt to humiliate him by throwing quarters — tips, if you will — in a nearby spittoon. “I'd just leave 'em there,” Brown says. “I knew I'd have to clean out the spittoon at the end of the day anyway.”
Sometimes the customers would offer to toss a quarter in the spittoon only if Brown would reach in for it. Did he? “Sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't,” Brown says.
Those shoeshine customers are by far his bitterest memory of Mineola. “Those cowboys were really nasty people, really nasty, just really nasty people.”
But Brown contends that racism, per se, didn't bother him. “I didn't dwell on it,” he says. “I didn't know anything different. Yet instinctively, I knew there must have been a better arrangement. I knew there must be a better life. I knew I wasn't going to continue to put up with that horseshit.”
But Willie Brown has never forgotten the humiliation of Mineola, and the way it limited his family's horizons. The power he has accumulated over the years and the audacious way in which he has wielded it must be understood in this context. To ignore the powerful imperative poverty and racism can create in a person is to miss the full meaning of Willie Brown.
During World War II, Brown's uncles moved to San Francisco to work in the shipyards, a ploy to escape military service. Itsie soon switched to making his living as a gambler in the Fillmore District.
In August 1951, after he had finished high school, Willie Brown set out by train to join his Uncle Itsie in San Francisco with his mother's and grandmother's blessing. Crossing the Texas border, the “colored” signs came down on the train and he knew for sure his new life had begun.
“I thought I'd gone to heaven,” he says of seeing San Francisco for the first time. “I got here at night, and the lights all over the city were like pearls. I thought they were all bridges.”
He moved in with Uncle Itsie at 1028 Oak. Every day Brown would set out on foot, each day in a different direction, and just walk. Soon he knew the city, but he soured on his living arrangement.
“[Itsie] ran a game on the weekends,” Brown says. “It would start Friday night and go nonstop to Sunday night. I served beer and I didn't get any sleep.”
Brown moved to the YMCA, then to a Turk Street flophouse, and joined Jones United Methodist Church, at the time a font of social activism. He became a church youth leader, establishing what would later serve as the hot center of his political base. Shortly, he enrolled in S.F. State College, met his wife, Blanche, and married.
At college, Brown met John Burton and he joined the Young Democrats. Playing campus politics, Brown began to hone his rhetorical skills.
“The college was a total hotbed of radical politics,” Brown recalls. “It was the days of Van Hallinan and the Independent Progressive Party. We were debating hot issues like the recognition of Red China.
“I was just part of the movement,” he says. “I knew instinctively this was the right crowd. I wasn't trying to revolutionize people, though. I learned there that you don't take people beyond where they want to follow.”
Graduating in 1955, Brown signed up for classes at Hastings Law School. He slept only a few hours every night — he says he still only sleeps four hours — and held down several odd jobs and began raising a family. At one time he served as both student president and janitor at Hastings, leading meetings and then cleaning up the room afterward.
After graduating from law school in 1958 Brown was shut out by every white firm in the city, so he set up a criminal defense practice, defending mostly prostitutes and drug dealers. [page]
De facto racial discrimination marked the genuine beginning of his political career when wife Blanche was shopping in Forest Knolls for a house. The real estate agent saw her coming, closed and locked the house, and high-tailed it out the back door. She went back the next day and received the same treatment.
Brown led his wife and children back to the housing development that Sunday after church. He had alerted the press beforehand, so reporters were on hand to see the sales rep disappear again. The Brown family then led a sit-in — the first in California history — in the garage of a Forest Knolls home. The neighborhood was crucified in the press.
The protests grew, as other blacks mimicked the Brown family's strategy. Whites soon joined in and a picket line formed in Forest Knolls. One liberal white who appeared, with her baby in tow, was Dianne Feinstein. (By the by, that baby, Katherine, is now Mayor Jordan's point person on criminal justice policy.)
Ultimately, San Francisco Mayor George Christopher intervened, imploring the housing developer to show a home to Brown and his family. Brown refused. “I do not want to be an exception,” he said at the time. “I would not accept a private showing.”
He never bought a house in Forest Knolls, but he caught the attention of Phil Burton, John's older brother and then a left-of-center Assemblyman out to break the moderates in the Democratic Party.
Burton used his reapportionment powers to design an Assembly district in San Francisco for a black candidate. The candidate was Brown, and his opponent in the 1962 Democratic primary, Ed Gaffney, was strong with unions but weak with minorities.
“I have a little nigger running against me,” Gaffney said to a legislative aide at the time. Brown lost by a mere 915 votes.
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. [page]
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.