Dan Walters: Willie Brown's real place in California history

07/10/2013 12:00 AM

07/10/2013 2:43 PM

A writer once described Willie Brown as "a piece of living art," thus perfectly capturing the venerable California politician.

Brown – the longest serving Assembly speaker and later a two-term mayor of San Francisco – is certainly a cultural icon.

His expensive suits, countless girlfriends, infatuation with fast cars, flair for dramatic speechmaking, adroit manipulation of other politicians and penchant for complex political deals have made him a highly visible, highly intriguing figure for decades.

Those traits, however, are also distractions that make it difficult to objectively evaluate his half-century-long public career, to judge whether Brown's impact on Californians has been as impressive as his entertainment value.

It's a legitimate question because some members of the Legislature are pressing to name the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for Brown.

It's one thing to name a Capitol meeting room for him, but putting his name on one of the state's most visible symbols is quite another.

There is, in fact, precious little on Brown's record to justify his inclusion in the pantheon of California political icons – those, such as Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Jesse Unruh or Pat Brown, whose actions significantly affected the state.

As an assemblyman in the 1960s and 1970s, before becoming speaker, Willie Brown authored just one piece of legislation of historic note, decriminalizing homosexuality.

Brown's speakership was devoid of major achievement and ignored the massive socio-economic change then sweeping the state. He presided over a wheeler-dealer culture so pervasive that a federal investigation put many legislators, lobbyists and staffers behind bars.

As speaker, Brown loved to make political deals, but he was largely indifferent to their content – such as the infamous "napkin deal" that included protections for cigarette makers against lawsuits. Later, while running for mayor, Brown professed not to know that provision was included.

Brown received high marks for style during his mayoralty, but it was otherwise undistinguished. And afterward, he became a political kingmaker and rainmaker in the city.

Recently, Brown has boasted about demanding a stylish reconstruction of the Bay Bridge's eastern span, writing, "I and all the other officials who resisted the plain-brown-wrapper, cars-only bridge that would have been foisted on us were doing our jobs – standing up for the interests of the people we represented."

That self-proclaimed feat, however, means that the project cost more than four times its original estimate and added many years to completion. And the complex structure has been plagued by defects.

Perhaps naming the eastern span for Brown would be more appropriate. It, too, is now a piece of extravagant art.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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