Behold the Willie L. Brown Jr. Bridge

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By Dan Brekke and Bryan Goebel

Former San Francisco Mayor and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown poses with the sign now bearing his name. (Mark Andrew Boyer / KQED)
Former San Francisco Mayor and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown poses with the sign now bearing his name. (Mark Andrew Boyer / KQED)

It's official, kind of: In a ceremony today, the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was renamed after former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. We say it's "kind of" official not to detract from the solemnity of the occasion but to acknowledge that: 1) many locals still don't like the idea; 2) very few people use the last "official" new name hung on the bridge (more on that in the post below); and, 3) can anyone really doubt the span should be named after Emperor Norton, the person who first proposed it?

However, Brown himself was proud of the honor.

“It is frankly an incredible achievement,” Brown told a crowd of more than 500 state and local officials during a ceremony on Treasure Island.

Around noon, two green bridge signs were placed on both sides of the western span.


``It's really an honor for African-Americans and for the African-American community,'' Brown told reporters before the ceremony. ``There's nothing in the nation except the King holiday that has the universality of this bridge in terms of its carrying the name of an African American, nothing even close.”

In September, the Legislature approved a resolution by Assemblyman Isadore Hall to rename the bridge despite opposition from Governor Jerry Brown.

Opponents said that under state rules, people must be dead before infrastructure projects are named after them.

Hall fired back at opponents, praising Brown’s legacy as a civil rights activist.

“We need not think of this as a bridge named after Willie Brown. Anyone who knows him knows that Willie Brown Jr. is the bridge that makes the ends connect,” Hall said. “Is he alive? Yes he is. Is he well and kicking? Yes he is. Is he deserving of this bridge? Yes, he is.”

Brown told reporters he wanted his case to serve as an example of how to thank people while they are still alive.

``To say `thank you' after they're dead is a little bizarre,'' he said.

Asked by a reporter how he wanted to respond to his enemies, who might look down on this day, Brown said: “I don’t really have any enemies. You know, in my world of politics an enemy is potentially a friend, if you play ‘em right.”

Reporter: “What do you say to the naysayers who’ve been very critical, that you were the reason for the cost overruns, the delays…”

Brown: “No, that’s the wrong part of the bridge. My bridge doesn’t have any leaks.”

So how did the name come to be?

We've written about the naming before. It was accomplished last year through a legislative resolution that Gov. Jerry Brown, who did not like the idea, could not veto. Here's some of a September post on the issue:

Well, one San Franciscan loves the renaming of the Bay Bridge's western span for Willie Brown, former Assembly speaker, former mayor, newspaper pundit and best connected of lawyers.

After the state Senate passed the renaming resolution yesterday, reporters asked Brown if he was happy with the change. "You kidding me? You no longer can call me Willie. You've got to call me 'The Bridge!' " He said just thinking about driving across the renamed bridge is "a wonderful experience," but he added that naming the bridge after him will have a wider meaning.

"I think it will be a guidepost for lots of young people in the state of California," Brown said. "After all, this is the only thing that any of us know of any real significance universal that's named after a person of color. There is nothing else universal. There are schools, there are roadways, there are a whole lot of other things. But this is California, and to have an African American adorn any instrument in California for the first time in the history of this state is unusually significant."

That's Brown's take, but so far, he doesn't have a lot of company (outside of the legislators who hatched the plan) in cheering for the Willie Brown Bridge. Gov. Jerry Brown let the Legislature know earlier in the week he didn't like the idea (though he couldn't stop it since the renaming was a resolution, not a proposed law). The San Francisco Chronicle, which runs Willie Brown's Sunday column, editorialized against it. Some members of the city's Board of Supervisors, past and present, turned thumbs-down on the idea.

And if you think that's just a bunch of local politicos and establishment types leveraging their collective envy or resentment against Willie Brown, check out KQED's "Forum." The show ran a half-hour segment yesterday asking whether the bridge should be renamed for the former mayor. Virtually no one had a good word to say for the idea, and after the show, a show intern was busy policing some of the nastier comments that listeners had posted to the "Forum" site. ..

... Still unknown: Whether the renaming will ever take practical effect. Some are suggesting that Gov. Brown could somehow stop Caltrans from spending money to put up signs for Speaker/Mayor Brown on the bridge (it seems like you'd need an electron microscope to find that line item in the Caltrans budget). And some are actually taking action to stop the renaming from going forward.

San Francisco disability rights activist and good government advocate Bob Planthold has gone to court to keep the Bay Bridge the Bay Bridge. The suit (appended at the end of this post), which names the state and a host of legislative committees and individual lawmakers, essentially says the Legislature rammed through the renaming resolution against the will of local residents, violating their due process rights.

Planthold's suit also notes the bridge has already been renamed once: in 1986, for Mayor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph (though weirdly, the lawsuit refers to the late mayor as "James 'Sunny' Rudolph").

And the lawsuit brings up an alternative idea for renaming the bridge — one proposed a while back and which, ironically, is gaining new support because of the whole Willie Brown Bridge stink. "There is ... an active effort to re-designate the Bay Bridge for Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton ... widely credited as first conceiving of the Bay Bridge in a series of proclamations in 1872."

Here's more on that "active effort": a petition to the state. Several thousand people have signed up so far.

Here's Planthold's lawsuit:

Bob Planthold v. State of California et al., San Francisco, Jerry Brown, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge


The Associated Press contributed to this report.