The Interview: Willie Brown, Uncensored

By Janet Reilly

On a recent morning, the Gazette visited Brown in his corner office on the Embarcadero overlooking the Bay to talk about his life, career and the legacy he hopes to leave. (Peter Prato)

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, now in his 80s, remains as vibrant (and opinionated) as ever. The relentless raconteur and dapper dresser tells all to Janet Reilly …

Growing up in Sacramento just a few miles from the state capitol, I can’t remember a time I didn’t know of Willie Brown. His reputation as a master politician, dealmaker and style icon was legendary. It still is.

Born in Mineola, Texas, Brown earned degrees from San Francisco State University and Hastings College of the Law. He was elected to the California State Assembly in 1964 and served as speaker of that body for an unprecedented 15 years. As Brown sees it, he would still be in that job today — it if weren’t for term limits. A two-term mayor of San Francisco, Brown has since reinvented himself as a columnist and political pundit. Now in his 80s, he remains relevant and sharp (his recall of dates, addresses and phone numbers is uncanny). And he still has a twinkle in his eye and an infectious joie de vivre.

On a recent morning, I visited Brown in his corner office on the Embarcadero overlooking the Bay. It is a fitting workplace for a man who loves his adopted city. We talked about Brown’s life, his career and the legacy he hopes to leave.

You’re being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Dignity Health at the Humankindness Gala. What does this mean to you? Well, it literally is a surprise. I’m not sure that what I do in life and how I do it is part of the program at Dignity Health. And so to have the people who give guidance and recommendations [on award recipients] come together and say, “This time around, we want to acknowledge Willie Brown,” it means the organization is extending its breadth in measuring what human beings ought to be doing for each other — even in the world of politics. I’m honored to accept it on behalf of all politicians. Most would never deserve it. (laughs)

Do you think there is any humankindness left in politics these days? It certainly doesn’t demonstrate itself — AT ALL! I don’t think people now want their kids to grow up to be politicians. Mr. Trump’s conduct and the reaction to Trump’s conduct by all the rest of us …

It’s not like the days of JFK when public service was the highest calling one could have, is it? That was when the most talented people in college made a commitment. Yeah, you might want to be an investment banker, but you ought to do something for humankind before you get there. Yeah, you want to be a lawyer, but you ought to do something for humankind before you get there. It was the Kennedy cycle that started with his father all the way through Ted Kennedy. … And, interestingly enough, [public service] was [viewed as] glamorous — it was, in every way, something that people appreciated and really wanted to do.

Young Brown, walking with Robert F. Kennedy, days before his assassination in 1968.

Are you optimistic for the future? I’m hopeful that we’ll come out of this, but I’m not optimistic. I’m not optimistic because even the colleges and universities now … there is not the heavy emphasis on service. It’s almost like you’re driven to make sure you become wealthy. Period.

Let’s talk about you. Everyone knows that you were born in a small town in Texas, but paint a picture of what it was like growing up in Mineola in the 1940s. Well, I did not know any other world, and so Mineola was a real comfortable place to be. It was small enough, so you knew everybody, almost by first name, black and white. There was a distinct difference in the races. On one side of the track lived white people, on the other side of the track lived the black folk. The limited amount of jobs, and the restricted nature of those jobs, caused one not to be terribly concerned, frankly, about a difference in class because everybody was about the same class. Teachers, preachers and undertakers were the most distinguished group of people, and there were very few of them — not enough so they could separate themselves, both black and white. Everybody belonged to a church. Everybody went to church on Sunday. Everybody dressed up to go to church on Sunday, black and white.

Did you have big dreams as a little boy? I have always had huge dreams. There was a black newspaper once a month, maybe twice a month. The Houston Informer and the Kansas City Call, the Chicago Defender. There were black magazines that had stories about black folk achieving things, and so within the framework of all those sources of information, one could quickly fathom how one could be all of those things, but Mineola did not have the information on how to get there. Because if you left Mineola, you only came back to visit rarely, and you seldom, if ever, stayed long enough to inspire any of us who lived there to be like you.

So how did you get out? I graduated from high school on May 25th, 1951, and I got a scholarship to a black college. Prairie View A&M. It was a modest scholarship because the cost of going to a black school was pretty [affordable], but you had to leave right away after high school — not wait until September. You had to go immediately because part of the scholarship was helping to produce the food that was to be served to the students. I lasted in Prairie View for a brief period of time. I did not last the whole summer.

Because? I had raised questions about food service. Everybody who attended the school had to be there working through the summer, whether you played football, basketball, baseball, or you were an academic —and I was supposed to be [an academic]. You served a table — eight people per table. And they had assigned you a seat. … And, they assigned all of the “nerds” as I called us, one at each table, where they had the other disciplines — football, basketball —and the food was served family-style, and when you were there as just one nerd and everybody else was athletic, you seldom, if ever, got any food. So, I thought they should let the 12 of us sit together, and I went in to tell the president.

And, how did that go over? I had no idea you’re not supposed to do that, and they sent me home. My mother was humiliated that her oldest son would be kicked out of school and she couldn’t handle that. She had a brother, my uncle, who had come to California. In the Second World War, African Americans were not recruited to the military. They didn’t really want them to participate, and they were segregated if they were. What they really wanted [them] to do was to help in the war effort by working at the shipyard, working at the facilities that supplied equipment for war. Two of my uncles got the invitation to San Francisco to work at the shipyard. One of them got hired, and the other one did not go back for the second-day interview because he became involved in a gambling game and he won enough money. … My mother hated every second of his lifestyle because she was very religious. She wanted nothing to do with him and wanted me to have nothing with him. But she was so embarrassed that she accepted his invitation to have me come to San Francisco. That’s how I left Texas. I landed in Oakland on the T&P line in August. August 4th, 1951.

And what did you think? I had not been anywhere, andI could not believe what I was seeing. Every street had lights, and I had never seen anything like that. We didn’t have lights in Mineola. We didn’t have running water in Mineola, let alone lights. So my uncle lived on Oak Street and he had a room for me, but he made it very clear that he didn’t know anything about raising children, and he didn’t know anything about schools because he had never graduated from high school. He was a “gambler” is what he said to me. “You’re a smart kid. I want you to go in a different direction from my house every day. And then find your way back for dinner.”

And? I started walking in a different direction every day. That’s how I learned about San Francisco, and I went all over San Francisco. In the meantime, he had made a commitment to my mother that [number] one, I get in school. Number two, that I join a church. That’s what she wanted. And sure enough, I did join Jones Methodist Church, not too far from the bar where my uncle hung out. He could see that church out the back of the bar.

And as for school? My uncle told me that a buddy of his, a doorman he knew, knew somebody at Stanford and that I should go down there and go to school. So, I got on the bus and went to Stanford. I had not the previous history, not the previous grades, not the previous experience, none of the above, and there was no way I could get into Stanford. But the guy I was talking to also worked at San Francisco State, and he told me, “We’re dying for students,” and they would take me no matter what, even though I didn’t have any of the requirements. “Don’t worry about it. They’ll take you.” And he was right, they did take me.

So, is it true that you went to law school because you didn’t want to be drafted? Exactly. I go to SF State. I’m in the ROTC. We graduated. You have to sign for your commission, and you have to do three years. Well, I was not terribly interested going three years into the military, and so I declined. They said, “If you decline commission, you no longer have an exemption.” I’m thinking, “What am I going to do?” I went and filled out the papers at [UC Hastings School of the Law], and they said they couldn’t guarantee deferment. But they thought it was possible.They said, “So, you’re no longer in the military?” “No, I’m not in the military.” “Have you ever thought about the National Guard?” “What is the National Guard?” And they told me what the National Guard was.I left Hastings, and I went down to14th and Mission, and I signed up for the National Guard. Automatic deferment. Automatic deferment. I signed up and the only thing they had at 14th and Mission in the armory was a medical battalion. I’m not medical. You’re killing me. But they did have a dental department, so I signed up to become a dental hygienist. To be trained to be a dental hygienist in the 126th medical battalion.

Were you a good dental hygienist? I don’t think so, but I did manage to get discharged with honor. I got that honorable discharge from the National Guard, so when I ran for office, I’d tell people,“I’m a veteran!” (laughs)

You became a criminal defense attorney. What did you learn from that experience that helped you in your political career? Everything. Believe me. If you’re a criminal defense lawyer and you’re representing hookers mainly, people who [committed] small crimes, nobody violent, nobody killing anybody, nobody robbing anybody, but people stealing and things like that, you pretty much know that your clients are at a disadvantage to begin with because there were no black cops. Maybe one black prosecutor, no black judges. So the best thing you can do is try to make sure they don’t go away for life or don’t get badly nailed, which means I had to get to know all the cops, all the DAs, all the public defenders. You try to get to know all the judges. All those things are part of what you do in politics. Period. You get to know everybody in politics, and that’s what I did. I represented my clients well because by now I was very much part of the civil rights struggle.

And very much a part of the San Francisco community as well … I had become very active in the community of San Francisco. I did not have running for office in mind when I was doing that. It was just part of who I am and what I really enjoy doing — it served me well on the criminal law side because I was a person who the courts and judges had respect for. The cops had respect for me and would alert me to things. Bail bondsmen were the same way.

What made you decide to run for office? The Burton family. There was a fellow named Phil Burton, who was at the center on the Democratic side, the liberal, progressive, Democratic side, and he was always trying to figure out how to put the combinations together that would lead to victory. And to that end — he was a member of the Legislature — when they drew the lines, he drew the lines with a black representative being electable from San Francisco, and that’s how I ended up running.

And he had you in mind for that when you did that? Yes. Well, because by the time the ’60s came around, I had moved up handsomely in the world of Democratic politics. I had become quite a participant on every level, and Phil had always done the formula. And on the black side, I was the guy. I was the young up-and-coming guy that could fit the bill, and besides that, I didn’t have a whole lot of burdens. I had a working wife. I was making a little bit of money practicing law, and most of these other guys had jobs. I had no boss. I was unique …

Brown in 1999, when he was mayor of San Francisco. He misses most his post as the 58th speaker of the California Assembly, from 1980 to 1995. “I should have assumed the responsibility in 1990 to make sure there were no term limits,” he says. (Nancy Wong)

And you had the talent … Yes, I had the skill set. And, so that’s the way I became heavy-duty involved. I lost my first race in 1962 … to the incumbent, Ed Gaffney, by 1,000 votes. It was an uphill race because I had nothing going for me. I had no money. I had Burton and the black churches, and that was it. And I didn’t really know anything about politics, in terms of electability. But on election night, it was clear that in neighborhoods where I had gone and rung doorbells, I won overwhelmingly. So it took about 48 hours to recognize that if I was ever going to win an election, every voter had to meet me. And so on that Thursday, I started ringing doorbells thanking people for voting for me. I had no idea if they voted for me. Next time around, I won by 4,000 votes.

You served in the state Legislature for 30 years. For 15 of those years, you served as speaker of the Assembly. What do you attribute this longevity to? Well, first and foremost you have to have a team. I mean, a real solid team. You have to have a staff team and a membership team because the job of speaker doesn’t come from the election process; it comes from the membership making you their leader. And it can change any day of the week if 41 of the 80 want to fire you. … I got elected speaker with 28 Republicans and 23 Democrats. I never had a Democratic majority to get the job.

That’s amazing. I kept the job because my career [goal] was being speaker — not running for governor, not running for the U.S. Senate, not running for Congress. Everybody knew that whatever Willie Brown was doing, it was on behalf of the House. … I was never in competition with any member on any subject matter. I was as conversant with the farmers as I was with the urban dwellers. I was conversing with environmentalists as I was with the polluters, the oil companies. Everybody got a fair shot, and they knew they got a fair shot out of me. I had only two years with a Democratic governor. All the other years was a Republican governor — [George] Deukmejian and [Pete] Wilson were the two Republicans.

What did you love most about being speaker, because I know you loved that position? More than anything I loved the position because I found that I was really suited to [it]. I loved the subject matter, I loved the policy, I loved quality brains, I had excellent staff. I mean, I was really lucky. The people who worked for me were all first team all-Americans intellectually, and that made it really good becauseI became [the place] where Deukmejian would go if he was trying to solve a problem, where Wilson would go, where Democrats in the state Senate would go. … In the absence of ego on subject matter, I let you be the spokesperson. Like when Maxine Waters carried apartheid, or Mike Roos carried the bill to do something about assault weapons and the ban, I orchestrated all of that, yet the person who had the idea originally got all the credit for it. I did it with Republicans as well. If there was a Republican who had a great idea on something, I would not let the Democrats take it away from them.

You have been called the consummate dealmaker. Has that art been lost with politicians today? Oh, I think so. I really do believe that most politicians are so fearful of being accused of being a dealmaker.

Even though Brown is no longer an elected official in California, he remains an influential figure and opinion-maker. Prior to SF’s shelter-in-place order, he was a fixture in the City’s scene-iest restaurants. (Peter Prato)

Because they consider that a bad thing? They consider it awful. Because they think that it’s corrupt. … They think that somehow you are making a deal and that’s illegal. They think that you, somehow, benefit. I mean, there is no way to solve a homeless problem unless you can put together the proposal — and everybody has got to sign on. That’s dealmaking.

I’m going to talk about San Francisco politics, but I’m going to go back to the dealmaking. I think the dealmaking is more that no one wants to share any credit, and it’s us against them. … In this world, it seems like if you win, I lose.That’s not the wayI have functioned in all of my political life. I’ve always, always tried my best to make sure that we solve the problem in the best interest of the public.

You served two terms as the mayor of San Francisco. What’s the biggest challenge of being a big-city mayor? Surviving the second term. Let me tell you, it is a daily, hourly obligation, and you are the recipient of every ill-fitted outfit existing in the city, and where you have a process by which people are elected by districts and they have almost no interest in the whole city, you are burdened with horse trading for something that has no effect on the whole city. And your job is to take care of the whole city. So it’s a tough, tough job. I feel sorry for London Breed every day. I would have never been the mayor had they not had term limits. I’d still be speaker right now.

Can we solve the homeless problem? Probably not. The homeless problem is so complicated, and there’s so limited authority to deal with the complications. There’s poverty, there’s mental condition, there are addictions, and there is the absence of hope. All those things combined and with the limitations imposed upon your ability to be authoritarian, you’re really dealing with a maintenance issue.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishments and biggest disappointments of your elected career? The thing that I’m proud of the most is how many people I have assisted in holding public office. The first person that I ever really helped elect was Dianne Feinstein. In 1969, she ran for the Board of Supervisors. I was the only elected official to endorse her candidacy.

Burton thought I was crazy. She was too conservative for them, too moderate, so to speak. Stanford, blue blood. I thought she had a lot of talent. I thought she would be perfect holding an elected office. Not only did my endorsement help, but she ended up winning more votes than any other member, and at that time whoever won the most votes got to be the president of the Board because it was citywide.

And then you go through the list of people who got elected in San Francisco. Nancy Pelosi came out of the Burton world. That was my world. … I am so proud that early on, many of their people’s talents I spotted and gave assistance to. And so, I’m most proud of those continuing to serve in public life.

Biggest disappointments? Term limits. I should have assumed the responsibility in 1990 to make sure there were no term limits.

During your career, who was your most formidable political opponent? It was not a person, it was a group of more liberal Democrats — the ones who helped create the Coastal Commission, the ones who did all the anti-tobacco stuff, the ones who did all those, and there was a group of them. They never challenged me for the speakership, but they made life miserable [for me] trying to keep the whole operation together, and their focused attention on just their agenda. I had a universal agenda. They had only one agenda. And by the way, people on the other side were the same way. There were those who were pro-oil, pro a whole bunch of things, and neither group would ever come to the table. And so, I had to invest more energy, more time, and more political capital to make the system work because of the focused ideological divide created by people like that. So, there’s no single individual. 

One thing that has always really struck me about you is that the people who have worked for you in the past remain fiercely loyal to you. How do you instill that loyalty in people? I think you earn the continuous support and dedication to you when you prove that an investment in you is near the top of the arena for loyalty. Period. For an example, I’m being picked at now because [of] Mohammed Nuru [the former public works director who was charged with fraud in February]. He was somewhere in the trenches until [former SF mayors] Ed Lee and [Gavin] Newsom moved him [up the ranks]. And clearly, he’s not a rich man. He’s got a criminal defense; I am contributing to his criminal defense budget. I am being pilloried by all of these social media broadcasters, so to speak. “Why would you do that?” “Why would I do what? Here’s somebody in need, who’s a friend, been a helper. Why wouldn’t I reach out to help?” And I have repeated that code of conduct all of my life. I have never, ever abandoned a friend. Never. Period. I don’t support my friend’s conduct, I don’t approve of my friend’s conduct, but I don’t leave the friend in need of a blood transfusion if I can find a way to get it to him.

How have you evolved since you left elected office? I frankly have had more fun than I ever did in elected office. I have expanded my repertoire of contacts far beyond, and I have gotten away from any responsibility for the results, and I love it. I love it! That’s how I have evolved. And fortunately for me, post-office holding is usually a tragedy for most people. It has not at all been a tragedy for me. My friendships, and my relationships, and my careful selecting of where I work, what organizations I help, what boards I serve on. And I get asked every day of the week, but I’m careful to make sure it is somewhere I want to be, something I want to be a part of, somewhere I want to be.

You have remained beyond relevant and vital in this community, even becoming a weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. How do you do it? I got to tell you that it is fun. I like people. I love that everyday of my life I spend with people. I’m never isolated. I’m always overbooked, I always have more things to do thanI should be doing, and I’m healthy enough to do them.

You’re famous for your dapper sense of style. How many suits do you own? Oh, I don’t know — 50 to 100, I guess. Too many.

Too many? Seriously. I’m deadly serious. That’s why I give so many away now. Anything I don’t wear for a year, I bring Goodwill in to pick it up. I so fear that I won’t actually deliver it, I have them come [to me]. I do it every year. Every November. I get the guy that heads Goodwill, he comes and brings a rack and we sit and talk and I put things on the rack and I don’t get to look at them a second time.

That’s great. I actually the other day called and said, “Listen, I’ve been looking for this burgundy jacket. Do you guys have my burgundy …”

That’s funny. So did you want to buy it back? It’s my hobby. My hobby is clothing.

What do you want your legacy to be, Willie Brown? He was there. And he loved a whole lot of folks who continue what he tried to do. That’s what I want people to remember.

Lightning Round

I’m happiest when … When I make you smile.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Pay off all my bills

My biggest regret … Not producing healthcare particularly for the family members that I’ve lost. My mother, my father. I just lost a sister.

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken is … Running for mayor

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