Basic Brown: How The Game Was Played

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Arts/Entertainment, Culture, Opinion, Politics

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Published on March 11, 2008 with No Comments


Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown signs a copy of his latest book, Basic Brown.
Photo by Luke Thomas

By el Greco, special to Fog City Journal

March 11, 2008

Perhaps Churchill said it best: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”.

While that may not have been his goal, former Mayor Willie Brown, Jr. did capture his rollicking political life in his recent book Basic Brown. Partly history, partly memoir, partly entertainment, Basic Brown recounts Willie’s 1951 arrival in San Francisco as a teenager, his ascendancy to California Speaker of the House, and his time as mayor of San Francisco.

I had the chance to visit with Mayor Brown recently and find out just what he was thinking.

el Greco: Did Churchill’s statement creep into your mind, just a little bit? Didn’t you want to shape how San Francisco and California will remember you in years to come?

Willie L. Brown: “Not at all! I’m firmly of the opinion that people will have whatever view they want to have. My book is an instructional book based on my life in politics. It’s not about the hardships of my life.”

eG: You’re perhaps the last of a breed; the colorful, bigger-than-life, charismatic political leader making deals and downing cocktails like a champ. The current political spectrum both here in San Francisco and Sacramento has no one like you. Who is going to follow in your footsteps, or did the mold get broken after you were made?

WLB: “The mold may have very well been broken after me. I feel like we no longer have top-flight people considering politics today. In the past, we had people who tried to emulate, tried to rival the Founding Fathers. We looked for the most feisty types. Now we look for middle of the roaders who take no risks and don’t stand for anything. All this business of polling? Ben Franklin didn’t care about polling, had no use for it. But the reality now is that we find out what the public wants and then try to force fit someone into that role.”

eG: What about the current crop of presidential candidates? Hillary, Obama, McCain?

WLB: “Well, first of all, I have not endorsed either Hillary or Obama. But both of these candidates are a challenge to what has normally been out there. Neither of them falls into the category of mediocre candidates. You don’t get an African American or a woman running for President unless they’re a risk taker. They could not be mediocre, they had to be extraordinary. They are not the norm. The norm is Huckabee and Romney. McCain is different, though, he came out of a war experience and he took risks. But across the board in Congress you’d find very few people even worth writing a book about.”

eG: Homelessness was one of the great albatrosses around the neck of your administration as mayor. Current mayor, Gavin Newsom, has found it a struggle as well, to say the least. Is there any hope, in your opinion, that San Francisco will ever get its arms around the problems of homelessness?

WLB: “There is hope. But the reality is that one city, one county, one state cannot solve it. The roots are in poverty, the roots are in the lack of available healthcare, the roots are in bad drug policy. A substantial number of homeless are veterans. San Francisco alone will never be able to get its arms around the homeless problem. As we develop successful programs here in San Francisco, the problem just continues to grow.”

eG: What about the “sacred cartel”, as you refer to them, of nonprofit developers? Will it ever be broken up?

WLB: “They (the nonprofit developers) are the most proficient group of people to build affordable housing. But they do housing on their own schedule, without sunshine, no public accountability. They’ve managed to ingratiate themselves with the progressives and seldom does the press go look at them closely. Never does the press challenge their dominance nor do any of us. The nonprofit developers keep other builders out of the business and in the end, people have to wait for adequate shelter.”

eG: You are the undisputed king of sartorial arts in this town. Just one question; where did all those Nehru jackets and bell-bottoms and peace medallions end up at? Did you keep some for display in a future Willie Brown Library?

WLB: “I wish I still had them! But I gave them all to charity. I have a few charities that I donate old clothing to. I knew there were people who needed clothing, so I consistently donated it. I would be very bad for the [self] storage industry in America!”

eG: The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is a mess according to many people in town. Supervisor Daly, among others, was a thorn in your side while you were mayor. Can the City continue with Supervisors who are little more than tinhorn dictators? Or will district elections be changed and our BOS become a broader minded body?

WLB: “They were a pain in the rear end. From 2000 until the end of my term-awful. They spent their full time just annoying me. Many of them (the supervisors at the time) now are apologetic. Many would prefer to have Willie Brown than Newsom. Newsom just doesn’t engage. On the other hand, I always opposed district elections. [San Francisco] districts are just too small. I wish we could go back to citywide elections and have supervisors just as interested in Chinatown as Seacliff, Bayview as the Sunset.”

eG: Supervisors apologized to you? Even Chris Daly?

WLB: “Chris Daly publicly stated that he wished Willie Brown was back. He didn’t exactly apologize. Matt Gonzalez publicly stated they he should have engaged me during his last two years on the Board.”

eG: Your book mentions that you often enjoyed the company of beautiful and intriguing women. Some have even referred to you as a “babe-meister” and to some of us, you’re an inspiration. How do you do it? What’s your secret?

WLB: (laughter) “Luck! I’m not the most handsome, not the most charming, but I was lucky. I’ve enjoyed many working relationships with intelligent, interesting women. And, there is not one woman that I ever dated that I am not still friends with today.”

eG: That’s more than most of us can say. (more laughter). So how about the 49ers? Would you care to speculate? Will we manage to keep them in San Francisco?

WLB: “I don’t think they will end up in San Francisco. I don’t think they want to be in San Francisco. Our political family has not wooed them as they wanted to be wooed. I literally went out of my way to get the stadium vote approved in ’97 and barely made it. I spent a lot of political capital. That was the last time there was real focus to getting the 49ers to remain in San Francisco. A move to Santa Clara is not certain, it’s iffy. But there may be some other options if the vote in Santa Clara is unsuccessful.”

eG: Where does Willie Brown go from here? What’s the next step?

WLB: “I am simply going to enjoy being a political analyst with no responsibility whatsoever.”

el Greco, bon vivant and ne’er do well, is a hack writer living in San Francisco. He enjoys long walks through deserted alleys, chain smoking, drinking friends’ whiskey, and has yet to be discovered by the female population of the City.


el Greco