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.

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."

One way to handle an opponent

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.

An African-American born out of wedlock to a waiter and a maid in segregated Mineola, Texas, Brown picked berries, beans, and potatoes before coming to San Francisco to live with his Uncle Itsie. To understand what made Brown the way he is, you need to know that he grew up "poor, small, and smart," says Mr. Walters. "He was always trying to prove something to the world."

If as Walters contends, there are two classes of politicians, those who arrive with an established identity such as a John F. Kennedy or a George W. Bush, and those who "derive their sense of identity from their political careers," such as a Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, or a Bill Clinton, then Willie Brown falls into the second category.

"They tend to be poor boys who latched onto politics as a way out," says Walters. Such men always worry, are always a little paranoid, and "are always running."

Early in his career, Brown took liberal stands, authoring an early gay rights bill and legislation to decriminalize marijuana. But as his stature grew, his interest in issues diminished. It became more about Willie.

Mr. Power Broker

He crafted deals that no one else in the state could have completed. In one of his more famous escapades, he skipped public hearings on a tort-reform initiative, preferring instead to fashion an agreement at a well-known Sacramento restaurant full of lobbyists.

The details were scribbled on a tablecloth and transferred to a more portable napkin. Among other things, it gave the tobacco industry, one of his biggest financial backers, immunity from lawsuits.

In 1995, Brown returned home to San Francisco, handily winning the mayor's race against an incumbent who days before the election foolishly took two Los Angeles deejays up on an offer to be photographed while showering. The city voted for the Brioni-suited Brown.

During his two terms, Brown oversaw the building of PacBell (now SBC) Park and other projects. He appointed more women and minorities to top positions, but, in the eyes of many, he also corrupted the system - for example, rerouting small business loans to a wealthy Asian family whose newspaper was a vocal supporter. The daughter of another ally pleaded guilty to accepting bribes while on the job at the public housing authority.

Brown provided full-time employment for investigative reporters at The San Francisco Chronicle. They reported that he had added more than 350 "special assistants," to the city payroll, including an ex-girlfriend who was paid $72,000 a year as "events coordinator" on Treasure Island, but double booked parties.

Another old friend who'd been imprisoned for bilking a minority set-aside program was given a large contract for which, critics said, he wasn't qualified. When commissioners balked about the preferential treatment of the mayor's friends and the sweetheart deals, they were unceremoniously fired.

Unsettledness in the kingdom

In this city of participatory democracy, Brown's imperious style was a poor fit. He could wield control over the state legislature, but he failed to corral elected supervisors, who he once said were "mistresses" needing to be "serviced."

On the city's most intractable problem, its large homeless population, he made little impact.

But Brown has always had his admirers. "Among all the politicians I've known, and I've known presidents, governors, and senators," says Jerry Brown, "Willie Brown stands very tall in integrity, energy, and his ability to get things done." Through his career, says the Oakland mayor, who drove a Plymouth when governor while his more flamboyant counterpart preferred Ferraris, Willie Brown "has been an honorable person. Most of his critics have no sense of history."

There's no doubt that his friends benefited from his reign. But Brown, who lives in a rented apartment on posh Nob Hill, never seemed to benefit financially. What he sought in return was the adulation and the power, which he always had.

Until Thursday.

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