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Basic Brown (2008)

Former San Francisco Mayor and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has written an unusually frank memoir of his life in politics, which is a must read for anyone who would attempt to understand California politics in the latter decades of the 20th century. Willie Brown was amazing!

For several years, while working at the Association of Bay Area Governments, the regional planning agency for the San Francisco Bay Area, I was responsible for coordinating its legislative program. We tried for years to establish a permanent, statutorily created regional planning body for the region. We came so close, within a vote in the State Senate, and that bill would have been signed by then Governor Ronald Reagan.

But after that failure, and then another one the following year, ABAG’s political leadership was on to other things, implementation of a regional environmental management plan, the first of its kind in the country. And that leads me to my story. ABAG’s Executive Director Revan Tranter suggested that Eugene Leong (then manager of its environmental management programs and later Executive Director) and I meet with ABAG’s lobbyist Robert Beckus and then Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy about a bill to authorize annual inspections of motor vehicles to meet emission standards. ABAG was sponsoring a bill then opposed by the State Air Resources Board to carry out Federal requirements. Beckus set up the meeting, but McCarthy cancelled attendance at the last minute, and sent Brown, then Majority Floor Leader in the Assembly, in his stead. “What do you want, Beck?” he asked Beckus as he entered the room. Beckus introduced Leong and I, and we proceed to outline the provisions of our bill, and what we wanted.

Brown promised us his support, and the meeting ended in about 10 minutes. “The average attention span of a legislator is about 30 seconds,” Bob Beckus (one of the most brutally honest and successful lobbyists in California political history) used to say, telling us to write our briefing notes on the back of a business card. “But Willie…he’s not your average legislator.”

I was reminded of that a few weeks later because I had to go to a meeting in a prominent San Francisco hotel. I was running late, and decided to take the stairs two flights rather than wait for an elevator. While rounding the corner at the top of the first flight, I practically collided headlong with none other than Assemblyman Willie Brown. I said, “excuse me” and he replied “how are you doing, Doug?”

When politicians call you by your first name…you know they are going places. Of course, Willie was elected speaker in 1980 and set a record for tenure in that job at 14 and a half years. California’s term limits, as long as they last, will keep his record intact.

Basic Brown is a more than a personal memoir. Though you’ll find details about his life, it is filled with lessons those who aspire to be successful elected officials could learn if they haven’t already. Willie tells how he learned as a member of the Assembly budget committee from Randolph Collier, Republican turned Democrat who was known as the Silver Fox of the Siskiyous (Collier had brilliant white hair) and the Father of the California Freeway System as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, how to horse-trade and do favors for others; and how he learned to recover from political exile (he had lost a race for the Speakership to Leo McCarthy, who had banished him to the smallest office in the capitol, then some time later asked him to help police the Assembly for potential corruption). He tells how he learned the basic lesson in surviving as a leader: to serve the members. In his years as San Francisco Mayor, it was the lesson he applied, meaning  that to be successful meant serving the people; he liked to call himself “the people’s mayor.”

To think that FBI tried to “get Willie,” read the chapter on how he forced Assemblyman Lou Papan (himself a former FBI agent) to vote against a bill he’d been talked into carrying for a lobbyist in bed with the FBI. In the end, it was only Republican Assemblyman Patrick Nolan who served time in federal prison–convicted of taking illegal campaign contributions in an FBI sting operation Nolan himself had suggested to the FBI.

The book has great stories, explicit language (he referred to one unnamed legislator as “a dreadful little guy” and then in a rare slip gave the unnamed legislator’s residence using the wrong county), and good advice.

Willie L. Brown, Jr., Basic Brown (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).

Posted in Booknotes, Community Musings, Older Posts.

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