Once upon a time, California politics was all about Willie
For those inside City Hall, there will always be the new bronze bust of the man who called himself Da Mayor.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
No doubt, passersby will think of him when they peer at the majestic dome of City Hall, which he insisted on painting with real gold at the cost of $400,000.
For citizens who read the society columns in this free-wheeling city, he'll be remembered as the fellow with the fedora and the Borsalino hats and a series of beautiful girlfriends on his arm, whose ages doubled were often less than his own.
His friends were rich; his taste in wine and food was impeccable. His humor was biting. His grasp of politics was untouchable. His dealmaking, a tour de force.
Now, nearly 70, Willie Brown has always known how to live and how to charm. It's his governance that remains controversial.
His long, winding political career, which mirrored much of the recent history of California, ended Thursday after 39 years, when a new mayor, his protégé Gavin Newsom, was sworn in. With the obvious exception of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, this state has not seen anyone with the star quality, acting ability, or political prowess of Brown.
Los Angeles Times writer John Balzar once called him "a piece of living art." And so he was. In a room, in a city, or in the state capitol, Willie Brown was always the center of attention.
He burst onto the national scene in 1972, when, as leader of the state's George McGovern delegation, he fought encroachment from Hubert Humphrey Democrats, thundering at one point on network TV: "Give me back my delegation!" Not many politicians would have called them "my" delegates, but Brown, the penultimate politician, has always been a throwback to old-style politics, a la Richard Daley of Chicago.
During his tenure at City Hall, millions were siphoned off to what critics say were unqualified contractors, simply because they were his friends or were represented by his friends-turned-lobbyists.
Before he was mayor, he was the Speaker of the California Assembly, retaining that position for nearly 15 years, longer than anyone else in state history. When he needed votes, he was not averse to convincing Republicans to come along. A few did, ruining their careers. But then Willie Brown took care of them, creating jobs with fat salaries for his fiefdom of San Francisco.
A master politician who raised prodigious amounts of money and doled it out to loyal Democrats, Brown became the second most powerful man in the state, some said the most powerful. At his peak, bestriding the Assembly like a potentate and acting as necessary pal to Democratic presidential candidates, he was among the most powerful black politicians in America.
"He was one of the most dominant figures in California politics in the postwar period," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "More than anything, he just had a fine mind."
There was in Brown "a certain joy in the game of politics," comments Oakland Mayor and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. "He had a commitment to the underdog, but he was also comfortable with the overdog."
Willie Brown crackled with wit. When reporters once asked him about the likely passage of a bill legalizing ownership of ferrets, sponsored by a Republican assemblyman sporting a new toupee, Brown gestured at the hairpiece and said: "The bill's as dead as that thing on his head."
The bill was dead, and, says Dan Walters, a longtime political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, so was the assemblyman's political career.
In large part because of the man who called himself "The Ayatollah of the Assembly," Republicans engineered the term-limit initiative that voters endorsed in California and that went on to sweep across many states.