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Willie Brown Celebrates 90th Birthday With California Political Powerhouses

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An older African American man in a suit and white shirt bends over to blow out candles on a birthday cake with the figure 90 on it.
Willie Brown blows out the candles on a birthday cake at a celebration of Brown's 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A veritable “Who’s Who” of state and local politics turned out at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the 90th birthday of Willie L. Brown Jr., who, as speaker of the Assembly and later as mayor, mastered the art of raw power politics in California like few others.

The event was held in the North Light Court in the Beaux-Arts style building, whose $300 million restoration Brown oversaw as mayor, down to the grand (some would say ostentatious) gold leaf finish on its majestic dome.

On his way into the event, as he was mobbed by well-wishers, I asked Brown how it felt to be 90. “Like a hundred.”

Willie Brown greets and has his photo taken with guests at a celebration of his 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The party drew many past and current elected officials, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed and her counterpart Karen Bass from Los Angeles, who was one of the many to follow Brown as speaker of the state Assembly.

“Everybody here has a Willie Brown story, and there’s a couple of hundred people,” Bass said. “And the stories are specific about how he influenced their life and helped determine their future. And I’m one of those people.”

One of Brown’s signature qualities was his ability to get along with people he disagreed with, regardless of political party. In 1988, a few disgruntled Democrats in his caucus tried to overthrow him as speaker. The coup attempt failed, but one of the so-called “Gang of 5,” then-Assemblymember Rusty Areias, recalled how he and Brown moved on.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass (center left) sits and laughs with Willie Brown at a celebration of Brown’s 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“He called me and said, ‘Hey, I know we have some differences right now, but this too will pass. And, we’ll be good again.’ And, you know, that’s exactly what happened.”

Areias, who now runs a political consulting firm in Sacramento, said Brown taught him everything he knows about politics.

“You know, I spent some time at Harvard and Chico State, but I really went to Brown University. He’s a great leader. He’s a clear thinker, and he’s a good friend.”

Retired San Francisco judge John Dearman recalls meeting Brown in the 1960s when they were both lawyers and eventually formed a law practice together.

Robin Brown (front center) and other guests watch and take photos as Willie Brown speaks at a celebration of his 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024.

“He has this unique ability of meeting and being able to get along at first sight with anybody. He can start a conversation with anybody, and he is very glib,” Dearman said. What people often miss about Brown, he added, is that he really cares about people.

“He has a lot of heart. People get the wrong impression because he’s so sure of himself and they think that he’s arrogant. And maybe he is, but also, he has a lot of heart, and he really is interested in people,” said Dearman, who was appointed judge by then-Gov. Jerry Brown at Willie Brown’s urging.

Politicians were not the only ones who turned out to celebrate Brown. His family, including his long-estranged wife Blanche and their daughters, were there to celebrate him.

“My father is smart, funny, charismatic — a magician, he makes magical things happen,” said Brown’s oldest daughter Susan. “He’s also very strict. So when he needs something, we hop to it, and we take care of it immediately.”

Brown, known for his colorful fashion style, was decked out in a salmon-color jacket, pink shirt, and matching socks with white stars.

Willie Brown wears pink star socks at a celebration of Willie Brown’s 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

His former press secretary, P.J. Johnston, who helped organize the event, joked that Brown once chastised him and sent him home “for having the temerity to wear linen in January.”

The ‘Ayatollah of the Assembly’

Brown was born in segregated Mineola, Texas, on March 20, 1934, which he said had “almost nothing” going for it.

He came to San Francisco in 1951, staying with his Uncle Itsie Collins. Brown hoped to attend Stanford but had no way to pay for that high-priced education. Instead, he went to San Francisco State University where he met another young political prospect, John Burton, whose brother Phillip became a political powerhouse in local and national politics until his sudden death in 1983.

Brown graduated with a law degree from UC Hastings (now UC Law San Francisco) in 1958, a time when few Black attorneys were practicing law in San Francisco. He started out as a defense attorney with, as he told KQED in 2023, clients that included pimps, prostitutes and others few attorneys sought out.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks at a celebration of Willie Brown’s 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Brown ran for the state Assembly in 1962, losing narrowly to the Democratic incumbent in the primary. But two years later, he prevailed, heading to Sacramento at the age of 30, where he made friendships with powerful lawmakers, lobbyists and others who would eventually help propel him to the first Black speaker in California, a job he held for a record 14 years. Ruling with something of an iron fist, no detail was too small to oversee. He proclaimed himself “the Ayatollah of the Assembly.”

In Sacramento, Brown championed civil rights, including a successful effort to decriminalize homosexuality in California in 1975.

First as speaker and later as mayor, Brown was often associated with people investigated by the FBI for political corruption. Several people in Brown’s political orbit went to prison in San Francisco, but Brown was never indicted. He was too careful for that, once joking that “the e in e-mail stands for ‘evidence.’”

Willie Brown speaks at a celebration of his 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Earlier just this week, one of Brown’s political protégés, Harlan Kelly, was sentenced to four years in federal prison after being convicted of charges related to bribery as part of a sweeping investigation into corruption in San Francisco’s government. Brown was among those writing to the judge seeking leniency in Kelly’s sentence.

In Sacramento, Brown became the face of a campaign to enact term limits, which voters passed in 1990. Some ads for Proposition 140 included the phrase “join me in giving Willie Brown the ‘boot.’”

Brown often jokes that if voters hadn’t approved term limits, he’d still be speaker. However, he acknowledges that he “never, ever would have known the great joy of being the mayor.”

Willie Brown and San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins pose for a photo at a celebration of Brown’s 90th birthday at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In retrospect, Brown told KQED he got much more tangible things done in City Hall than at the state Capitol.

“A legislative body does not execute. A legislative body opines. In the capacity of the CEO of a city, as is the case with every mayorship, that’s where you really get the chance to demonstrate if you can do things,” Brown said.

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In fact, asked as he was leaving the mayor’s office in 2004 what he would be remembered for, Brown said “bricks and mortar.”

“Many persons who hold the job of mayor are, in fact, known for what they built. Period. And I have a lot of those,” he told KQED.

As San Francisco mayor, Brown oversaw the construction of a new ballpark for the San Francisco Giants, Mission Bay with its anchor tenant of UCSF, and the restoration of the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.

It might be said that Brown’s most enduring legacy will be the people he helped elevate into public office, including the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Vice-President Kamala Harris, who Brown once dated when she was a deputy district attorney in Alameda County. As speaker, Brown appointed Harris to a state appeals board for people who were denied unemployment benefits.

The night Brown was elected mayor in 1995, it was Harris who handed him a baseball cap emblazoned with the name he was often called in his new job: “Da Mayor.”

Susan Horsefall wears a hat from Willie Brown’s 1995 campaign for Mayor of San Francisco at a celebration at City Hall in San Francisco on March 20, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Vice President Harris was not there and did not send a recorded greeting, nor did Gavin Newsom, who Brown also helped launch into politics.

But Mayor Breed gave her predecessor and mentor something she joked he already had: a key to the city.

“Because any time you show up anywhere, the doors are always open,” Breed said. “You will always be our forever mayor.”

As for what Brown was thinking about on this momentous day, he joked, “I’m looking forward to 91. Ninety is behind me already.”

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