Brown, Willie L. Jr. 1934–
Willie L. Brown, Jr. 1934–
He has held the position of speaker of the California State Assembly longer than anyone else in history and, in doing so, Willie L. Brown, Jr., has achieved what few other state legislators have: national recognition and an important role in Democratic politics across the United States. Brown’s is in many ways the classic American success story: he rose from harsh poverty to become the second most powerful figure in the state of California, after the governor. And in 1988 he stepped onto the national stage as chairman of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign and successfully raised millions of dollars for the candidate.
Everything Brown has done has been accomplished with a flair that has charmed supporters and made his opponents fume. But Brown’s tenure as the “Ayatollah of the Legislature”—his own name for himself—was drawing to a close in the mid-1990s after more than a dozen years. In 1992 California voters approved a term limits measure that would force Brown out of his beloved legislature four years later.
Born on March 20, 1934, in Mineola, Texas, Willie L. Brown, Jr., grew up dirt poor in a one-room shack. He once told Ebony, “I can remember using cardboard for the bottom of my shoes. I can remember the days of being the fourth person on the list for water for the No. 3 washtub. I remember the outdoor toilets, having to raise half of what I ate, and having meat only once a week. There’s no reason why anyone should be subjected to that. I set about to make life comfortable for me and comfortable for the rest of the world.” The man who would grow up to be one of the most powerful African American politicians in the nation also remembers shining white men’s shoes as a child—and having to reach into a spittoon to get his quarter tips.
After high school, Brown attended Prairie View A & M College, but told Ebony, “I was invited to leave.” He could not put up with the bad food served there and was outraged by what he called the “dumb system” that prohibited men and women from walking together on the same sidewalk. So he fled to San Francisco, stayed with an uncle, and worked as a janitor to pay his way through San Francisco State University, and then Hastings College Law School. He called the decision to become a lawyer a “total fluke,” adding in the Ebony interview that he signed up at Hastings in 1955 “to avoid being drafted.”
Born March 20, 1934, in Mineola, TX; son of Willie L. Brown, Sr., and Minnie (Boyd) Lewis; married Blanche Vitero; children: Susan, Robin, Michael. Education: San Francisco State University, B.A., 1955; law degree from Hastings College Law School, 1958; postgraduate fellow, Crown College, 1970; also attended University of California at Santa Cruz. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Methodist.
Attorney with Brown, Dearman & Smith, beginning 1959; California State Assembly, member, 1965—, speaker, 1980—. Member of University of California Board of Regents, 1972, and Democratic National Committee, 1989-90; California delegate to Democratic National Convention, 1980; national campaign chairman, Jesse Jackson for President, 1988. Member of the board of Planned Parenthood.
Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of Women Voters, San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, Chinese for Affirmative Action, international Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU; San Francisco, CA) Local #10 (honorary life member).
Addresses: Office —California Assembly, Office of the Speaker, State Capitol, Sacramento, CA 95814.
Brown had already begun to immerse himself in politics by that time, having worked on Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential race—he lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower—and having joined the Young Democrats and the local chapter of the NAACP. He also took part in San Francisco’s civil rights protests in the late 1950s.
Brown’s early bouts with poverty may have something to do with the lifestyle for which he later became famous in California. Hardly a journalistic profile on the speaker passes without a mention of Brown’s well-tailored suits, beautiful lady friends, or passion for sleek cars. For much of his public life, Brown has favored expensive Brioni suits, and in 1988 he was driving a $110,000 red Ferrari. “I love fast, high performance automobiles,” he told Ebony. “I love to listen to the ting of the motor. I will stop the car and leave it if one little thing is out of place.”
In 1990 he told Gentlemen’s Quarterly, “I would not make the sacrifice, for any job, to stop doing what I enjoy doing, whether it’s driving my automobiles, owning my horses, going to the Derby, making the Super Bowl, the All-Star Game or the Slam Dunk contest, or wearing the clothing that I wear, or being seen with the dates I’m seen with, or going to the Academy Awards, to the Grammy s. All of that is just me. And I enjoy every inch of it. I enjoy good food, I enjoy good wine, I enjoy good company and I don’t bite my tongue. I wouldn’t change that in quest of any office.”
But Brown’s successful and flashy lifestyle did not come overnight. After graduating from Hastings, he practiced law out of a storefront, defending pimps and prostitutes. His first run for the California Assembly in 1962 ended in defeat. He won a seat two years later in a district that was 80 percent white and then began his prestigious political career.
A Gentlemen’s Quarterly correspondent noted that during the tumultuous sixties, “Willie was one of those red-hots who wore his dashiki with pride and picketed showrooms in Van Ness because they didn’t have black sales personnel.” He immediately angered another legendary California speaker, Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, by casting the lone vote against Unruh’s reappointment. Soon the speaker came to respect the young upstart Brown, who had the ability to form coalitions among the various legislators—a key to political survival. His first bid for the speaker’s seat came in 1974; he was defeated. But in 1980 he won, becoming the first African American speaker of the California Assembly.
“I put together 28 Republicans and 23 Democrats,” he told Ebony. “That is 10 more than I needed to become speaker. And I defeated a liberal [white] Democrat for the job.” Since that day, Brown has hung onto the speaker’s job with a tenacious grip, beating back numerous attempts to unseat him, and withstanding withering attacks on him by the Republican opposition. In 1992, for instance, Los Angeles Times political columnist Dan Weintraub reported that during the election, “Republicans up and down the state took an old tactic to new heights—or depths—by seeking to smear their Democratic opponents as tools of the Assembly speaker, potential lackeys all. GOP [Grand Old Party, or Republican Party] candidates were ‘Willie Brown’s worst nightmare.’ Democrats were ‘Willie Brown’s best friend.’” In that election, Democrats picked up a seat in the Assembly, and ballot initiatives aimed at stripping some budget powers from the Assembly failed.
As speaker of the Assembly, Brown has fully exercised the authority of that powerful position, stacking committees with political allies and banishing opponents to less important posts. The speaker assigns office space and even has a say on the amount of office supplies assigned to legislators, so his influence is enormous, and his use of that power is shrewd. One example, as recounted in the Los Angeles Times, involved the way Brown shook up the chamber’s seating at the start of the 1993 session. Usually Democrats sit on one side of the Assembly, and Republicans on the other. But Brown forced lawmakers to sit where he wanted them to, a situation the Times termed as “explosive” in some instances. “Willie is trying to tweak everybody,” one of his conservative opponents was quoted as saying. And another opponent, whose campaign flyers Brown considered to be racist in nature, found himself in the Assembly’s worst office—next to the cafeteria.
Steven A. Merksamer, chief of staff to then-California governor George Deukmejian, summed up Brown’s political character in an interview with George Skelton, a long-time Brown watcher for the Los Angeles Times. “He has to have his fingerprints on everything. He has to share in the credit,” Merksamer told Skelton. “But if he perceives you’re out to hurt him—and his initial tendency is to assume that—then he can become the supreme warrior and about as bad an enemy as you can have because he’s so damn smart. If you can get past that, however, he can become a very effective ally and a tremendous force for good.”
Brown has been involved in virtually every major issue in California for more than a dozen years, but debate exists over whether that involvement has been good for the state. Critics complain that after taking into consideration Brown’s bill requiring motorists to wear seat belts, and his legislation demanding stricter academic standards and health testing for students, his principle accomplishments are minor. According to the Economist, “For every Sacramento insider with an uproarious ‘Willie’ story, there is another asking, ‘What has Willie done?’ Mr. Brown’s supporters reel off a list of bills that the Speaker has influenced; but even they have to admit that many of his greatest victories have been stopping ‘evil’ Republican laws rather than creating good Democratic ones.”
However, Brown has been credited with introducing legislation to compensate crime victims, minimize expensive court delays, and regulate health care costs to low-income families. He was also instrumental in reducing the penalties for using small amounts of marijuana and for decriminalizing homosexuality. In addition, he was an early opponent of making English the official language of California, telling Jet in 1986, “We in California, with the English-only concept, are taking a step backward.”
The long debate over Brown’s effectiveness did not hinder Jesse Jackson from turning to him when Jackson needed help during his 1988 run for the U.S. presidency. Brown was known as the man with the Midas Touch in Democratic politics, regularly raising millions of dollars for Assembly candidates and other Democrats each year.
According to Time, “he scared up” $5 million in 1986. “Working the phones relentlessly, he says he sells the Presidential candidate ‘like you sell soap, corn flakes, or a 976 number,’” noted a writer for Business Week. In fact, he was responsible for attracting more than $11 million to Jackson’s historic campaign. Jackson’s campaign manager, Gerald Austin, was quoted in Time during the 1988 election as saying of Brown, “He’s one of those people that can walk into a room full of other strong-willed political people, and everyone knows he’s in charge.”
But even some of his allies have said that Brown’s focus on fund-raising has drawn him away from the people he represents. Critics have faulted him for the emphasis he puts on courting big business, saying he is motivated mainly by “big money.” As one Los Angeles councilwoman was quoted as saying in Time, “Willie is so obsessed with raising money to defend his Democratic majority that he forgets all about the Democratic agenda.” In an interview with Martin Nolan in the Boston Sunday Globe, Brown vigorously defended himself against these allegations, saying his fund-raising is necessary to preserve California’s Democratic party and alleging that some of the attacks against him are racially motivated.
“People give [me] $10,000 the same way they do the [Republican] Governor,” Brown told the Globe. “They don’t question when [Governor] Pete Wilson raises $15 to 18 million, but they go bananas when Willie Brown raises $1 million. Tell me where is the justice in this?” He added that if Democrats lose the Assembly, then the party would be unable to counter the periodic, hyperpolitical efforts to re-district the state. Since California sends the greatest amount of representatives to U.S. Congress, Brown reasons that tinkering with California’s Assembly could have an adverse effect on the national Democratic Party’s hold on Congress.
Brown also said in the Boston Sunday Globe interview that aside from his well-documented love of good wine, clothes, and fine cars, he has no other habits or vices. “So you’ve really got to go deep to say, what is it about this man that riles?” he reasoned. “He’s arrogant, black and flashy—with black being the key. That destroys them. It absolutely destroys their objectivity. It warps them.”
After the Jackson campaign, Brown focused on California and his newest political nemesis, Republican governor Pete Wilson. The two clashed early and often over a variety of issues and eventually the debate turned personal. In mid-1992, Wilson lashed out at the speaker, calling him “the darling of San Francisco cafe society,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Brown responded by likening the Governor to white supremacist David Duke. The feud followed a period of calm when the two united to wipe out a $14.3 billion budget shortfall that threatened the state’s finances.
The switch from conciliation to hard-headedness is Brown’s trademark, according to the Los Angeles Times’s Skelton. “Those who have worked with and watched Brown over the years routinely can predict his cycles,” he wrote. “There is a definite rhythm to this calendar. At the beginning of the year, he vows to turn over a new leaf and become a statesman, a champion of sorely needed legislation. But as the year wears on, he becomes more political, more partisan, some would say even petty.”
However, that cycle appeared to have been disrupted a bit as Brown approached his final term in office. Observers noted that the term-limits initiative that will force Brown out of his current job in 1996 has caused him to buckle down. According to the Economist, “His opponents have noted that the threat of political execution seems to be concentrating his mind wonderfully.” In July of 1993, Skelton once again weighed in on the man he has watched for so many years, opining, “This is a speaker obviously playing for the record book—meaning his legacy. Term limits allow Brown only 2 1/2 more years to polish his image for historians.” In keeping with that thinking, Brown pushed the state’s budget through the system in the time mandated by California’s constitution, a deadline that had not been met in seven years.
As his final term drew to a close, speculation turned to Brown’s future. A run for governor seemed a natural step, but an August of 1993 fund-raising drive in conjunction with a “Draft Willie” movement generated a paltry $40,000. Polls earlier in the year showed just as many Califomians gave Brown poor marks as good marks. “I’ve got a better shot at the lottery,” is how he summed up his gubernatorial chances to the Los Angeles Times. But that’s not to say that Brown absolutely excluded a run for governor; too savvy a politician to completely rule out an option, he remained coy on the subject as his legislative career wound down.
Initially not a big supporter of President Bill Clinton, Brown changed his stance after Clinton was elected. On a 1993 tour of Washington—where journalists noted he was “nattily clad” as always—Brown said he would do everything in his power to help Clinton win California in 1996. In return he said, he would like to be considered for a high level federal appointment.
As Brown prepared to leave the speaker’s office, he could look back on a statement he made 12 years earlier to Ebony and be content that he had lived up to his words. He had said, “It’s important that I perform well in this position so that successive racial minorities, whether they be Black, Hispanic or whatever, will be judged and treated on merit alone and nothing will be taken away from them or required of them that is not required of any other person holding this office. I’m trying to break the barrier, the assumptions and the stereotypes by performing well. The system ought to be designed to create a level playing field for all of us. That’s my goal.”
The African Americans, edited by David Cohen and Charles M. Collins, Viking Studio Books, 1993.
Boston Sunday Globe, September 15, 1991, p. A23.
Business Week, March 28, 1988, p. 96.
Ebony, August 1984, p. 148.
Economist, November 24, 1990, p. 22; May 29, 1993, p. 34.
Gentlemen’s Quarterly, March 1990, p. 292.
Jet, September 1, 1986, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1991, p. A1; December 13, 1991, p. A3; March 16, 1992, p. A3; April 1, 1992, p. A3; November 16, 1992, p. A3; January 1, 1993, p. A25; January 14, 1993, p. A3; January 18, 1993, p. A3; March 11, 1993, p. A3; March 18, 1993, p. A3; July 5, 1993, p. A3; August 6, 1993, p. A31.
Time, June 13, 1988, p. 28; March 23, 1992, p. 31.
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