After 39 years, Willie Brown is leaving politics

Thursday, January 8, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO -- During his nearly four decades in political office, Willie Brown has been called plenty of colorful names, some of them fit to print: The Ayatollah of the Assembly. His Williness. Da Mayor. The Real Slick Willie (a moniker affectionately bestowed by Bill Clinton)

The one title he has never held is Ex-Politician.

That's going to change come today at noon, when California's consummate power broker will be succeeded as San Francisco's mayor by a protege who was not even born when Brown won his first election in 1964.

Term limits prevented Brown from seeking a third term, just as they capped his 14-year stint as the state's longest-serving Assembly speaker. Since he decided against running for the state Senate, Brown's final weeks have been bittersweet, a series of long goodbyes in the city where he has been lionized and demonized, the city he adopted as a teenager after fishing nickels from spittoons in segregated Texas.

"This has been a very uncomfortable period for me, like being present at your own eulogy," Brown said of the many honorary receptions, roasts and church services he has attended. "You appreciate the words, but you don't want to be there."

Not that Brown, who at 69 remains as astute and full of spleen as ever, plans to go quietly into retirement. He plans to apply the contacts, favors and dealmaking prowess he developed during 31 years in Sacramento and eight years at city hall.

"I don't intend to screw around with elected office unless invited to do so by friends," the famously blunt and salty Brown said in a recent interview. "I'm moving on to do other things."

Brown said he will "dabble here and there," working as a political commentator, giving speeches, doing consulting, and reinvigorating the law practice he opened in 1958.

He also wants to raise money for a public policy institute that would bear his name and be loosely affiliated with a university. The institute would host conferences and train future politicians.

Brown's legacy as a larger-than-life dealmaker was sealed during his many years in the Legislature, said James Richardson, Brown's biographer.

He paved the way for other black politicians, spearheaded civil rights legislation that would become a national model, and cemented the Democrats' hold on power through his personality and skill at brokering deals.

"There is kind of a 20-year period starting in the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s when California politics was being shaped and cajoled by Willie Brown. There's no governor who had that long of a run," Richardson said. "Being mayor is kind of an afterthought."

Brown has avoided ruminating on his own legacy, but when pressed, he says his chief contribution to San Francisco was the building boom that transformed much of the city. Pacific Bell Park, the Asian Art Museum, an expanded convention center, a new biomedical campus of the University of California, San Francisco and a subway extension to San Francisco airport were just a few of the marquee public works projects launched or completed on his watch.

That success also bred widespread discontent over the soaring rents that came with the condominium conversions, office buildings and new hotels that are transforming working-class neighborhoods like the Mission District.

He also leaves with his administration under investigation in an FBI corruption probe. Brown has never been implicated in any wrongdoing and has charged that the investigation is racially motivated.

He was cast as a villain during the most recent mayoral campaign, and most of the candidates running to succeed him pledged to eliminate patronage from City Hall. But Brown's choice, Supervisor Gavin Newsom, beat a Green Party candidate in December in what was seen as vindication for Brown.

Brown's relish for wielding the levers of power makes it hard not to imagine another campaign in his future.

"The greatest challenge for someone like him who is retiring is to realize there are greater challenges ahead that are both creative and substantive," said retired state Sen. Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party. "He is the Bill Clinton of California, so no matter where he shows up he will attract attention and interest."

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