ONCE he shined shoes for a living in segregated Mineola, Texas. Today he's one of the most powerful and controversial politicians in California -- and he's looking for a new mountain to climb.
In what would be one of the most closely watched local races in the nation, California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is poised to run for mayor of San Francisco. Few voters are neutral about Mr. Brown, who is almost as famous for his flamboyance as he is for legislative acumen.
A contest between the liberal Democratic Speaker and the mayoral incumbent, former Police Chief Frank Jordan, also a Democrat, would thus likely be both bitter and revealing about the mood of what has long been one of America's most left-leaning cities.
''I first thought that if Willie Brown ran for mayor it would not be much of a fight -- it would be a coronation,'' says Mervin Field, the premier California pollster. ''Recent developments have shown that it will be a battle.''
After 15 years as Speaker, the longest tenure in state history, and 31 years as a state assemblyman representing San Francisco, Brown is expected to resign from the legislature this year before he is pushed out by term limits in 1996.
With the recent advent of an evenly divided Assembly and the likelihood that Republicans will soon control the house for the first time in 25 years, Brown has watched his legendary political authority diminish as his grip on the speakership weakens.
All eyes are now fixed on Brown as he weighs his options and decides his next move, one that will allow him to retain, as much as possible, his political influence and national stature. Brown is not only a formidable political figure and consummate politician, he is one of most visible black politicians in America.
Although one-term Mayor Jordan came to the job with no political experience and is considered by many critics as bland and politically passive, he has already come out swinging against Brown, who is expected to declare his candidacy tomorrow. ''He's a walking conflict of interest,'' says Jordan.
Jordan's chief strategist, Clinton Reilly, ran the successful campaign of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (R), also a political neophyte. His strategy is to intimidate Brown early in the race and to make him think twice about exposing his network of political and business dealings to public scrutiny. While serving as Speaker of the Assembly, Brown continued his high-profile law practice and has received millions of dollars in legal income from an array of developers and corporate clients, many of which hold city contracts.
Brown, however, says he is careful to follow state law, which bars legislators from lobbying state agencies on behalf of clients while allowing them to lobby at the local level. He says he would close his private practice if elected mayor. ''For Willie Brown, if it's legal, then it's ethical,'' says Bruce Cain, political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
According to pollster Field, the public is familiar with Brown's reputation as a power broker and will only turn away from him if he has seriously violated political standards. ''Willie Brown can withstand damning relevations about his business dealings better than any other politician,'' he says. ''The public feels they know him; they already suspect things less than laudatory.''
Brown's run for San Francisco mayor makes sense in the light of his limited political alternatives in California -- primarily because he is both black and liberal, says UC Berkeley's Cain. He says the odds are low that Brown could win a statewide election for governor, lieutenant governor, or attorney general, and Brown has decided not to run for the state Senate.
But political observers say San Francisco is more than ready for its first black mayor. One of the most liberal cities in California, Brown's election would extend a tradition of electing minorities, gays, and women into office. ''This city has a long history of leadership that represents the diversity that exists within it,'' says John Whitehurst, a Bay Area Democratic political consultant.
The transition from the political heights of state capital dealmaking to working with ordinary citizens and neighborhood groups may be difficult for Brown. ''He'll be going from wheeling and dealing with millions of dollars to fixing potholes,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School.
Brown will have to demonstrate he is in touch with his constituents and can attend to the needs of a city. San Francisco is faced with the urgent demand for better public services and schools while struggling with a huge deficit and a bloated public payroll.
Brown's mayoral bid will be boosted by his unparalleled ability to raise campaign funds. His network of resources is formidable: In the past decade, he has raised more than $30 million for his campaigns and others, more than any other state legislator in the nation.
Recent polls show Brown is favored over Jordan in a one-on-one matchup. Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian activist and federal housing official, also intends to run for mayor and could siphon off some of Brown's early support in the November primary. Analysts expect the race to be close.
Brown is likely to declare his candidacy only if he is certain he can win. He has ''always chosen wisely and carefully,'' says Sam Singer, a local political consultant.