No stranger to the legacy of one of the most powerful political figures in the country, I witnessed his imprint by way of living in the Bay Area.
Coupled with a few brief chats in public settings, he loomed large in my view, still does. For this encounter, I sat across the table from the Honorable Willie L. Brown Jr, for an interview prior to a recent public address. The time spent shed light on the magnanimous man and his moxie.
The former two-term San Francisco Mayor (1996 to 2004) and legendary speaker of the California State Assembly (1980 to 1995) is still sharp as ever: in visionary leadership, the fine art of diplomacy and oratory, political intelligence on all levels, and pronouncements on viable candidates for the office of US President.
The small town Texas native turned national leader and world traveler ran the gamut. He referenced the tenets of his upbringing to his ideas for Silicon Valley developments, holding at full attention a rapt gathering of concerned citizens, dignitaries, community stakeholders, cohorts and emerging elites as he delivered his annual lecture on political trends.
The room was packed at San Francisco‘s Commonwealth Club of California.
His acumen on urban and suburban affairs, matters of state, national politics and international dealings doubles as a veritable classroom. Hearing the legal eagle, staunch Democrat opine his views on everyone from Hillary Clinton to CA Attorney General/ US Senate candidate Kamala Harris to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is a chronicle of import and influence, steeped in decades of tested political gamesmanship.
Top all that with fierce, rapid fire wit, charm and distinguish, Mayor Brown–suited in Wilkes Bashford haberdashery, booted in blue suede Louboutins–did not hold back, almost. In classic tradition, he cleverly deferred the last question of the evening about the future of another former San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsome. The crowd erupted in laughter.
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Hundreds have gathered to hear you deliver your annual lecture on political trends. Given the experience you have, the cachet, the accomplishment–what is your process for evaluating and measuring, from year to year, to make a determination on the state of politics?
Hon. Willie L. Brown: I am more involved probably in a manner dramatically different from any other former elected official. I make it my business to be almost as active in my attendance and observations as when I served as Mayor of this city. Likewise, I run an institute (http://www.wlbinstitute.org/) that advises young people and new people who want to run for public office, who want to hold public office or wish to serve in a capacity. I participate in helping to do that from time to time and I coordinate much of my personal activities with individuals who are elected decision makers on a confidential basis. A combination of all those things become very helpful in keeping me abreast and able to offer some observations about the state of the city.
Talk2SV: It has been said, largely by your protégés, that to have the Willie Brown imprint and footprint creates a career that many only dream of. How do you feel about those who say that of you?
WLB: (chuckles) I don’t know if that’s true but I’m flattered that someone would, in one manner or another, offer such a high praise…such high commendation. But it goes with the territory when you’re Willie Brown.
Talk2SV: Much is being made of what is termed the era of women in politics; by observation, I’ve always felt you were fair and balanced when it came to women in power. It has not appeared that you were slight or dismissive in your regard toward women. Given the heightened visibility of political women, what is your statement or comment?
WLB: It’s interesting that you put that question to me. When serving as speaker of the assembly I instantly recognized there was a difference by all of us–political parties, political and leadership types–in extending equal opportunity and equal support to women. In that regard I drove my caucus, the Democratic caucus, to demonstrate how committed they were.
And, there was a practical component to this [assertion]; we determined through the evaluative process of candidates that women were less likely to be attacked in a campaign, they were less likely to suffer allegations of scandals in their campaign. With that in mind we set about to try and recruit candidates everywhere there was an opportunity. We wanted it to be a woman, long before people started talking about the year of the woman, long before there were all the kinds of things now regularly available to women to train and give them assistance.
We were doing those kinds of things for two reasons: obviously, it was the right thing to do but more importantly, it was politically beneficial to make sure we did it. We were way out there really early on and I’ve continued in that same vein in my administration; I did the same thing in my appointments. I made sure that every board and every commission was heavily staffed with women, heavily laden with women and, finally, on the leadership side of things, seldom if ever do you have to worry about disloyalty among women.
Talk2SV: Speaking of leadership, this June, the US Conference of Mayors will convene in San Francisco; what will your role be? What do you think the biggest take away will be for those who attend the conference?
WLB: First and foremost they are really going to enjoy this city; I hope they will all come and be smart enough to blend the attendance at the conference with a vacation opportunity in San Francisco. I am the co-chair of the convention along with Charlotte Schultz. We have raised over $5M to put this conference on so there’s no cost to the city. We really have done the job that we knew to do; we’ve got great plans and it’s the first time the conference has been here since 1997, when I was the host Mayor that year.
Mayor Ed Lee hosts this year but Charlotte and I are the co-chairs. We anticipate that we’re going to be an important city to the world during that time period because we’ll have 400 to 500 people here who actually do the work in the world of politics. Mayors do the work: not governors, not senators, and not the President–its mayors.
More on Willie L. Brown Jr:
During his career, Brown left an indelible mark in a variety of political issues, ranging from civil rights to international trade. While mayor, he overhauled Muni and redeveloped the Embarcadero, amongst other accomplishments. He also advised prominent political figures including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Brown served in the California State Assembly from 1964 to 1995, becoming the state’s first African-American speaker in 1980. He held the position for an unprecedented fifteen years, and was eventually termed out of office. In 1995, Brown left the State Assembly to run for Mayor of San Francisco against incumbent Frank Jordan. He was elected in a landslide and served from 1996 until 2004.
After leaving office, Brown co-hosted a morning radio show with comedian Will Durst and produced a weekly podcast. Brown, whose dramatic style helped fuel an acting career, first appeared on the big screen as a politician in “The Godfather Part III” in 1990. Brown has also played himself in “George of the Jungle,” “The Parent Trap,” “The Wedding Planner,” “The Princess Diaries,” and “Hulk,” amongst others.
Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from San Francisco State University and a J.D. from Hastings College of the Law. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans.